a discomfort

A quick post, because I have an intense day ahead of me.

A couple of weeks ago in class I found myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat, unfortunately not due to any intriguing challenge to my perspective. My English professor, who is extremely intelligent, concluded an anecdote regarding the derogation of her field by people who were–as she so charmingly put it–“too stupid to understand” the connections of classical literature to everyday lives with a facetious remark about how some individuals in society should be prevented from reproducing.

While I empathize that in the context of the discussion she was merely expressing her frustration with those who contend against literature as relevant, and while I have most certainly shared in these exasperating experiences of defending from disparagement my choice to pursue a BA in English, I found her comment toward the “average person” unwarranted if not cruel. Her sentiment is not unique; I’ve heard it throughout the course of my life referenced casually in conversations with intellectuals, whom I suspect have internalized the violence of historically proposed reproductive policing that aimed to prevent disabled and/or poverty-stricken women from having children through compulsory sterilization. The targeted demographic included women of color, in righteous protection of “racial integrity” and “weeding out the ‘unfit.'”

Even before acquiring any knowledge of this history, these comments would offend my very sense of morality in that they are obscenely egotistical, suggesting that the speaker decides who is granted the privilege of reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy–a class of people in which one would arrogantly include oneself.

OF COURSE I’ve told people that they’re obtuse to even ask such a question as “How is that [literature] relevant?” but I would never even think to tell them they don’t deserve to have children. (wtf?) Once you’ve leveled, what need is there for an arbitrary attack, other than to cheapen your position and advertise your misanthropy? I’d like to think I wouldn’t view myself as better than someone just because I’ve read Greek tragedies in fairly good translations.

I wanted to say something, but the fluid manner in which she was speaking (as though it were a lecture) made it nearly impossible to interrupt her politely.

Disturbingly, her anecdote had specified the setting as a “rural area” and a sense of classism was evident. This tendency of liberal intellectuals to promote equality but derogate the “average person” in their elitism has long been a source of disquiet for me. Despite belonging to the English department, where I had always felt warm and welcome and freed from judgment, a familiar sense of alienation and loneliness emerged from within me. She wasn’t being judgmental–at least, she’s not a judgmental person–and she wasn’t talking about me, but I suppose the feeling surfaced from the evidence that we may not be quite as alike in respects to what is or isn’t considered tactless and inconsiderate. Sadly, the consensus of class seemed to agree with her.

19 thoughts on “a discomfort

  1. Ugh. Classism is one of my least favorite oppressions. As a member of the very upper middle class, I try to call out classism whenever I see it.

    Unfortunately, in high school, when I told one of my friends that her joke was classist, she took this to mean that it wasn’t a racist joke and was therefore okay to tell. *sigh*

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    1. Nahida

      I found the classism kind of weird… in my experience it hasn’t been those who are from “rural areas” and possibly aren’t well-read who’ve ridiculed studying English / the creative arts but those who are also highly intelligent and assert that the sciences are superior (and, according to them, exclusive.)

      It’s not a matter of class, it’s a matter of whether or not you’re a douche.

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      1. KelsShels

        Yeah, historically speaking it was great scientists who wanted things like compulsory sterilization. And it’s been the sciences that think they deserve ALL THE FUNDING.

        I get her aggression. But taking it out on the wrong people = me not sympathetic.

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  2. Flint

    Unfortunately this isn’t some kind of hypothetical anecdotal situation, because this actually happens, and went it enters the public dialogue people actually debate on whether this is okay. There are at least 15 states where parents can file a motion to have their adult disabled child sterilized without their consent or knowledge. People suggest to caretakers they have their disabled children “fixed”–I met 2 mothers who had been given that suggestion just last month, one of whom with her son in the room–and some of them consider it. And some of them do it.

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  3. KelsShels

    And here you thought the humanities would be… well, humane.

    I agree. Even before knowing the stuff that Flint described, the whole “why are these people allowed to have children?” thing would make me uneasy. It’s just common sense that it’s destructive and conceited to go there.

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  4. ahmad

    The irony is that many of these people end up having very few children of thier own so they outbred by people they regard as ‘less sophisticated’ or ‘intellectually inferior’

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  5. That kind of comment bothers me a lot, too.

    I studied both science and the humanities, and I’ve also noticed that it is other science types who seem to be most likely to make this sort of pronouncement. I also have a developmental disability, so I always know that, even when someone else is moaning to me about how stupid some other people are, the People Who Should Not Breed category the person wishes for would probably include me. Not that I want to have children, particularly — I want to remain childless so badly I intend to get myself sterilized — but I want very badly to have the right to make that choice for myself, and for everyone else to have that right, too.

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  6. I know a woman who I feel like shouldn’t have her children, yet she has 3. It’s not based on her class though. It’s based on the fact that she moved herself and her kids into our living room without warning to any of us, and decided to live in my house for *free* (after 2 weeks of dating our roommate, mind you) when we already had a full house, where she let her kids run loose unattended and tear up the house, and scream and cry waking me and my boyfriend up every day and night. And this woman doesn’t work and hasn’t had a job for quite some time. Her only income is collecting child support, and she just assumed her new boyfriend who works a min wage job would be good enough to foot the bill for her whole family. She is the most irresponsible and immature person I have ever encountered. She kept telling us she was looking for a job but she totally lied.

    I don’t normally judge women who have kids or the way they raise their children. However when one of them becomes a freeloader in my own house, it affects me so yeah, I’m going to have something to say. She is the reason we had to move, because the utility bills went up almost triple the amount as soon as her family moved in and she wouldn’t look for work.

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    1. Nahida

      “I know a woman who I feel like shouldn’t have her children”

      There’s a difference between the right to have children and the right to have custody of them.

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  7. I’ve known a lot of academics who make comments like that, and at least in my experience, it’s always struck me as attempting to justify what they’re doing – that there has to be a larger relevant to their work, and so they get upset when people can’t see it. I think, for better or for worse, everyone in academia needs legitimately to love what they do, whether it’s relevant to the world or not, mostly because it’s nearly impossible to guess what will be relevant someday.

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