We live in an era of “don’t judge me.” The people who used to be considered deviant are the ones we now celebrate and make famous. Look at shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, 16 and Pregnant, My Strange Addiction, Jersey Shore, and their ilk. That’s not to say those shows aren’t entertaining — they certainly are. But never before has poor decision-making been so celebrated in this country.
This development is unique to our generation. Tupac once sang “Only God Can Judge Me”; now we’ve got Ke$ha singing “We R Who We R,” and Chris Brown singing “Don’t Judge Me.” For Brown, it seems to have worked. If we as a society had “judged” him for physically attacking his then-girlfriend Rihanna, he would no longer have a music career to speak of. Perhaps that would have been the just thing for us as a society to do.
In the 1990s, Jerry Springer made millions exploiting people on daytime television. He used his guests — who were almost always poor — as his personal ATM. It took us until 2013 to find a name for this weird brand of entertainment: rednecksploitation.
Reality television went from aspirational, if overdramatized — “I wish I looked like Jessica Simpson, or was as tough as those people on Survivor, or had the life of luxury I see on The Hills“ — to a a pitiable freak show — “At least my room isn’t as messy as those people on Hoarders. At least I’m not using ketchup instead of spaghetti sauce, like Honey Boo Boo’s family. At least I’m not as drunk and reckless as Snooki.” Our culture is now seeking out and celebrating the very people that, 20 years ago, it would have shamed.
Shame is no longer a deterrent to deviant behavior. Deviant behavior is a marker of individuality in most cases, and a moneymaker in the most exceptional cases. Differentiating between right and wrong is now “judgemental,” and judgemental — in the eyes of good progressives everywhere — is wrong. It is not wrong to want people to do the right thing. It is not wrong to want the best for other people. It is not wrong to want to see others making the best choices for themselves.
In her book, When Did White Trash Become the New Normal?: A Southern Lady Asks the Impertinent Question, author Charlotte Hays decries what she views as American economic and cultural decay. Part of what she rails against is generational. Tattoos, for instance, are markers of deviance to our parents, but are so commonplace among today’s young adults that we hardly notice them. Hays goes on to discuss what she calls “White Trash Money Management.” This is her abrasive term for fiscal irresponsibility, as she explains: “There are, I thus adduce, two keys to not being White Trash: having a job and paying your bills on time. The first is getting more difficult in this economy, but it is still White Trash to go on disability if you aren’t positively unable to lift a finger.” (Going on disability when you’re not disabled is not only tacky — it is fraud.)
In short, Hays wants people to be able to provide for themselves, independent of government assistance, but acknowledges that the current economy makes that difficult for many. The horror! She’s preaching the same self-reliance, independence, and responsibility advocated by such extremists such as … Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Paine.
Had Hays’ book been published 20 years ago, it most likely would not have been controversial. There was no money to be made in deviance at that point. Playing by the rules was still the best game in town. But last week, Hays’ book was slammed by The Nation as “saturated with right-wing smugness,” calling it a “nasty little book” that displays a right-wing hatred for the poor. The right wing does not hate the poor. The right wing hates poverty. We wish that there was less of it, and are designing free-market policies to help create that change.
This is not to say that conservatism strives towards an army of identical Audrey Hepburn lookalikes. Far from it — conservatism is about individualism. There is a great deal of room for difference within society. It’s when someone willfully chooses not to be a contributing member of society, that a problem arises. You cannot choose to benefit from the positive externalities of living in a society and also choose not to participate in it at all. Note the importance of choice here. If you want to work but can’t find a job, you’re making an effort to be productive. If you’re staying home and collecting checks earned by others, and are content to use them for yourself in perpetuity, that is unfair. And it should not be controversial to say so.
It is not a secret that the wealthy are less likely to be what Hays describes as “white trash.” You’re more likely to learn the difference between a salad fork and a dessert fork if you grow up in a well-off family. There are advantages to wealth. Everyone should have the opportunity to earn those advantages: Every American is entitled to the on-ramp. How you do in traffic is up to you.
It’s easier to move up in the traffic of free enterprise and earn that wealth if you aren’t behaving as the “white trash” that Hays describes. What gets one out of being “white trash” are manners and morals. Manners are free. Morals are, too. In fact, the Judeo-Christian morality on which this country was built originated with and was spread among the poorest of the poor and marginalized over 2,000 years ago. (If only Hays knew that it is not moral — and certainly not polite — to refer to other human beings as “trash,” perhaps she may have written a smarter, kinder, classier book. Bless her heart.)
In a culture of “no judgement,” it becomes taboo to state clearly what is right and what is wrong. It is good — and classy — to be responsible, hard-working, and kind. The role models for that kind of life are becoming fewer and farther between, even though there are infinite ways to be smart, independent, gracious, humble, and compassionate — all very classy traits. Classy comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and income brackets. It’s time we start celebrating classy behavior in all its forms.
Angela Morabito | Georgetown University | @_AngelaMorabito