The contemporary political left does not have a compelling rhetoric for talking about class. Its various factions and tendencies have for too long been beholden to the systematizing abstractions of Marxism on the one hand and liberalism’s erasure of class difference on the other. No one on the left would flat out deny the important roles that economic factors and social position play in people’s lives. But how do those factors determine the identity of the individual person? How should that person process their economic position? On this point the left is relatively silent. For a movement that has long deployed identity politics, often to powerful political effect, class remains, quite strangely, a category apart. Beyond the obvious cases of billionaires and beggars, real confusion seems to exist among progressives and liberals as to what social class is, what it entails and how people should process and act on their class backgrounds and interests. It even presents basic definitional questions. What does it really mean for someone to be from a lower class, or upper class, background?
Yale students should be concerned about this gap in our lexicon — and not solely for reasons of political semantics. The fact that most of us lack a thought-out class politics, and rarely discuss our family histories and individual positions within the economy, makes us susceptible to erroneous and politically motivated claims about class. Case in point: For several months after Trump’s election, everyone on the Acela Corridor was denounced as a “coastal elite.” This, of course, did not take into account the fact that the Acela stops in Providence, Newark and Baltimore, three of the poorest cities in the country. Still, many of my peers from the East Coast, even those from low-income backgrounds, took this rhetoric to heart. We are privileged, we are told, simply because we come from New York or Connecticut or New Jersey, never mind how much our families make or where we actually live.
A bit closer to home, Yale students are routinely chastised, both by their peers and the occasional Fox News correspondent, with the refrain that we are privileged “just to go here.” We are told that the normal parameters of social class don’t apply to us because of our status as Yale students. Repeated over and over again, this inculcates a very strange kind of split identity. In many conversations, I have heard students list the hardships that they and their families have had to endure — being forced to pawn off jewelry, losing a mortgage, not being able to pay for a surgery — all before dismissing their own stories as rare exceptions to the rule. Most of these students would still insist that they are middle-class, despite all evidence to the contrary. They would all concur that they are privileged “just to be here.”
I had long been convinced by this shaming rhetoric, as well, believing that my family was still upper-middle class long after the vacations had ended and the late rent notices had started piling up. My parents went to college, I thought, and I took piano lessons as a child; I had been born into privilege. Despite our current situation, there was no way I was no longer upper-middle class.
There is a better way of talking about class, and it stems from a proper application of the politics of experience. As a consequence of the #MeToo movement, millions of women who had endured sexual harassment found the ability to share their stories with the broader public. One of the movement’s most profound premises is that all personal stories are, to some degree, exceptional. No single experience is definitive. And yet, taken in the aggregate, they say something representative. Through the #MeToo movement, millions of women came to understand their personal experiences as part of a broader pattern of systemic abuse.
I propose that the same model can have powerful implications for how we talk about social class. Experiences of financial destitution and social humiliation, the common lot of a significant number of Yalies, must not go unspoken. Our lives under any economic order are not solely a matter of dollars and cents. Being financially victimized — whether by a landlord, an employer or a once trusted community — is a matter of deep emotional resonance. By publicly sharing and discussing these experiences we may build a more perfect solidarity and a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities of class.
Those of us who have experienced dispossession have known for a long time the burdens of shame. But we can’t be in denial forever. It is time that we stop deluding ourselves into thinking that our experiences are exceptional. By bringing these stories, long hidden, to the public’s ears, we may find sympathy and solidarity, and, perhaps one day, change.
Gabriel Groz is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .