Why do some of us lose our tongues in the face of social and political injustice? Is it because we want to appear ‘inoffensive’ to people who we look up to, or do we value their ‘social connections’ so much that we think we could get ahead in life by ingratiating ourselves to them? We think by telling them some home-truths, we could peril our own prospects especially when those being wronged are our ‘own’ people.
So we keep our mouths shut! Upward mobility demands it, we convince ourselves!
In many societies around the world, we have negative expressions for such behavioural tendencies but the actual phenomenon exists everywhere. It’s connected with power-relations; some people are important, others are not. The important people have power, social prestige and privilege. The ‘not-so’ important people have none of this, and if you happen to come from the fringe of a society’s power structure, you want to join the ranks of the ruling class and you’ll do anything to get there, even if it means ‘poo-pooing’ your former lives.
Or at least that’s the idea behind social climbing.
Back in the days when we were free-spirited adolescents, we used to look disfavourably on such people but today, we think of them as ‘aspirational’ and ambitious ‘go-getters’. Obviously, our formative years were free of contorted priorities. In many ways, we were positively ‘wet around the ears’, but naive and impressionable as we were, there was something inherently true about us. In the decades that followed, a lot of that changed.
The school yard was a good place to see those dynamics unfold. Some ambitious students gravitated to the ‘in-crowd’ – the popular kids, even if this meant acting contemptibly with the peers they grew up with, their childhood friends. As they got older, and started to think about their future prospects, they flew further afield into the realm where they had to lose even more of themselves to be like the people they admired.
But our adolescent years was also a time to be ourselves. For some of us, we were trying to find ourselves in the midst of people who were similarly trying to find themselves. No one really cared about saying the right things or being anodyne; what you said came naturally to you, if you happened to be wrong it wasn’t the end of a friendship. From this cadre, we had the contrarians and those who refused to be silenced. They never once self-censored.
But in the world of the social climber, there’s a price for this kind of ‘authenticity’. In this world, our much-prided ‘vocations’ are little more than ‘careers’. We tip-toe around ourselves trying to placate our new ‘friends’ and ‘cultured’ peers. We want them to know we’re really like them, and not the people we were previously associated with; if ever the past-connection was to be exposed, god-forbid, we would be mortified! We want to positively efface ourselves of our former lives because this is the price for ‘fitting-in’, moving out of our old but natural personas into our new facade-ridden ‘identities’. If we mess up in this social world, it’s as if the entire planet will combust!
Social climbing in my mind leads to intellectual-regress. The two are connected in so many ways that they’re really two sides of the same coin. You no longer think for yourself. You no longer speak for yourself. You want to be a sheep because it’s the safest option and so you’re hurdled with other sheep who look the part. You fit in now, or at least you think you ‘fit in’ even though you’re a sheep with nothing of ‘value’ about you as an individual. You’ll never speak up if something seems wrong because you want the permanent approval of your new peers, the ‘in-crowd’, in your mind – society’s leading icons – because you’re scared of becoming exposed as an ‘imposter’, a ‘wanna-be’ from some lower social order! You positively self-censor to the extent of losing your intellectual integrity if indeed you had any left. You force yourself to view the world through the prism of others, who are less benign to you as they’ve always been less benign to your parents’ generation.
Over time you become someone else.
Behaving like this boils down to not having any personal integrity. We think it’s natural progression from our early years of trying to better ourselves socially. It isn’t. Trying to emulate those with ‘power’ because you formerly lacked it, is more about you than the people who have the power or your poorer relatives. The dominant social group self-perpetuates because it has people like you wafting around it and prepared to join at the cost of becoming a poor-man’s extension. Perhaps, if you do enough grovelling, they’ll let you into their inner sanctum and you wont feel the need to be ‘insecure’ all the time.
Hopefully, you’ll even forget about your origin. If you can’t, you’ll positively hate on your ‘people’ to prove that you’re not from them.
But clearly individuals who behave like this have no intellectual integrity. To have intellectual integrity, you have to be invested in your own person, your own beliefs and you don’t care how uncomfortable your beliefs make people feel. You express your views because you genuinely believe them to be true whatever the social consequences. We know from history, the people with the greatest chance of changing their societies are fiercely independent and their positively disliked by the powers-be because they refuse to become social climbers. They refuse to emulate those in power, and directly challenge them. It’s these sorts of people that change their societies for the better, and not the sheep who want to drape themselves in the flags of their ruling peers. When things go wrong, our self-hating social climbers try to find another powerful tribe they can join, and they start the whole process again of doing someone else’s bidding. They overcompensate to be like their new admired peers, even as they lose even more of themselves.
You’ll never find contentment by being like this, because you don’t know who you are. By becoming someone else, and ‘social climbing’ your way to some imagined social utopia, means you’ve never once looked in the mirror and said, who am I really? By being yourself, you’ll start asking questions about your own roots, your beginnings, your parent’s life stories, about your forebears and their struggles, about your neighbours, the people ‘hating’ on you. You’ll start pondering why some people are celebrated whilst others are not; why do we have ‘victors’ and ‘losers’, ‘rich and poor’ – was this all by accident? And it’s then your mind will become perturbed.
But you’ll never self-hate again. You’ll have more self-respect.
Because you won’t feel the need to belong to the right ‘tribe’ for the sake of getting ahead in life. You will speak your mind because your words reflect who you really are, and you don’t need a tribe or a group to validate your social worth. Your personal experiences will validate your words, and that’s just fine.
For our social climbers, no amount of social climbing and self-hatred of their former lives is ever going to bestow upon them personal integrity even though they hold fastidious to their new ‘social status’. If that’s the price they want to pay for losing themselves for upward mobility and social status, then I guess, their new peers are all the more welcome to have them! I just feel sorry for their children who are orphaned from the life-stories of their forbears and know nothing of their true origins.