I came across a video clip the other day. It was shot inside a Florida Starbucks and showed a woman telling off the Governor there who had come inside the Starbucks with a retinue of aides and guards to, I assume, order a caffeinated drink. She calls him an “asshole” among other things and when the Governor tries to defend himself she uses his words against him, albeit inartfully.
What struck me about the events depicted in this video is the fact that someone who had something bad to say about the Governor actually said it, not just in private, but to the Governor’s face, unprompted and at the spur of the moment.
This all brought to mind some observations George Orwell made in his book The Road to Wigan Pier about the differences in behavior between the working class and the middle class. One such difference, which Orwell described as “disconcerting at first” is the “plain-spokeness [of the working-class] towards anyone they regard as an equal” so that “[i]f you offer a working man something he doesn’t want, he tells you that he doesn’t want it; a middle-class person would accept it to avoid giving offence.”
Orwell doesn’t mention what an upper-class person would do in such a situation but there shouldn’t be much dispute about what that would be: anything he or she damn well pleases, but more often than not, something along the lines of what Orwell says a working-class person would do.
I can’t say for sure that the woman depicted in the video is working-class. She’s at a Starbucks for one thing. And she seems to be fiddling around with a laptop, not the tool of choice for most working-class people. But that doesn’t tell me anything about her background, how and where she was raised, what schools she went to, her family’s wealth or lack of it, etc. etc., — i.e., the most important clues to one’s class affiliation.
And what about the Governor being an “equal” to his critic? Could it be that the woman — whether because of her class leanings or something else — saw the Governor as her equal so that she felt less inhibited in speaking her mind; less so, at least, than if she had encountered someone she did not see as an equal. News reports suggest that the woman was at one time a member of the city council and had a reputation for, well, plain-spokenness.
But whatever the actual reasons for the woman’s “plain-spokenness” I suspect that most people would have just clammed up if allowed the opportunity to speak one’s mind to a public official. I know I would have. Partially for reasons related to class but also because of fear — fear of being beaten up or thrown in jail, or both.
But isn’t that itself a reason not to stay silent? Giving into this fear only emboldens those who profit most from it, with the end result being an increasingly oppressive and authoritarian society. One might argue that the working class should be the ones to speak out against such an injustice since they would have “less to lose” in the event they became the subject of any retaliatory conduct. After all they are more likely to be unemployed or do less lucrative work than someone in the middle class. But it’s hard to imagine anyone would take this argument seriously. This is because the middle class have just as much to lose as the working class in a society whose primary means of stifling dissent is the threat of violence. Indeed, the only winners in a society like that are the ones in power. Everyone else is for the most part expendable.