Friday, 3 June 2011

Chavism: The new prejudice

Every now and again, I contribute to the Pod Delusion. Recently, I volunteered/was asked to do a piece on why I think the term 'Chav' is a form of class prejudice. Martin Robbins, celebrated Blogger and science journo is the one arguing that 'chav' is not an offensive term. The other side of the argument was my incompetent self. Arguably, this could be seen as yet another form of 'Chav' prejudice.

Anyway, this is the relevant episode of the Pod Delusion.

POD Delusion: Pro-'Chav' Rant

I didn't go to a posh school. There were over a thousand students in my school, but if you added up the A-level Chemistry, Biology and Physics classes, you got 7 students. 3 of those students were me. It was a poorly funded, oversubscribed school. Studying was something you did if you couldn't get a girlfriend. And yes, a lot of my fellow pupils would fall into the social and behavioural groups that many would label 'chavs'. They were from poor backgrounds, they smoked under age, they had little discipline, they all dressed in ways that they considered cool but others would consider stupid. I didn't think of them as 'chavs', though. I thought of them as 'teenagers'.

I was born and raised working class. I might still be working class, I'm not sure what the class criterion are any more. I didn't grow up in a cultured or well-to-do place; when I grew up we lived in a pub in a former Welsh mining valley where unemployment and heavy drinking was the norm. I did go through the usual teenage phase of rebelling against my dad, but seeing as my dad was a hard-fighting hard drinking landlord, my rebellion took the form of staying in and reading books, hence I ended up becoming the sort of person who contributes to the POD delusion. But whenever I see or hear someone described as a 'chav', I do get existentially irked as, in a parallel universe very close to our own, they're talking about me. That's my version 'there but for the grace of God..', by the way. It's a useful quantum/atheist version.

I grew up among so-called 'chavs'. I went to school with them. I imagine a lot of my family could be described as such. Not by me, obviously, they're members of my family. The names I call them are not something you could repeat in polite company.

I want to make it clear that I don't think the sort of people labelled 'chavs' are necessarily good people. They often aren't. But saying that, I'm not that nice a person myself on occasion. And I'm not saying everyone should be nice. Check out the blog of my good friend Ted Shiress. A stand-up comic, Cerebral Palsy sufferer, and he sometimes comes across as a decent bloke. He's not though, he's the most evil person ever made (haphazardly) by nature, and I've said so to his face. In public. Which makes me look bad. So this isn't an issue of me arguing about who I like and don't like, it's as impersonal I can make it.

Nor do I think that everyone who uses the term is being deliberately classist or offensive. But saying that, when I was in infant school I used the word 'Paki' quite often. I had no idea what it actually meant. Growing up in a very small, isolated British community in the 80's, in the context I'd heard it used I thought it was another way of saying 'daft person'. But despite my lack of negative intent, it is still clearly an offensive term, given its origins. And I feel, to a lesser extent maybe, the same can be said of the term 'chav'.

I'm sure Martin Robbins has presented a far more well researched and reasoned argument about why the term 'chav' is not classist or offensive. More so than one I will present anyway. I personally find it difficult to argue about the intent behind the label 'chav' because it seems to mean many things to the many different people I've asked. Some think it means someone who breaks the law, some think it means someone from a council estate who hangs around in bus stops, some seem to think the term applies to anyone with a Burberry cap and false tan. It's very hard to argue about the intent of people using the term when it's not certain what they mean exactly.

But the Wikipedia article for ''chav'' summarises as 'chav' as "aggressive teenagers, of working class background, who repeatedly engage in anti-social behaviour such as street drinking, drug abuse and rowdiness, or other forms of juvenile delinquency". Given the way Wikipedia operates, I'm going to assume enough people agree with this definition for it to be considered accurate.

It suggests that 'chavs' are from working class backgrounds. But obviously, not all working class people are 'chavs'. Apparently, a 'chav' has to engage in illegal, antisocial behaviour to truly be worthy of the label. It seems a 'chav' also has to be a young person.

But however you define it, it seems undeniable to me that the term 'chav' has given many people something they really like having; a convenient form of acceptable prejudice.

Prejudice is, unfortunately, something that is very easy to instill in humans. Check out the famous robbers cave experiment by Muzafer Sherif et al (1954), which took place at an American summer camp, where two groups of young boys, of the same ethnic and social backgrounds, met for the first time, became friends, and were then turned into bitter rivals to the point vicious accusations and attacks after just imposition of a few experimental variables. This wasn't the work of months or weeks, but a couple of days. People form prejudices quickly. It's likely to be an evolutionary consequence of humans living in tight-knit social groups, where other groups turning up were usually potential rivals for resources and living space. Whatever the reason, it happens a lot.

It even happened to me. I'm not afraid of 'chavs' or feral teens or whatever they're called. I went to school with them, I'm habituated to them. I've been unsuccessfully mugged by examples of such people on two separate occasions. Their strategy seemed to rely on me being automatically scared and deferential based on how they came across. I wasn't though, and they had no backup plan, and we just went our separate ways.

But when I went home recently, I was in a cafe and saw a bunch of Burberry clad teens in a bus stop nearby. One left the group and approached the cafe. My first instinct was to move toward the currently unguarded till, thinking I could hold him back from it long enough for someone to call the police (It was a small business). Said teen came into the cafe, went tot he counter, and asked for some more milk to the takeaway coffee under his hoodie, which he had legitimately paid for minutes before I turned up.

I'm the last person who should behave in this manner, but the social stereotyping had got to me in the end, and I didn't even realise it. Ergo, I think the term 'chav' is another form of prejudice. It's a term used to separate and denigrate others who are less fortunate than ones self. When someone calls someone a 'chav', they're not being complimentary. However you define it, the term 'chav' is never a compliment. But saying that, I've heard many arguments about why using the term 'chav' is acceptable.

It has been argued that 'chavs' are self identifying, and as such it's ok to call them that. I admit, I knew many kids who would fit the description of 'chav' in my school. Thing is, I didn't hear the term 'chav' until I got to University. In Cardiff, capital city. I'm not sure if it's still the case, but 'chav' was very much a label imposed on that particular social group, not one they sought out for themselves, and even if they have become accustomed to it and now use it willingly, that doesn't automatically make it OK. Other countries became accustomed to the British Empire, but that doesn't mean they'd prefer not to have been brutally conquered in the first place.

By using the 'self-identifying' argument, it suggests that being a 'chav' is a conscious and thought out choice on behalf of the individual. But 'chavs' are, apparently, young people from deprived backgrounds who are poorly educated and shunned by wider society. In such circumstances, peer pressure and your immediate social groups are all you can rely on, so it's hardly any wonder that they conform. Saying it's a conscious decision suggests that there is an element of choice, but choice requires options, and in certain deprived backgrounds this isn't necessarily the case.

It has been argued that 'chavs' and similar people are just as insulting towards the upper classes when they use terms like Toff, hooray Henry, snob and so on. And that may well be the case, but I don't see how this justifies anything. I've encountered many men who say that feminism means women are just as sexist as men these days, so that effectively cancels their own misogyny out. But I believe that logic is exactly what it seems to be; a flimsy rationalisation for bad behaviour.

Similarly, a class prejudice is not an equivalent two way thing. A working class prejudice to posh people means the latter might think twice before parking their expensive cars in areas they'd never go to anyway. An upper class prejudice to working class people can lead to massive cuts in the public sector

Perhaps that is rather melodramatic, but the underlying reality is that, when one form of prejudice has genuine consequences for the victims and the other does not, they can't be said to be equal at all.

The strongest argument is that 'chavs' are usually criminals, and criminals don't deserve respect. A slightly right-wing argument, but one that rings true for many people. It's a valid point, but not one limited to working class people. The term 'chav' has seemingly moved beyond the criminal arena and moved on to any working class group of youths who like that. Hanging around in a bus stop, wearing too much foundation and drinking white cider, these aren't crimes, but enough to get you labelled a 'chav'. Using other people's money in vast sums in risky, self-gratifying ventures that eventually will threaten the foundations of the world's economy, this is a morally reprehensible action far beyond vandalising a phone box, but it doesn't get you labelled a 'chav'. So being a 'chav' is not necessarily a criminal act.

To summarise, you and your friends can smash up a public establishment. If you're thought of as 'chavs', you'll probably end up with a criminal record or ASBO. If you're in the Bullingdon club, you'll probably end up running the country. You might think the latter accusation is just based on anecdotal evidence. I would argue that the same is true for the former.

All things being equal, there are many things that get someone labelled a 'chav'. Being disrespectful of authority, publicly disruptive, expecting others to provide for them, damaging property of others, antagonising others in large groups, yes these are all the hallmarks of 'chavs'. Thing is, I've heard people refer to the noble UK Uncut movement in exactly the same terms. And the student protests. And many others. None of these are 'chavs', as they have a decent education and political awareness.

I'm not saying the people referred to as 'chavs' are pleasant people. They're generally not, the clich├ęs around them are there for a reason, and it's arguably true that they have no respect for civilised society. But society has never shown any respect for them, and rather than do something to change the situation, society has decided to ridicule and condemn them. I would rather they didn't behave in the way they did, but that goes for people of all classes. But only those of a working class background warrant their own disparaging term, 'chav'. The ones who are least able to alter their situations and behaviour are the ones most condemned for refusing to do so. These people are also the ones least able to retaliate in any appreciable way. The propagation of the word 'chav' is, to me, an example of 'blame the victim' culture writ large.

You may disagree with this entire analysis, and it's your right to do so. After all, 'chavs' are acceptable targets, and nobody wants to lose a useful whipping boy if they can avoid it.

Email: Humourology (at)

Twitter: @garwboy


Niki V said...

Thanks for writing this. I enjoyed your analysis and agree with pretty much everything you say. I come from a similar background and went to a similar school, so that might be part of it. But I've been wondering for a while why this stuff was acceptable.

Anonymous said...

As you have noted, use of them term 'chav' may not always be deliberately classist or offensive, but it is always derogatory and damaging, as was Cameron's use of the word 'sick' when referring to underprivileged and dis-empowered areas of society, last year. It proliferates the social exclusion that those in low socioeconomic situations already experience. 'Poverty often deprives a man of all spirit and virtue. It is hard for an empty bag to stand upright,' (Benjamin Franklin), and even harder when the rest of society are so quick to verbally attack it's poor.
It's important to note that people often regard 'chavs' as less intelligent. 'Chavs' are frequently viewed as the 'losers' of our society, somehow deserving of their situation. For anyone who shares these views, you might find studies on the heritability of IQ among varying socioecomonic groups very interesting, as well as the malleability of IQ throughout life, not to mention, of course, the psychologies of prejudice, congitive and confirmation bias.
I also agree that these prejudices can form unconsciously when immersed in an environment where they are rife, overt or not.
Studies have found that those who live in known deprived areas in this country, are subjected to high levels of discrimination in healthcare and employment; they are judged much more harshly for suboptimal verbal articulation and nutritional choices, which of course, are hardly surprising given the inqualities in economic resources and in education (ever tried to provide a healthy diet for a family, with single parent benefits? There is a reason why low-income families are given free vouchers for vitamins).
This discrimination is a shameful example of the pitchfork effect, which simultaneously serves to extinguish any feelings of guilt or responsibility towards those less fortunate.

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