On Speaking Truths and the Middle-Classes

Last Saturday, at the Mahara Gallery in Waikanae, surrounded by the provocative art of John Foster, I watched a panel discussion called ‘Speaking Truth to Power’. It was the first of four, and so good that I’ve booked a sitter in order to attend the others.

The panellists were two filmmakers, Gaylene Preson and Dr Sapna Samant, academic Dr Jeff Sluka and councillor in local government K (Guru) Gurunathan. All four delivered strong messages and made statements that resonated, as did convener Bianca Begovich, a children’s author who’d found herself ‘speaking truth to power’ when she protested against the monstrous road that’s currently scoffing and spitting its way through the Kapiti Coast.

I hadn’t voted for Councillor Guru last time round, his campaign was way too flash for me, and I certainly didn’t expect him to make a statement that would compel me to write about it. But he did – two of them in fact.

He began by telling the audience a story about when he was a journalist in Malaysia. In a nutshell, he wrote something highly critical about a member of the Malaysian government and was hauled into a small dark room where he was questioned, threatened and given a chilling warning concerning the welfare of his family if he didn’t end his criticism. It was during that conversation that he was told ‘we are not concerned by the middle-classes.’ Now, I found that really interesting, being about as middle-class as a person can be.

Why are governments not threatened by the middle-classes?

He expanded upon the point later and stressed that he was talking specifically about the Malaysian government at the time, but I think it’s considerably broader than that. I think it applies to many governments, including here in New Zealand.

Governments are not threatened by the middle-classes because they’ve got us so busy working to pay for our mortgages, our bills, our groceries, our kids’ schooling, uniforms and books, Satellite TV, the latest cell phones, that we don’t have the time nor the energy to picket about library cuts in schools, never mind start a revolution. We’re either working or we’re too exhausted. At the end of the working day, all we’re capable of doing is switching on the television. Hmm… television…

Karl Marx famously said that religion was the opiate of the masses. I’d argue that television has taken that role. Television is entertaining because it’s easy; you don’t have to think while you’re doing it. I love watching any of The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise; there’s no way I’m thinking anti-capitalist thoughts or combatting Global Warming when I’m doped up on that shit.

A friend who used to work for the BBC made a good point over coffee the other day. He said that people think that television provides programmes for an audience, but that’s wrong. In fact, television’s job is to provide audiences for advertisers. I don’t know whether that’s completely true, but it’s an interesting point for discussion. It certainly feels that way at times, when we’re being bombarded with the stuff. So, television is just another form of consumerism then, acting as an opiate, deadening our brains, just so they can flog us something and make some money.

What about Marx’s original point: religion?

Are there a whole load of middle-class Christians watching the weather becoming more and more extreme and thinking, ‘Great! It’s the apocalypse! Awesome!’ And then doing nothing to combat Climate Change, including badger the government to act. I rather suspect there are. That makes me stare my computer screen with a sense of leaden hopelessness slowing my typing fingers, until I just stop.

Moving on…

I’m reading the brilliant book by Naomi Klein that came out last year: ‘This Changes Everything’. It is all about how capitalism is letting us down when it comes to Climate Change. It’s slow going because I read a couple of pages and then get so worked up by the points she raises and the damage that’s being done to my world (YOUR world), that I keep having to put it down and pace around the room. I noticed the same book being held/worshipped by Bianca Begovich on Saturday. I’m paraphrasing, but, early on in the book, Klein talks about how the Climate Change deniers tend to be white, middle-class men. These are the members of society that have it pretty good right now and don’t particularly want anything to change. Why would they?

Such deniers simply can’t believe that they are not ‘in control’. The only time they are willing to accept that Climate Change is a reality is when it is simultaneously suggested that the solution lies in industry, ie. Nuclear Power. That, they can digest. Middle-class men are the masters of Industry. Climate Change science asks them to admit defeat and change. That is a big ask.

I’m thinking of the footage of the white, middle-class male politician in America that’s going viral at the moment. He takes a snowball into a debate to prove that Global Warming isn’t happening. Now, I was sixteen years old when I last studied Science, yet I know the difference between weather and climate. He’s obviously an intelligent man, so there must be some of psychological blockage to his seeing how silly and pointless that gesture was. He is choosing not see the difference between weather and climate.

So, what’s the answer for those of us in the middle-class camp who want to push governments to act? It’s got to be stepping off this cycle of consumerism, apathy and denial, hasn’t it?

That’s a scary step to take; you don’t have to be an industry wallah to be intimidated by the idea of making your life friendlier to the environment.

I am simplifying my life at the moment, getting rid of stuff. How does the cliché go: If I can do it…?

When my house sells, I don’t think I’ll be buying another one. That goes against everything my father and my peers have taught me about good financial sense, so it worries me. But, then I read about how quickly the sea levels will be rising and it just doesn’t make sense to own property on a coast anymore. It probably won’t be there in twenty years time, and could devalue significantly in the meantime. In my father’s day, a house was a lasting, appreciating asset to be passed on to his children. However, changes in climate change everything.

I’m trying to spend less too, and make better choices about where I’m spending my money. (A point Bianca Begovich made today also.) Basically, if a product has to advertise, then it’s probably not something I need. It is probably just something the television is making me want. So, I’m trying not to be so suckered by the advertising on the television. Get off that advertising wheel – stop being a consumer for consumption sake.

There are other changes too: I’ve gone vegetarian, but that’s another blog post in itself. I’m still eating and feeding my children dairy, but only organic; I have a new mode of transport – my gorgeous blue bike; I’m planting an edible garden with a friend; finally, I’ve gone plastic-free, too. All of these changes have been easier than I ever anticipated and I wish I’d participated in sustainability a long time ago.

Yes, these are just the changes of one individual middle-class idiot (me), and alone they do diddly-squat to solve the environmental crisis we all face, but it’s something. If we all did something, it would add up to action that our governments would be unable to ignore.

That brings me to Guru’s second note-worthy point. All over the world, there are writers, journalists, artists and activists imprisoned or killed for voicing their opinions and speaking their truths. We who live in a democracy (apparently) where we have freedom of speech (many will argue that we don’t) have a responsibility to those activists to speak out every chance we get.

Speaking our truths is so important; I learn that more and more all the time. This is on a personal level and as a society. It’s something that I teach my girls whenever I have an opportunity.

Speaking truth was not taught to me. I don’t know whether that’s a female thing, an alcoholic-home thing or a middle-class thing, but I was taught to never ‘rock the boat’, to keep quiet and behave myself, and trust that those in charge will see me right.

How wrong that is. We don’t have a senator’s snowball chance in hell if the middle-classes don’t speak up about Climate Change, and now.

3 thoughts on “On Speaking Truths and the Middle-Classes

  1. I love the part about understanding weather and climate. The people who mix these do so on purpose. Lots of people still think that the men in power know things that the rest of us don’t. I think most people in political office are stupid. And yes, I know the difference between stupid and ignorant. It’s not that they lack knowledge, it’s that they are too stupid to see the likely results of their decisions. Great post. Thanks !

    • Wow – thanks for that response. I’m way out of my comfort zone writing about these issues. It took me ages to press the publish button this time. So relieved that you got something from the post. Thanks again. I’m just so frustrated that so many people are ignoring the facts, just as I did for such a long time. Like the guy with the snowball.

  2. This is a thoughtful and well reasoned essay. It is easy for any one of us to get discouraged and feel that our individual actions are meaningless. No one knows which single drop of water will be the one to bring down the levees. Tipping points are often impossible to predict.

    I would also argue that governments, especially authoritarian ones, do fear the middle class. If not, why bother pacifying them? The middle classes are the sleeping beast that can bring down governments overnight as history has shown.

    I share your admiration of Naomi Klein. If you really want to get worked up, take a look at her previous book “Shock Doctrine”. Glad to have come across your voice in the blogosphere, Becca. Every voice counts.

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