In one city, the divide takes the form of a major street south of which lies the university, and north of the street, one finds the poor section of town. In the small town where I grew up, the dividing line was a river, running south and emptying into a large Great Lake. To the east of the river inside the town boundaries, the poor people lived, worked and almost universally travelled outside their section of town for employment. Founded first, the east side of the river was dotted liberally with houses in need of repair, sidewalks that were broken and given that the section of town was out-of-sight and out-of-mind for the decision-makers in the town, was unlikely to see the kind of municipal attention in terms of improved public works like upgraded roads, updated schools, street lights and what has become known in larger cities as gentrification. Another dividing line was ‘snob hill’ that piece of geography and topography that hosted the large, historic, architecturally designed homes of some of the professional class. Snob hill provided another higher status in the collective mind of townspeople, to the west side of the river. Looking out from these elegant homes, one viewed the “Big Sound’ of the Georgian Bay, one of the more spectacular views on that lake.
Although there were hymns to a classless society not so long ago, they have faded into the mist of a few politicians’ never-to-be-realized dreams. We are now living, each of us in our own town or city, in a society one of whose primary characteristics is the class war. It used to be that a university education was a passport into a secure, well-paying job, with considerable benefits, a pension and social respectability. Now, according to one study in the United Kingdom, universities are segregated by the incomes paid with graduates from Oxford and London Universities earning considerably more income than graduates from universities like the University of York in the north. It used to be that the suburbs housed the gentry class, and the centre of major cities were crippled into crumbling buildings and suspect ethos. Today, with the renewal of downtown cores, in many cities, the people with the money, and thereby the status and the class, the people with the power, the influence, and especially with the networks, reside and rule.
This social stratification continues, morphs with the changing directions in the flow of investment money, without even putting on the table such other divisions as that between male and female, between ethnic backgrounds, language differences, and origins of birth. And the stratification defies many of the initially studiously planned reforms of various political movements to bring the ‘monster’ to heel. Welfare morphs into workfare, attempting to excise the demeaning patronizing of the have-not’s by the have’s. Subsidized education fees, grants and bursaries have made some impact, in enlarging the university entrance demographic among the working poor, without ever succeeding in changing the attitudes of both have’s and have-not’s to each other. A university degree, however, is little more than a basic education, for most entry-level occupations, and many university grads have found it necessary to top their degrees with the icing of a community college-acquired skill. Simultaneously, peer pressure to have the brand-signatures of an ‘in crowd’ such as an I-Pad, I-Phone, the ‘in’ brand of athletic shoes (selected from a football-field filled with models), and for some even the family Beemer to take to college naturally generate a deep divide among undergraduates attending both “ultimate” universities and more ‘proletariat’ campuses. Little wonder, then, the campus administrators have to face the prospect of despairing students from “the other side of the tracks” (and we all know the translation of that phrase in anything but flattering). Those reared on the right side of the tracks come with their own upper-class breeding that includes a disdain for those ‘lesser’ mortals who might just happen to have achieved the grades necessary to be granted admission. “Somebodies” need and depend upon “nobodies” in every city, and town, and certainly college and university. Perhaps the inverse is also true: ‘nobodies’ also need ‘somebodies’ against whom to rail, compete and vent their envy and jealousy. The competitive culture, so honoured, almost revered by the corporate/business community, does nothing but enhance and enlarge the divides that we build physically and more importantly psychically and imaginatively.
The paradox of the “social animal” dependent on and magnetically drawn to others is that we also are eager to separate ourselves from those people, groups, parties, clubs whose attitudes, beliefs, actions and philosophies are outside our unique comfort zone, whatever that may be. Sometimes the divide is based on longstanding bigotry, as, for example, the historic divide between protestants and Roman Catholics, or, in Canada, the divide between the reserves that house indigenous peoples, and the off-reserve remainder of the population, or, in the large cities, the sections reserved for the uber-rich, the gated communities. Many of the most “valued” properties are along the shore of large rivers, lakes and oceans. And value, in this case, is measured in dollars as well as, and not insignificantly, status within the community. Some historic towns in Canada have also found that their tax base has withered as larger, more sumptuous homes were built on the periphery, attracting both a more professional clientel and increased tax revenues for the adjoining townships.
Children amicably engage in “parallel play” in sandboxes, and even in play-pens until the crunch of mutually exclusive needs for the same toy, when someone intervenes, or one exerts dominance over the other and claims the toy as his for the moment. Shared dorm rooms, shared apartments or condos prepare some for the long-term commitment of marriage. However, within such arrangements, each person also stakes out his/her territory, perhaps even to the point of some “locked” desk or cupboard drawer. These ‘secure’ places somehow, we think and believe, protect us from what we anticipate might be the wandering eyes and hands of another tempted either to “ borrow” or “use” or even “take” without asking. And to some extent that is true. One wonders, however, if those locks are protecting us from “others” or from our preconceived projections of lack of trust, built from our earliest exposure to stolen pencils and pens, in our classrooms where the desks were not locked, or from the stolen bicycle from our front porch, or the hockey stick that suddenly vanished while we were showering after the game or practice.
And now through the tech-revolution, parents seek fire walls to prevent their children from unwanted and unwarranted exposure to websites that seek to take advantage. And for each firewall, there appears to be an equally adept and powerful “delete” software to overcome the wall. It is almost as if whenever we build walls, there are inevitably others eager and willing to turn their ingenuity to scaling those walls, too often for personal profit. And so, we are living in a time when we are so scrupulous about our social environment that one wonders whether we have really enlarged our “community” or simply built millions of walls to resist open and honest engagement with those we care about. Putting smart phones and tablets in the hands of millions may provide a veneer of connection, and for purposes like crowd sourcing, or instant protests, they are highly effective. However, most of us have to delete unwanted messages from unknown sources daily. And our digital garbage bin overflows with “trash” just like our landfill sites.
Out-of-sight, out-of-mind is a protective device to enable our denial, avoidance and confronting of those people whom we consider “untouchable” even though we do not reside in India. And, we find various devices, including our internal, mental walls that attempt to erase the people with whom we do not wish to deal, (and that includes organizations, churches, professionals). There is an interesting piece of data about the difference between the way Canadians treat their corporate misadventures and the way Americans do. Canadians for the most part, simply walk away. Americans, on the other hand, write complaints back to the companies who have offended them as consumers.
We Canadians seem more private, or perhaps do not really trust that our complaints will make any difference, or perhaps, we simply cannot be bothered with the hassle, given the irritations we have already experienced from the objectionable business.
So there are geographic walls separating countries, separating social classes, separating neighbourhoods, and in some cases, also segregating schools. And there are fire walls in our digital technology, serving both purposes of protection and of challenging the criminal/terrorist segment of our population. And there are walls in rooms for privacy, for solitude and for quiet. And then there are those walls that we build in our minds, segregating out those elements of our universe that we consider dangerous, or even too complex to deal with, or perhaps even more likely, too “unconventional” in our way of thinking. And as for the last, there is no earth-moving equipment that can or will eradicate them; there are however, substantial social and political agencies determined to maintain them, allegedly for the purity of their own “kind” and for the protection from heathens and heretics who might contaminate their “kind”.
It was not until adulthood that I encountered another adult who required a minimum of 7 feet of what he termed social space. That requirement was enough to build a wall, at least in my mind and attitude, that this person was not someone whose acquaintance urged me to pursue past the first meeting. And there was only the wall he had built over years of conditioning, presumably to the acquiescence of his friends and family.
Are we teaching children to construct walls, based on their respective fears, or on the assimilation of social stereotypes of “less-than-desireable” untouchables?
Are we propagating a protective mind-set that requires walls of various kinds to keep us safe, in a world gone wild with alleged threats?
Are we also building communities that contain the seeds of our own segregation, in order to give obeisance to the rich, the powerful and the oligarchy?
Walls keep in, and keep our different ghettos, yet only those inside refuse to see themselves as residents of a ghetto.