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In Defense of the Chav

April 3, 2012

Yep, that’s a suitably irksome title. Right. I warn you now, this blog contains potentially offensive words and reference to potentially offensive ideas. I assure you they are used responsibly and with good reason. Here are the ones I suspect people will dislike the most, just to get them out the way: chav, nigger, paki, Jeremy Kyle, benefit claimants, students, and the fact that I was a teenager within this century. If you don’t like those things, don’t read on, or just be aware that they crop up again and that several of my key points revolve around them.

So. Let’s begin.

Now, a Chav has been a thing since I was about, I’d guess, 13. At least that’s around the time that I became aware of the term. It seemed to come into everyday use in my school after it evolved out of the term “townie”. I’m aware that this was probably a local thing, specific perhaps even to my school alone. Either way, it became the general derogatory term for anyone wearing a tracksuit. It became commonplace to hear it used in sentences deriding the literacy levels, smoking habits and parentage of anyone who didn’t particularly care for music with guitars in it. I find it hard to object to its use in such an environment that much, because of course, secondary school upwards (heck, even primary school in my experience) is oftentimes a forum for kids to sling these sweeping cultural identifiers at each other. Horrible, yes, but it’s always happened and most people end up coming out of the experience with a fairly well-rounded idea of who they are.

Unlike the other terms, though (“goth”/”grunger” springs to mind), “chav” seems to stick around in the mouths of adults. I find this pretty troubling. For a term that was in all likelihood invented by teenagers to take the piss out of other teenagers, it’s always been one of the more loaded terms. I did my A-Level Work Experience at a student-run radio station with some guys who’d previously been in very different social circles to me at school. Their circles, in the minds of everyone else, fell into the chav category. This inevitably led to the term being slung at them in arguments, and that clearly stuck with them, as when we were on Work Experience, the station was visited by some children from a notoriously troublesome school. One or two of these kids, wearing tracksuits, ended up making a bit of a spectacle of themselves. One of the guys from my college turned to me and said “You all thought we were chavs? Nah, that’s a chav.”

So clearly, “chav” is a term with which people don’t want to be associated (fair enough). This, to me, singles it out a bit from “goth” etc, which seems to endure into adult life solely by people actively embracing it (if anyone has examples to the contrary, please do comment. I don’t claim to know everything, nor do I wish to make assumptions about anyone’s life experiences. Contradictions to my opinions and experiences are always welcome). But to me, the obviously hurtful intent behind the word and its use is just a small part of the problem with its place in the public consciousness. The much larger, much more significant part of my worry comes from the demographics involved when adults throw the word around. I’ve heard, in my everyday life, the word being used by people of every class and every race I’ve ever encountered (which is “all of them” and “all with a prominent presence in the UK”, respectively). One of those matters more, though, because the term is exclusively directed at people who can be categorised as working class and below. That Wikipedia article I linked to identifies an “underclass”. This is where “chav” becomes more than an identifier and worse than an insult. This is where “chav” becomes a slur.

I remember watching a BBC documentary called Five Steps to Tyranny. Step 1 of 5 was “create an us and them“. The use of “chav” would be my first choice for an example of this in practise. To my mind, while racism of all sorts is still an enormous problem worthy of much coverage and consideration (to start with), “chav” is perhaps in a more dangerous position, the reason being that it’s a mainstream, practically socially acceptable term. Perhaps not with as much history as “nigger”, “paki” et al, but certainly with as much effectiveness, “chav” differentiates, separates, lowers.

I saw a quote recently from someone, I forget who, who said something along the lines of “Politicians’ greatest trick was convincing poor people that other poor people are the cause of all the nation’s problems” (attribution and corrections welcome in the comments). Again, “chav” is the perfect example. The guy I quoted in my Work Experience anecdote was from a working class background. Now, one can understand his keenness to proclaim what was a chav and what was not, given the fact that he knew I’d witnessed him and his friends being identified as such in the past, so we can kind of let that one slide. But it showed a rift in the “lower” classes of society, an idea that those who could be identified as a step “down” from the working class were something less than just an underclass. Not just from that example, but from many others, from people of all classes (including people I’m extremely close to in each class), it became clear to me that “chav” is more than a label – it’s verbal dehumanisation. The fact that media entities like The Jeremy Kyle Show play up to the worst of public perception by parading the underclass in front of the country like they’re in a zoo is a particularly potent contributory factor to this. Every word of that thought is very deliberate, if you were wondering.

So the chav, in the public consciousness, is a subhuman figure, perhaps wearing a tracksuit, perhaps living in a council flat with a football-themed St George’s Cross hanging from the window, perhaps shopping at Iceland, perhaps idolising a public figure, the cause of whose fame could be considered to be of dubious integrity. People that fulfill these stereotypes, or elements of them, undoubtably exist. So why do we hate them? That’s not overstating it – maybe we individually don’t hate all the individuals, or even the collective, but as a society, we act hatefully towards them. Collective to collective, they’re a punching bag. Originally, this stemmed from parody and humour – “Oh, they all think X Factor is the world’s second largest religion”, “Oh, they all call their babies Wayne even though they can’t spell it” (for the record, I found this pretty repulsive at the time, too) – but now it’s more than that. Now it’s an ideology that a) they’re a problem, and b) it’s not anybody’s responsibility to do anything about it.

Point ‘b’, there, seemed to manifest in public opinion quite prominently during and after the last general election – countless times I saw on the news, on Twitter, on messageboards and in the flesh world, people speculating about upcoming cuts, and the majority vote for the first thing that should be revised/be reduced/disappear altogether was benefits. Benefits. The system set up to help the vulnerable. The country’s safety net for when the system fails people. The justification I heard trotted out the most was “Well, they all cheat it anyway”. Now, benefit fraud is a problem, but to overestimate it to the point where we declare it’s unsalvageable and we should just abandon ship demonstrates a bizarre and terrifying lack of social empathy. And it comes back to that word. Benefit claimants are just a bunch of chavs. A bunch of chavs, with tracksuits and flags and stupid baby names, who steal money from people who like normal, acceptable things. Why should we give them money? Nah, let ’em fix their own problems. Let the chavs work out that they’re not supposed to be chavs. On their own. With no money and no opportunities.

The word “chav” has drawn a line and relegated an entire culture from British society. It’s set the wheels in motion for a variety of needy people in a variety of situations which means the way the world works isn’t tailored to helping them through life to be ignored and insulted by everyone else. Think about that idea again – politicians (for what it’s worth, I believe we can point to politicians on the right, left and centre here) have tricked the country into a state of the poor blaming the poor. This indisputably happens. This tactic’s primary function (to shift blame for whatever issue off the politicians themselves) is very different from its primary effect (to turn people against a vulnerable demographic of society). I personally suspect that politicians who’ve performed this trick and perpetuated it as a legitimate political tactic consider this an unfortunate side effect if they consider it at all.

I digress. The causes of the singling out of the chav are varied, as the causes of a powerful idea always are.

A while ago, I saw a set by comedian Reginald D. Hunter on TV. He had a bit about middle class white people being offended by the word “nigger” that has been at the back of my mind while writing this. I realise, you see,  I’m just another middle class white person (and a middle class white male aspiring to be a middle class white male author, at that) getting offended on behalf of someone else who’s usually conspicuous by their absence in discussions of this kind. But I like to think that my 23 years of Asperger’s Syndrome-fueled sitting back and drinking the world in has been worth some measure of integrity, and all I’m really doing here is venting bile. I’ve seen ignorance, closed-mindedness and attitudes that uncomfortably echo certain hallmarks of certain historical atrocities, and rightly or wrongly, I’ve taken it upon myself to rat it out in front of everyone. Or the five people who’ve ever read my blog. Whatever.

What I’m essentially saying is that if anyone finds my third-party perspective to be didactic, judgemental, overly authoritative, offensive or anything else objectionable, I apologise. I really do. But I have reasonable evidence that I’ve managed to bludgeon myself into an intelligent person by now, and I really felt like this was something that needed saying, even if it’s being said by me, unqualified and entirely separate from the actual effects of the situation.

Anyway. For lack of a less clichéd ending, I’d like to beg everyone to stop labeling and start trying to identify and fix the actual problems (suggested starting point: the three utterly untrustworthy organisations that make up the vast majority of our government). And I know, I know that won’t happen, because the simple fact remains: some people, whether in suits, tracksuits, birthday suits, white collars, blue collars, clerical collars, wool jumpers, robes or lab coats, are twats. Sorry, that’s a label – some people of all demographics are prejudiced, bigoted, immature, and most crucially, difficult to bring around from such worldviews. But don’t let that bring you down (off your high horse?). I’m sure that rational, peaceful, positive people, among which I count myself in my better moments, can effect some positive change somewhere, somehow. Even if it’s just pointing a like-minded person to a blog post now and then.

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