Comedy of Manners
July 16, 2008
Thank God for the Guardian. No, really. I mean, where else would you turn to find a socialist named Jemima lecturing us on snobbery and the evils of the word “chav”? Yesterday, Tom Hampson and Jemima Olchawski, both pillars of the Fabian Society, urged Guardian readers to fret about their language:
We have to stop using the word “chav”… It is deeply offensive to a largely voiceless group and - especially when used in normal middle-class conversation or on national TV - it betrays a deep and revealing level of class hatred.
It’s interesting to note how readily vulnerability is assigned to “a largely voiceless group” that isn’t actually defined anywhere in the article. Apparently, it’s no longer necessary to specify who or what is vulnerable, or how; one can merely assert that something, somewhere is. But which “group” are we talking about? Poor people? Criminals? Antisocial youths? Or some subset thereof?
We have heard it increasingly used in conversation over the last year, invariably to casually describe people “not like us” and very often used by people who are otherwise rather progressive in their politics.
Doesn’t that say something about the company being kept by the scrupulously leftwing authors, rather than, necessarily, the population as a whole?
You cannot consider yourself of the left and use the word. It is sneering and patronising
And that would be unheard of. Especially among those who hold in such esteem that thing called “middle England”.
and - perhaps most dangerous - it is distancing, turning the “chav” into the kind of feral beast that exists only in tabloid headlines.
Well, I don’t follow tabloid headlines, but the people I’ve heard described as “chavs” are, it seems to me, precisely the kind of people one would wish to be distant from. It’s my understanding that “chav” is most often used to describe a subset of dysfunctional prole – a feckless, belligerent and unpleasant person with limited foresight, self-control issues and antisocial leanings. The gormless baseball-capped youth who was caught in my neighbour’s back yard looking for things to steal would, I think, qualify as a chav. The old lady I spoke to at the bus stop yesterday almost certainly would not. Yet I’m sure both of those people could be designated “voiceless” and vulnerable by some earnest, middle-class Guardianista.
It is worse than other forms of snobbery because it so clearly links poverty and being working class to criminality and fecklessness.
Does it? If I think of my grandparents, for instance, they’d probably have been described as fairly poor and working class, but I don’t think of them as “chavs” and don’t imagine others would either. The chavness, as it were, isn’t about being poor or working class per se. It’s about something much more specific. Something clownish and ugly, disrespectful and parasitic, and often threatening. If anyone is making an unfair association here, it seems to be those elevated socialists, Tom and Jemima. Both of whom seem strangely unaware that quite a few working class people also use the term “chav” without the slightest hesitation.
Today, Zoe Williams shares her wisdom on the subject. Being free of prejudice, she too assumes “chav” is a synonym for “poor person”:
It’s nothing more complicated than snobbery. “Chav”… covers so many bases as to be synonymous with “prole” or any word meaning “poor, and therefore worthless”.
Alas, she stumbles almost immediately:
People who think of themselves as left of centre and opposed to snobbery…
This, lest we forget, is the same left-of-centre Zoe Williams whose own elitist affectations have entertained us so, and who said of Boris Johnson’s election as mayor:
We know what London is. Boris is not London.
She does, however, brush against a moment of insight.
That, I think - I hope - is what people like Matt Lucas and David Walliams and Catherine Tate and Jimmy Carr are tapping as they deride people with common accents, and the inarticulate, and people who wear tracksuits, and people who don’t do anything funnier than simply not having a lot of money. It’s not the deprivation that’s hilarious; it’s the leftwing delicacy, the many taboos.
Indeed it is.