Despite coming from a horrifically stereotypical blue collar family, whom politics often affected in a real and immediate way, the jargon of parliament and journalism was never mine to interpret and speak. This was, assumedly, a language for those who had been born into money and familial connections, streamlined into political literacy, brought before future bosses and suitors at a young age, for those who had learned to be included into the conversation before they had even entered primary school. As a result, however, their ability to engage with the intricacies of those from outside their bubble is amateurish at best—compounded by the superiority complex that their education is based on, used to funnel them into elite institutions. Sometimes, the mask of competency slips, as it did with Emma Alberici’s tweet about minimum wage workers recently, which elicited an almost immediate reactive response: ‘have you had to dip into your savings?’.
Growing up outside of Australia’s major cities, coming into contact with these aliens left me feeling confused, as if I’d spent my whole life wasting time when I could have been learning the language instead. Even so, you can spend years trying to make it in Sydney and Canberra (ostensibly the second home for Sydney trust fund kids building a career and attempting bohemianism) and still never live up to the standards normalised in the same white collar, middle-upper class bubble if you haven’t learned to internalise their mostly arbitrary/juvenile social rules about taste and form, regardless of political affiliation.
Often, I contrast my experience to an image of middle-upper class affluence I’d surreptitiously adapted from books I’d read during my preteens—A Series of Unfortunate Events, where the pre-teens protagonists Klaus and Violet were highly literate and educated and expected to join in on serious family conversations. By contrast, my parents would mention the names of politicians at the dinner table with a vague sense of confusion; it was always fleeting. I didn’t necessarily have an example of wealth to draw from in my own life that illustrated the mechanics, and while this might be a seemingly random choice to draw on a fictional portrayal that’s exactly true of everyone who is moneyed, it certainly shaped my view—it makes sense that those within the upper echelons were encouraged to be into politics, the arts, and world affairs, because they knew those kids would grow up to be involved in those worlds. When I was young, my parents thought I would probably be a footballer.
I’m illustrating these scenarios not to elicit sympathy, to create another cloying thinkpiece or fetishise the undercommons (my upbringing was mostly peaceful, I had a big family and seemingly a million cousins to provide companionship and mentorship, and rarely went without) but because access is cultural as much as it is economic—class is rarely spoken of with nuance in Australia, where everyone thinks they’re middle of the line and wants to feel like the quintessential underdog that the ‘battler’ mythos would have us believe. In fact, ‘the majority of top earners in Australia consider themselves to be middle or lower class, despite having a household income of $200,000 or more.’ Your personal circumstances don’t necessarily determine your politics, but it’s enough of a structural trend that otherwise professional people still end up reinforcing the hierarchy.
It was hard to know how to move between worlds as the first person in my family to go to university, with no script or existential gameplan to make it work—for that matter I don’t think I met a proper ‘journalist’ or politician until I was in my early 20s, nor did I know that working in the arts was even something people could properly aspire to. There’s a lot of social minutiae that goes unnoticed if you haven’t been habituated for these environments and know the rules. That knowledge was not imparted on to me by proxy or by role models within my immediate world. Class is not some static identifier of personal experience, nor it is easily quantified as one simple social, cultural or economic marker—it’s not an ‘identity.’ I’m hesitant to spin this into oppression Olympics as often happens when working with clueless editors who, fittingly to this article, come from the backgrounds I’m talking about. Of course, you can’t use social capital to pay your rent. But it absolutely structures the scope of your worldview and of what’s available to you, your ability to pass through doors, to have time to be involved in stupol and local politics, to feel sustainably aspirational, to be afforded jobs and entry to certain communities, to score internships and to devote time to ‘networking’ (or to even get invited to those events in the first place), to blend in amongst the assemblies and know the hot topics, to pander to the fixed imaginations of potential peers and editors and employers, to become attractive based on those infinitesimal details that bourgeois society prioritises. Rebecca Varcoe touches upon this (albeit mostly writing about the arts generally) in a piece for Junkee:
Yeah I studied ART at university, I’m clearly not poor. But I also didn’t feel comfortable once I was in that degree. I knew I was creative, I knew I wanted to make stuff. I knew art was important and beautiful and worth pursuing. But I was baffled by how few of my peers had casual jobs while studying. I was shocked to discover how few had gone to public school….I often say that my opinion is not worth quite as much as others; I’m not poor, I’m white, I live in Australia. But I’ve found this isn’t true across the board. I’ve met so many university-educated, inner-city dwelling people who’ve often never had to work long hours on their feet in a menial job who feel very confident in their ability to opine, to run organisations, to influence the culture—a culture that is meant to be accessible.
It’s not even just about diversifying newsrooms, which feels like a vague call to arms that mostly serves as a pat-on-the back and sounds like assimilation, but also about pushing for diversifying styles and strands of reporting, valuing different types of intelligence that allow for story-telling that is multiplicitous and doesn’t rely on the erasure of the writer’s cultural background and accompanying communication style. Otherwise all we’re aspiring to do is, as Eda writes in ‘Second City’ for the Sydney Review of Books, ‘to create more members of the middle class, piled on top of others less privileged. However, to raise the class status of an entire class is to abolish class.’
Earlier in the piece, Gunaydin reflects:
After my fourth month as a Parramatta arts worker it was difficult to avoid the reality that, for the most part, the individuals who were finding our public events and opportunities were not those I had imagined. A great many already possessed certain resources. Free time. An a priori level of wealth which made them entertain the idea that they could legitimately pursue writing for themselves or their children. The knowledge of how to look these things up; or the sense of possibility required to believe that there was anything to look up.
Are there actually any journalists in Australia that don’t write about politics in a desperately highfalutin way that presumes 15+ years of prior knowledge and university education? It’s hard to find immediate examples of this in Australia, outside of positive experiences I’ve had reading work by Gina Rushton, Chelsea Bond, Anna Krien, and Amy McQuire, but international evidence exists. Rukmini Callinachi’s Caliphate—and its huge success—is proof that there is demand for storytelling that doesn’t require the writer to totally step outside their subjectivity or background, and can this can still be done with professionalism and appropriate flair. Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades, an account of her time following Maoists in the Indian forests as they resisted the pursuit of the state, feels like one of the few ‘political’ texts that I’ve been able to connect to. Each player is named and fleshed out in their fullness, allowed at least a sense of agency over how their story will be told, contextualised and conveyed with thought and emotion. To tell people’s stories is an immense privilege. At a recent talk at the Sydney Opera House, former war reporter Carolin Emcke spoke about entering conflict zones, noting that one common response amongst all the people she interviewed was an insistence to tell their story, to make sure it got out into the world—she was never asked for money, advice, or assistance in any other capacity. I don’t think it’s as earth-shatteringly revolutionary as we might sometimes make it out to be, but journalists absolutely do have the power to convey what is fundamental about human difference and struggle. It’s a shame that many of our journos don’t have the range.
Think about how the Australian media class could barely contain their excitement at the thought of someone like Peter Dutton as PM, quaking with joy thinking of all the poorly written afternoon skits they’d expose us to as PD continued to send some of our most vulnerable to an early grave. The detachment is real, and material realities are only ever spoken of in hypotheticals (my well-being suddenly improved once I unfollowed journos/meme-like accounts that purely post the kind of niche NSW politics content that assumes a universal lived experience). People will tweet up a firestorm about one potential Greens seat in Melbourne rather than think about things interstate. Often I feel like I missed the memo, that years and years of teaching myself and improving my literacy and learning to speak more articulately is nothing in the face of civility/respectability politics. Even if my technical knowledge of lobbying/ballots/campaigning is limited, I also feel that it’s important to identify the workings of ‘politics’ outside of a parliamentary context, through the interpersonal and in the dailiness of our lives, in our communities and in our unions and workplaces. Often, this is more reflective of how regional voters interact with politics—thinking about how involved council people are in their communities and what they’re doing to keep their towns healthy, on the issues affecting their livelihoods and their work, rather than operating on a purely ideological or partisan/tribalistic basis.
Our mission should absolutely be to make political science less esoteric, Canberra-centric and to create space for those to learn the vocabulary—but we can equally strive to understand dialects from outside our own backyards. In the meantime, I’m happy to swallow the residual shame and speak intermittently from the fringes, knowing that the last thing we need is more of the same. It’s deliriously naive to even think that schools of literature, media, and politics in this country aren’t built on a type of nepotism that excludes and artfully ignores the material conditions and testimonies from those outside their bubbles. Perhaps they can’t speak objectively enough, don’t know the right politenesses, haven’t read the right authors or attended the same lecture theatres. The private school to university/stupol/media room pipeline is constructed so rigorously that it’s a miracle that anyone from a working-class background even comes close. Even once we’ve made the right sacrifices, toiled and hustled and moved interstate to join the rabble after years of research and long distance imagining, we experience profound alienation when we realise our peers have never been expected to glance out the sides of their windows at all. It can be a small comfort to sit in solidarity with those like us, when we learn to identify them and draw parallels.
Given all this, it’s not a surprise that neither the leader of the ‘party of the workers’ nor the majority of the media class are unaware that people on minimum wage in Australia are unable to save anything from paycheck to paycheck. The problematic nature of this elitism is identified by a number of different tenets, but can even be simplified down to even language and tone. Journalist Eliza Barr touches on this:
When I worked in community news in literally Sydney’s poorest region—the state’s fourth poorest region after Brewarrina, Central Darling and Walgett—sometimes my editor told me I had to be less mad. Less mad about social inequality, less mad about economic disadvantage….The idea is you need to celebrate what’s good about those regions too—everything they can be proud of. But sometimes you have to be mad. Because Fairfield is less than 35km from the city and it’s still invisible to people who think you have savings if you earn minimum wage.
Emma Alberici’s tweet struck a chord not just because of its flippancy, but more for what it represented as an entire country, and industry: that professionals who report on, and affect policy of those who are marginalised, are given the reins to weigh in on an experience they will never understand and consistently misrepresent, believing that academic rigorousness is the same as emotional intelligence. Although it was quoting a politician, its repetition seems blithely disconnected from the fact that almost all people on minimum wage have very little ‘savings’ at all—it turns out ‘budgeting’ means nothing if the costs of living continue to rise and your pay stays abysmally low. Journalism and politics clearly cannot continue to rely on a one-size-fits all model to their structures, they must open up the doors to styles and communication that are prioritise the styles of those from outside cultural hubs, who aren’t accustomed to hyper-specific language and experience. My politics sometimes seem anarchic and I try to restrain myself from yelling about a complete dissolution/reconstruction/decolonisation—there are more than one ways to slice an apple, I think. Newer styles of journalism do try to move past these traditional models, slowly teasing out the accessibility of the ‘I’. But the reality is that this kind of memoir-ish reporting, and comment writing generally, while being an effective entry point, is disregarded and mostly mocked.
Maybe to the displeasure of the reader, I’ve been bitching about similar issues for years—although the Melbourne voice I identified in that piece might be more accurately renamed to the Canberra bubble. I also believe Karen Ross’s piece for The Conversation touches on this, as does Emmett Stinson’s piece ‘Bad Readers’—an excellent primer on the way regional students engage with politics and social issues on their own terms. He writes:
Before leaving a Group of Eight university for a regional one, several friends and colleagues warned me to prepare for a drop-off in the quality of students. The implication was also that my teaching would be less rewarding, that I would spend all of my time dealing with repetitive problems, rather than more intellectually stimulating issues. But this is not at all what I experienced. Rather, I found that my students were capable of the same level of complex thought and analysis. Where they tended to fall down was in their ‘linguistic capital’: their writing and speaking were not habituated to the formal modes of presentation required for tertiary study. It was not that they lacked the capacity for intellectual thought. Rather, they had never been taught the niceties of formal communication within a bourgeois institution.
I think it helps to keep screaming into the void and mentioning this in order to deepen the discussion or to quell this pernicious myth of meritocracy—and also to serve as a call to arms for those struggling to articulate their experiences from outside (or inside) these newsrooms. We need to hear these stories, need those skills and insights to serve us in a democratic society.
Jonno Revanche is a writer based in Sydney and Adelaide on Gadigal/Kaurna land. They are interested in exploring the residue of ephemeral subcultures and geographical, psychological, emotional experiences from beyond the margins.
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