Monday, May 21, 2012

The Responsibility of Elites

My uncle (who moved to Canada as a young man and is back for a visit), my parents, and I went for dinner with my great-uncle and his wife. At first, I wasn't very interested in talking. Conversation with adult relatives is pretty boring. But as we went on, I gradually started feeling uncomfortable for another reason -- I realized that my relatives were pretty different from us (meaning my parents and by extension, me). Different in terms of education levels, financial position and all those tangibles and intangibles that make up social class. My great-uncle is a small businessman, who commutes to Singapore (10 hours drive each way) to sell the ornamental fish he raises. Apparently he's dabbled in many jobs, from selling used cars to stockbroker-ing. Wide-ranging interests? Not really. Just trying to survive. What struck me was how uncomfortable I felt interacting with my relatives. Social class is an issue that we don't bring up among friends and family. And even within the bleeding-heart burning-passion overseas-educated crowd I know, most of us hang with others who are similar to us. It is a challenge to find common ground with everybody -- from the rojak seller across the road to the corporate lawyer in his mansion. For me I think I still feel ashamed of this unearned privilege, when so many others work so hard with less to show for it. And maybe deep down many comfortable middle-class, earned-their-way-up folk feel the same way. And that's why we don't like to talk to others who are different from us. Every phase of life comes with its own challenge, that seems formidable at the time but once it's over, you wonder why you ever worried. It used to be getting through standardized exams, then getting into good colleges, then getting into university...but life beyond school doesn't have set phases and there are so many ways to succeed. You are both the student and the scorekeeper. And I suppose most people change the scoring metric as they go along so that they never have to see themselves as failures. Having real relationships with people who lead radically different lives from you shows you that there are different scorecards, and yours isn't necessarily better. But beyond the generalized walk-in-someone-else's-shoes message, there is another important point I think you can gain from really trying to get out of one's friendship comfort zone. The elite (particularly academics and politicians) like to think they know best for the hoi polloi, when in truth they know them only from graphs and statistics, and have no idea about their daily concerns, dreams, fears or household budgets. It's more than deigning to talk with the rubbish collector or chat with one's maid condescendingly -- it's willingly opening up one's life and treating the other as an equal. Rudyard Kipling's "If" says it quite well. If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, ' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch... That is a huge if indeed. And that is the challenge of the next however many years of my life, not to forget that beyond my close circle of friends and family who have roughly the same cultural experiences and options that I do, a whole world of people exists.