Notes from the Salon: Social Class

[Editor’s note: this piece was ported over from Less Wrong on March 13, 2020, and backdated to the original publication date. Minor edits were made for clarity.]

This is a write-up of some interesting points raised at a tea party “literary” salon I held on October 6th, 2019. It is not intended to be a comprehensive overview of the topic. It is conventional for attendees to do all the suggested readings before salon starts, so some parts of the write-up might not make sense without that context.

Assigned readings: Siderea on Class, Thoughts on the “STEM” class

Economic Class vs. Social Class

Economic class and social class are not the same thing. The two are decoupled, but only partly. You can be wealthy but lower class (e.g. a skilled tradesman making 6 figures) or poor but upper class (e.g. an adjunct professor at a prestigious university). Everyone at the salon was in the same social class: the class that attends semi-ironic and entirely sober literary salons, likely G2 on Church’s ladder. But it would be a mistake to assume that everyone in the room belonged to the same economic class – there is a much broader distribution of economic classes in attendance.

Performing upper-(middle)-classness grants you privilege. It costs some amount of money, but not as much as you would think, to perform professional-classness. The harder part by far is knowing what to buy in the first place. To a first approximation, a blazer is more middle-class-y than a hoodie. But a clean-ish hoodie emblazoned with your university seal is a much better signal than a polyester blend leopard-print blazer.

Most people want to make more money, but few people are interested in climbing the social ladder. When you find the class that you belong to and join it, you tend to go “ew” at the people in the classes below you, and “yikes”* at the people in the classes above you.

*Or the equivalent of “yikes”, if you’re in a class that doesn’t say “yikes”

Everyone is “Middle-Class”

The middle class is the only virtuous class – both “lower class” and “upper class” are insults. This results in basically everyone except billionaires and the homeless identifying as middle class. Premium mediocrity is what middle-classness could look like for millennials.

Class is a culture and a performance. For example, someone who makes six figures may choose to get their morning coffee at Tim Horton’s instead of Starbucks or an indie coffee shop. They might make this decision even if they like their coffee not terrible, because it’s more important to them to be seen as a salt-of-the-earth sort, and salt-of-the-earth sorts here in Canada drink Tim’s instead of Starbucks.

A more extreme example of this was outlined in this piece, where a Yale student who was actually broke didn’t realize that all of her classmates were only pretending to be broke. In one incident, she offered to buy a classmate that she knew for 3 years a sandwich, because she thought he was actually on the verge of starving. The classmate graciously broke the act and told her that he actually has a trust fund and was just carefully cultivating a starving artist image. In another incident, her classmates shamed her for not donating to a charity, because they perceived her to be only faking her destitution like the rest of them.

Scott’s cellular automata model of fashion talks about something similar, but what the Yale piece adds is that performing poorness gives the elites an unfounded confidence in knowing how poor people live, which is terrible for society.

That “STEM Class” Piece

The makeup of this Salon session was something like 60% STEM folk, 20% non-STEM folk who work or socialize with STEM folk a lot, and 20% non-STEM folk who don’t interact with STEM folk on a regular basis.

The only thing that the Salon agreed on was that STEM class people pretend more than other classes that they don’t care about class and just wear things they like.

Things we disagreed on included:

  • how accurate the tumblr post was about STEM folk
  • how accurate the tumblr post was about the connection between STEM and the military-officer class
  • whether any single person in the Salon has a good idea of what a representative sample of STEM folk would look like
  • how much STEM folk cared about art, politics, and sports
  • whether the r/uwaterloo subreddit is a decent representative sample of STEM folk
  • if this is the class that’s responsible for the existence of the alt-right
  • whether this is a class or a subculture (e.g. could a similar tumblr post be made for “the lawyer class”?)
  • if “STEM folk” is a real and useful category

Diversifying

People generally don’t deliberately seek to hang out with other social classes. When it happens, it’s usually as a result of another shared interest or trait. You can run into people in another social class at a  comic con, or your sports league, or your very small local queer community. Or if you’re doing a substantial amount of going on first dates with people from dating apps. It still won’t be the entire range of social classes, it’s just a wider range than who you would hang out with by default. Talking to a person in another social class is generally more unpleasant than talking to a person in your own, but this shared experience of being at a con/being queer/trying to date/etc can act like a social lubricant.

Many activist organizers come from the middle- and upper-middle classes. One common trap that they fall into is modelling working- and lower-class activists as sharing the exact same set of aversions that they do, to the upper class. So they think, “as long as we’re not doing fancy dress codes and caviar and country clubs, we’re inclusive”. In truth, working- and lower-class activists often have an aversion to middle-class norms as well — things like tofu, women who don’t shave, and non-hierarchical meeting structures. To make meetings and spaces welcoming towards everyone, middle- and upper-middle class activists should reflect on their own cultural norms, and to what extent it is necessary to impose it on other classes.

Betsy-Leondar Wright, an activist-scholar, suggests distinguishing between essential and non-essential weirdness, where essential weirdnesses are defined as practices that can’t be eliminated without doing great injustice to someone. In other words, essential weirdnesses must be kept, even if they seem offputting to some attendants, because discarding them causes greater harm. Essential weirdnesses are things like “the practice of always speaking out against racist comments” or “having your meetings be secular”.

Non-essential weirdnesses, on the other hand, should be eliminated as much as possible because pushing lifestyle choices onto disinterested working-class people is a misuse of class privilege. Because classes are hierarchical in nature, this is especially important for middle-upper class people to keep in mind. An example of non-essential weirdness is “only having vegan options for dinner”.

Effective Civic Action, Inside and Outside the System

I read Teardown by Dave Meslin for a book club here in Ottawa, and it is the weirdest thing that I’ve read in some time. I’ve described it to some friends as the most milquetoast call to radicalism that I’ve ever read. But a more charitable interpretation, perhaps, is that it is a book that excludes all theory to focus single-mindedly on praxis, and how to do it well in the Canadian political context. Meslin has a wealth of experience as an activist, and his book reflects that.

Would I recommend the book? Yes, especially if you’re Canadian. The tactics that he describes does have their limitations, and don’t try to look for any sort of coherent ideology (but again…. pracccssisssss is where the book shines), but there are enough nuggets of wisdom to mine that I think it’s likely worth your time overall.

I took lots of notes during my read-through, but of course focused on the chapters that are most useful and insightful for me personally. Key takeaways:

Useful ideas for local planning/advocacy:

  • 4 rules to create engaging public notices: be pretty, highlight important info, highlight engagement opportunities, finish with a call for action: “Your voice matters.” “This is your chance to be heard.” “We want your opinion.”

  • Use less planning jargon. Specifically called out examples: “podium”, “mechanical penthouse”, “below grade”, “amenity space” (be more specific – what’s going in that amenity space?)

  • City hall should have open doors (literally), council chambers should have open doors (literally).

  • Dress codes should be loosened, requiring ties in 2019 is ludicrous

  • Spontaneous consultation meetings on transit buses, giving free bus tickets as incentive

  • Providing pizza to citizens who want to host informal focus groups in their own homes

  • Interesting awareness campaign idea: put price tags on everything. Fire hydrants, bus stops, playgrounds. Show cost to build and to maintain/operate. Could be in lead-up to public budgeting session.

  • Paper newsletters in people’s physical mailboxes are still an incredibly powerful way to involve community

A very well thought out section on ways to clean up campaign money and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each solution:

(going in, it should be recognized that governments are already in the habit of giving out rebates, so none of these solutions are like, unrealistically radical)

  • tax incentives by way of rebates
    • Toronto already does this, you get a 75% rebate on all small donations
    • One drawback is that since the refund is delayed, you discriminate against lower-income donors.

  • matching grants
    • 1:1 ratio used in presidential primary elections: if you give $50, govt will kick in $50
    • 6:1 ratio for first $175 of each contribution in NY program, i.e. govt will give $6 per every $1 you donate – completely changed culture of campaign finance in the city. Before, 30% of popn donated, after introduction in 2009, 90% donated. Jump concentrated in neighbourhoods w higher poverty rates, higher concentrations of minority residents. System credited w electing a much more diverse council. In 2018, ratio raised to 8:1.

  • per-vote subsidy
    • annual allowance given to party based on how many votes they got in the last election.
    • introduced in Canada in 2004, each party got flat 1.75/vote in prior election
    • all voters (not just the 1% who donate) help direct funds
    • strategic voting becomes more meaningful
    • honestly a pretty decent option, but they get cancelled and don’t stick around because politicians hate them

  • democracy dollars
    • “bold experiment” in Seattle, each voter is mailed 4 coupons worth $25 each. tripled number of campaign donors; 84% of donors were new to political process, donors were more reflective of general popn (e.g. more donations coming from youth, women, PoC, low-income residents). % funding from small contributions went from under 50% to 87%
    • provides candidates large incentive to knock on doors, talk to voters
    • amplifies new and emerging voices
    • allows all voters, regardless of disposable income, to participate

Misc takes:

  • In runoff elections, things get friendlier because if you’re nice to another candidate then their supporters might vote for you second

  • Billboards erode our sense of collective ownership and social identity. Neighbourhoods gain their character from small businesses, public art, local architecture, and historic landmarks. Billboards create a monolithic aesthetic. It’s kind of ridiculous when neighbourhoods allow billboards but don’t allow local postings from actual people.

  • Disclosure of donations to politicians need to have more information than just a name and address, because that makes it harder to connect the dots between where lobbyists work and what the donate as “private citizens”. But possibly more importantly, we absolutely have to stop releasing them as useless PDFs, and instead release them as actually usable data sets

  • Lobbying is a good thing, as long as there’s a level playing field. Maybe the government should provide lobbyists to community groups, the same way that courts appoint lawyers to low-income defendants. They can do this by providing direct funding to community orgs that cross a support threshold, or corps can be forced to pay for opposition’s lobbying costs, or govts can create an office of public lobbyists staffed w full-time advocates. (That last one sounds a lot like Davidoff’s advocacy planning which I’m a large fan of)

“War stories”:

Olifas Marketing Group (OMG) offered city council thousands of free garbage cans. In exchange, all OMG wanted was permission to put advertising on the cans. The sign bylaw, of course, doesn’t allow advertising to be installed directly on our sidewalks, so the company was asking for an exemption. But OMG couldn’t simply offer the city millions of dollars in exchange for that exemption. Imagine how that would have looked! The optics would have been terrible because everyone knows that policy shouldn’t be for sale. But because OMG offered “free” street furniture, no one saw it for what it is: a company getting special treatment in exchange for financial incentives. Institutionalized bribery. Under this new financial model, the advertising was more important than the garbage can. So the free bins were themselves pieces of garbage, built with the structural integrity of an empty pop can. They began breaking down as soon as they were installed, metal doors flinging open and blocking the sidewalk or a bike lane. And the bins were often installed perpendicular to the curb, which blocked pedestrians but made the advertising more visible to drivers. These weren’t really garbage cans with ads on them at all; they were billboards with lousy garbage cans attached. (216)

[Toronto] has a donations policy that is explicitly designed to ensure that “donations occur at arm’s length from any City decision-making process.” But “when I filed a complaint with the city’s integrity commissioner, she ruled that no rules were broken because the ten-year-old policy regulating donations and community benefits astonishingly doesn’t include a definition of “donations” or “community benefits.” Without clear terminology, no one can actually break any rules. It’s the wild west. (218)

Tribar created the ultimate bundle: if the city gave permission to install a two-storey television screen above one of North America’s largest urban green spaces, the company would (are you ready for this?) contribute $3.5 million towards the construction of a suicide barrier on the same bridge. When the proposal was presented at city hall, the two items were bundled together, so if you were against the video screens (which I was, of course), then you were portrayed as also being against the suicide barrier. Politically, it was a nightmare situation. And that was intentional. (219)

Groups with charitable status are required to follow strict rules that limit their ability to do advocacy, while non-profit groups (without charitable status) can be much more innovative, politically vocal and effective when it comes to advocacy and community organizing. So why would any group choose to be a charity? Because charitable donations are tax-deductible. Under the existing rules, certain kinds of non-partisan advocacy are permitted, as long they account for less than 10 percent of a charity’s resources. But because board members often don’t understand these rules, they tend to take a risk-averse approach. “We have weak and confused sector organizations,” explains charity law expert Mark Blumberg, who’s calculated that more than 99 percent of charities conduct far fewer political activities than are allowed under the current rules. In fact, Blumberg estimates that the sector as a whole is spending only one-thousandth of its permitted threshold. (248)

When Ford went to rehab for two months, we literally had no mayor. As a community activist, I noticed a big difference during those strange years. Before and after Ford, it was absolutely necessary to secure the support of the mayor’s office in order to get any proposal approved by council. But during the Ford years, I was able to win significant political victories both with and without the mayor’s support. The councillors were in charge—as they should be but rarely are. (276)

Rants I won’t attempt to summarize because they are things of beauty you just kinda had to be there for:

  • “Tricks of the trade”, how politicians hide things from public eye

  • The one on billboards

  • The one on the increasing legibility of campaign running, and especially Get Out the Vote (GOTV)

    …Okay, fine, a small quote, because this very specific type of Ra-driven (archive) driven institutional rot is exactly my jam:

    “If they don’t trust their own caucus members to serve as ambassadors to the public, can you imagine how terrified they must be of having random volunteers knocking on doors and saying something that might be off message? This leaves campaigns with a dilemma: how do you distract dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers and make sure they aren’t trying to talk to voters about issues?” (156-157)

Books for Autistic People

So like I said in the last Articles of Interest post, in the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is I’ve spent the last few months reading books on autism, social skills, and coping mechanisms for living with neurotypicals.

So I read around a dozen books in total. I intended to write a short and sweet review paragraph for each, but some of them said some really useful things so I took notes, and then that became a whole thing. In order to not clog up my blog, I’m going to turn this post into more of a directory – click through to read an excerpt, my review, and a summary of useful concepts for my more extensive reviews.

In order of reading:

A Field Guide to Earthlings – Ian Ford

Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder – Sarah Hendrickx

Nonviolent Communication, 2nd ed. – Marshall B. Rosenberg

Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate – Cynthia Kim

Other books I’ve read but weren’t interesting enough to merit a full review

Miscellaneous thoughts

Because I’m insufferable, here is a quote from my boi michel foucault that aptly summarizes the underlying sentiment of the books that I liked the best:

The definition of disease and of the insane, and the classification of the insane has been made in such a way as to exclude from our society a certain number of people… Nobody is more conservative than those people who tell you that the modern world is afflicted by nervous anxiety or schizophrenia. It is in fact a cunning way of excluding certain people or certain patterns of behaviour.

In other words, having trouble coping with the rhythms and patterns specific to our society doesn’t mean that you’re defective as a human being. It means that society has not cared to make in itself a place in itself for you, because sometimes society flat sucks.

This is disability activism in a nutshell, and a good lens for self compassion. If you take nothing else away from this post, take that.

Major kudos to the r/aspergirls wiki, where I sourced many of these books. And once again a huge thanks to @mykola for writing the twitter thread that started it all.

It has also occurred to me during this binge that there are probably decent guidebooks for people who are neurodiverse in other ways as well, and I should probably hunt them down and give them a read. With decent curation, that doesn’t seem like the worst way to discover universal human experiences that I don’t have (perma). Further reviews possibly to come.

Challenges facing Violence Against Women Shelters in Ottawa

[Epistemic effort: I’ve had a month for digesting what I heard, but haven’t actually set time aside to think hard about the implications. I have done my best to cross-reference all the claims that I noted down, but there may still be some mistakes remaining, and there’s a chance that I completely misinterpreted something that was said.]

I went to a roundtable discussion on the challenges faced by women’s shelters in the Ottawa region mid-November, and I realized that I was incredibly privileged in that government regime changes generally don’t affect me.

What do I mean by that? Well, I think there’s this general consensus around my social class, that politics are mostly a form of entertainment, and all of the head political figures all kind of channel Zaphod Beeblebrox while some 50 year old white dude with 30 years in the public service and a job title like Assistant Deputy Chief Underminster of Finance actually controls everything. It turns out that I was very, very wrong, and it’s just that the “middle” class is kind of untouchable politically. The Ford administration has actually meant that some urgently needed social services are now underfunded or defunded entirely, with severe implications for the subaltern classes. There are changes, and people’s lives have objectively gotten shittier. I just didn’t see it.

This realization has made me change from ambivalence to disapproval of my fellow leftists who are/identify as accelerationists, who think that we should just burn the entire current structure down and start anew, because according to them the system in place has a net negative impact on the world. Now that I know that this is not the case, my reaction is “hey buddy if you’re going to burn down this system that millions of people depend upon for some reason or another, you better have a dang good reason, because the people whose lives will be upended the most, and for the worse, will be your poor, your disabled, and your oppressed, not the well-off relatives that you resent for being xenophobic.“

In the specific case of the roundtable, I learned that  women’s shelters in Ontario lost funding, meaning they either didn’t get enough to keep up with wages and inflation, or actually had to cut the number of beds that they had, which was already pathetically few to begin with. Whatever number you had in mind, it’s lower than that. There are 121 in Ottawa as of 2016. Women who flee often flee because they want to protect their children, so each woman that you take in will generally require 2-3 beds. Women stay for 3-6 months while they get their lives in order to move on. So. Ottawa, a city with a population of almost a million, can support approximately 50-60 abused women at a time, and zero men. I am willing to bet money that that is not close to enough. Ottawa is not a uniquely bad city when it comes to supporting battered women; in fact it may be better than average. Society just flat sucks, in general. (If this information made you update your mental model on the services your city provides for women, I regretfully inform you that you should make approximately the same update w/r/t homeless shelters, resources for refugees, subsidized/community housing, support for queer youth, CPS, and so on and so forth.)

The other incredibly shitty thing is that when it comes to supporting the subaltern classes, funding models are exceedingly zero sum at times. Three years ago, women’s’ shelters here were able to ring up 311 (the municipal help line) when they had a woman on the line who needed to get out, but no room in their shelter or in any other shelter in the city. The city would hook them up with a room for, not 3-6 months, but a decent chunk of time. Now, because of rising housing costs and an influx of refugees, the motels, city shelters, and overflow rooms are all full, all the time,  and that is no longer an option for the shelters. This, by the way, is the case even though the mayor, who honestly seems like a pretty cool guy, spent $6.4m over budget last year on shelters.

And, the week after I went to this roundtable, Ford started cutting watchdogs for the province left and right, because according to the party they were ineffectual and therefore a waste of taxpayer dollars. Watchdogs were brought up as a topic during the roundtable discussion as well. According to the panelists, in general they weren’t the most efficient form of advocacy, because it’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you. But it was still useful, and it was provided at no cost to the shelters. Now, the shelters are preparing  to scrape at the splintered bottoms of their barrels to pay for advocacy themselves. I don’t like that, but I am generally not a fan of anything that our current government is doing, so that’s not a big surprise.

Misc notes:

  • Cities don’t have enough money to do anything in the “best” way that we are taught at City Planning School. The way “housing first” is supposed to work: “step one when a person becomes homeless is to give them a stable source of housing, so that they can keep their stuff, have an address which is very important for applying to jobs, and not fall apart mentally.” The way “housing first” works because there are approximately like, negative four affordable units in the city: the city will give you a subsidy of $250 a month for housing. But. Only after you’ve spent more than a cumulative total of 2 years in a homeless shelter, and are not addicted to any substances (“clean”). It is very hard to be clean, if you’ve spent 2 years homeless. Also, homeless shelters are not safe for women generally, so only men stay for long periods of time. This means that men got 80% of the “housing first” subsidies. By the time you get a house because of the “housing first” policy, you already lost most things that a house was supposed to give you.
  • Another fun thing is that, landlords that are familiar with the housing first policy will deliberately push their rents above the affordable housing threshold, because they don’t want “troubled” tenants. I won’t say that landlords are scum because of this, because I can see where they’re coming from. But this goes back to how severely problematic rent-seeking, and the idea of housing as a form of investment/passive income, is.
  • This should go without saying, but battered women will make bad decisions sometimes, like going back to their abuser after their shelter stay. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t help them, because a) you don’t know their circumstances and b) you would likely do the same in their shoes. These women [a/n: I feel really uncomfortable with how the shelters speak of their clientele exclusively using female pronouns, but I mean, they’re women’s shelters.] are doing incredibly draining crisis management on a day-to-day basis. They’re trying to keep food on the table and their kids quiet so they don’t get beat up. Recovery is non-linear. Don’t hold this against them.
  • Lots of women will “hold out” until the shelters have a bed available for them.
  • A common misconception is that a women’s shelter is like, a large hall with 60 beds in one room. In general they’re like motels, with individual suites – some with connecting rooms too or a dividing wall that can be brought in if there are older kids who need their own space, etc. Lots of times, the kids don’t even know that they’re staying at a shelter of some kind, their mothers tell them that they’re just going on a mini staycation or something.
  • We know the solution for solving all these problems – for raising women out of poverty, for effectively transitioning them away from abusive relationships. Things like having beds immediately available, providing childcare, and ensuring that they can keep their pets with them (because they are beloved members of the family, and also something that the abuser can threaten/injure/kill if it is left behind) all help women stay away. The only problem is that we don’t have money, and in fact we are losing funding. Ain’t that a bitch.
  • This year has been especially bad for women. In general, one woman is killed every six days. In 2018, the figure has shot up to 2.5-3.
  • On the bright side, #metoo has had a visible impact, and more women are seeking out shelters – older women, wealthier women, immigrant women.