Freedom of Expression without Harm, a Caste Privilege

I have two roommates who are staunch Hindutvavadis, highly Islamophobic and big time fan boys of Narendra Modi. I on the other hand a secular humanist, left-leaning atheist have to live with them and many a times have made my anti-Modi, anti-Hindutva stand very clear.

Only recently did I realise that they consider me to be a Brahmin* (they enquired to me about the janeu/sacred thread and I instinctively lied that I cut it off way back), and I realised that the only reason they tolerate me is because they think of me of belonging to the highest caste. They never use cusswords when talking to me, while it is pretty usual for them to do so with each other. Neither do they disregard whatever I say, they take me seriously sometimes with reverence. Now I notice that they do not even touch me or my stuff and that I am always designated with the pronoun ‘Aap’, although I am clearly much younger to them (people in Maharashtra, especially Mumbai, very rarely use Aap in common parlance).

I am extremely uncomfortable with such a relationship, but now I am actually afraid of clearing this misunderstanding. These guys are violent and extremely chauvinistic. They have little when it comes to respecting an individual as an individual for simply being human. Me being a Brahmin in their eyes is what is clearly giving me the immunity from their punches. And I, honestly, do not want to risk this immunity by correcting them and making it clear that I am just a degree lower** to what they assumed me to be.

This will never give me a clear conscience. But I realised that my caste name as Nair gives me powerful immunity in this extremely prejudiced society. It always has and I know it always will. I knew I enjoyed caste privilege, even when people knew that I was not a Brahmin. It is with these guys I realised the extent of my privilege, which is keeping me safe and unscathed. It has till now very clearly kept my free speech and expression protected, and has kept me away from real harm. My case did not take place in some remote village in the hinterland. This is the centre of our country’s largest metropolis and among the urban English-educated class we so blindly believe to be progressive. This is how caste works in India.

*It seems many in Mumbai consider Nair to be synonymous with Iyer, and hence the confusion
**I will not make preposterous claims that I am “casteless”, “beyond caste” or “have left my caste behind”. Because caste is not a choice. It’s a social reality, much like gender and cannot be erased as long as you live in a casteist society.

Social Capital and Cultural Capital

In April of this year, the results of the BBC’s 2011 Great British Class Survey were published (free PDF available here). It’s quite a landmark study – it’s the largest survey of social class ever conducted in the UK, and consisted of a web survey having 161,400 respondents, as well as a parallel national representative face-to-face survey having 1026 respondents. The summary of the findings is:

Using latent class analysis on these variables, we derive seven classes. We demonstrate the existence of an ‘elite’, whose wealth separates them from an established middle class, as well as a class of technical experts and a class of ‘new affluent’ workers. We also show that at the lower levels of the class structure, alongside an ageing traditional working class, there is a ‘precariat’ characterised by very low levels of capital, and a group of emergent service workers.

An important and interesting feature of the study was what they measured as an indicator of class. We’re used to thinking of class inequality in terms of income. But the study instead used a more modern approach, where they measured three different kinds of “capital”: economic capital, social capital and cultural capital:

[...] a new, multi-dimensional way of registering social class differentiation. A highly influential scheme is that developed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984), which argues that there are three different kinds of capital, each of which conveys certain advantages. He differentiates between (1) economic capital (wealth and income), (2) cultural capital (the ability to appreciate and engage with cultural goods, and credentials institutionalised through educational success), and (3) social capital (contacts and connections which allow people to draw on their social networks). Bourdieu’s point is that although these three capitals may overlap, they are also subtly different, and that it is possible to draw fine-grained distinctions between people with different stocks of each of the three capitals, to provide a much more complex model of social class than is currently used. This recognition that social class is a multi-dimensional construct indicates that classes are not merely economic phenomena but are also profoundly concerned with forms of social reproduction and cultural distinction.

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