Darren McGarvey: Middle class assume their culture is everyone’s

Who is going to tell the middle class that their culture is not for everyone, asks Darren.
Who is going to tell the middle class that their culture is not for everyone, asks Darren.
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‘Culture’ is dominated by one social class in positions of influence, says Darren McGarvey,

Last week I attended the Scottish Government’s Culture Strategy for ­Scotland event in the Glasgow Women’s Library in Bridgeton. Exciting, I know.

Let’s just say it’s not the first time I’ve said yes to something without properly considering what it might entail.

Of course, despite my ­initial willingness to attend the event, which brought together a range of figures from the creative industries, within seconds of arriving I was struck by the sudden feeling that I shouldn’t be there.

However, this feeling, whether it was social anxiety, cynicism about some of the people in attendance or simply that residual sense of ­inferiority that follows me around, was precisely why I came in the first place.

That feeling of not belonging, or feeling less than, is what often prevents people from participating in things they might benefit from.

It often holds people back from opportunities that could ­benefit from their insight.

I went to this event to try and express how that feeling, whether justified or not, is what prevents many people from engaging with what we call ‘culture’.

Culture is a very broad term that can mean many things.

Terms like ‘mainstream culture’ or ‘popular culture’ attempt to describe what the average person likes. Everything else is a ‘sub-culture’. However, despite there being more culture to consume, as well as more points of access than ever before in terms of participating in the creation of ­culture, many people still feel ­misrepresented or excluded.

For example, women, people in the LGBTQ community, ethnic and religious minorities and the disabled have fought for decades to be fairly represented and portrayed in education, the arts and the media – all forms of culture.

Increasingly, these conversations about cultural exclusion are drawn along lines of identity, our sense of who we are and our personal relationship with culture. But everyone’s interpretation of identity is different.

It’s usually the case that those who feel misrepresented or marginalised by an aspect of mainstream culture attribute this to either the ignorance or malign intent of a more dominant, privileged class.

For some people that class is men, for some it’s whites, for some it’s the able-bodied or straight ­people and for others it’s the ‘English’ or Americans.

Everyone sees the world through their own little window so it will not surprise you, given the subjective nature of culture and identity, that I am going to make the argument that class, above all the other facets of identity, remains the primary dividing line in our culture.

It’s no great surprise that when lower class people, whether male, female, gay or straight, attempt to interface with a culture, curated predominantly by people from a higher social class, they often feel like they’re looking at a parody of reality as opposed to an authentic representation.

They see their lives discussed in superficial terms and themselves and communities presented as ­caricatures. The reality with which they are presented is so disfigured that they scratch their heads ­wondering ‘who the hell comes up with this stuff?’

The questions being asked and the issues being explored by our well-meaning creatives often feel infuriatingly shallow, twee or wide of the mark. Art seems to have become an extension of progressive politics, where it’s not about exploring the grey areas in culture but about repeating a series of prompts that signal to the audience that you’re one of the good guys.

Culture itself becomes something people come to believe they exist outside of.

But contrary to the conspiracy theories many of us concoct to explain why this is the case, there’s a far simpler explanation for why ‘culture’ leaves so many feeling excluded: it’s dominated by one social class.

The reason the arts is dominated by middle-class people is because of social mobility.

This is not to say these people are not talented, or haven’t had to deal with adversity, but simply that socially-mobile people stand more chance of entering a more dominant class, the concerns of which become more culturally pronounced than others, precisely because of that social mobility.

Therefore, it follows that they would naturally ascend to positions of influence, more so than those from the lower class, and preside over a culture that reflects their own aspirations, preferences and interests – which they naturally assume are universal.

But we know they aren’t.

The ­question is: how best to break the news to them?

Obviously, you can imagine the look on people’s faces when I started saying this stuff at the event.

Especially when the questions we were given to ponder consisted mainly of vague things like: ‘How should we define culture?’ I guess, like identity, ‘culture’ means something different to everyone.

The people who get to define what it means for Scotland are the ones who go to these events. Which is why those of us with an interest in broadening the scope of the conversation, whether it be on grounds of class, race or gender, need to try and get over our feelings of inadequacy or anxiety.

We need to realise that we are as entitled to a seat at the table as anybody else; that Scottish culture is ours – we need not seek another’s permission to participate.

But above all, we must accept that culture will always be dominated by the same voices and perspectives until we disrupt the conversation. Not simply with complaints about what is wrong, but with suggestions about how to make it better.

Nothing about that will ever be easy.

Darren McGarvey is also known as Loki, a Scottish rapper and social commentator @lokiscottishrap