Living In A Box



You can have your genetic code analysed to find out where you’re from, but it can’t tell you who you are.

I recently had dinner with some very nice social-data analysts, who told me that statistically I was an outlier who didn’t fit their paradigms. The press is full of data telling us about how we vote, how long we live and so on, but if you throw the system off it ceases to recognise you, and people like me appear to ‘live outside the box’.

Which puzzles me. Remember being at school and discovering you had to get picked for a side? Side-choosing stays with you all your life. According to the analysts the new political sides are liberal VS conservative, college VS school, rich VS poor and old VS young, and being on any one of those sides aligns you up with several others. Yesterday a UK data study found schoolchildren becoming ‘high rejectors’ ie. markedly less liberal about social attitudes, and that it coincides with the rise of Trump, especially among those with poor education. So one particular side emerges; poor+young+school+conservative, the very equation that used to create socialists. For decades that was the Daily Mirror’s target readership.

I grew up middle-class (broke white collar parents who owned their own house) in a conservative family, but I was gay and therefore automatically liberal, having seen what happens to people like me in repressive countries. I became a writer and ran a company with a published code of ethics, more layers of liberalism. Writers are treated warily by the authorities. Countries fear you’ll say something bad about them, so I usually omit ‘writer’ on customs forms. I doubt I can go back to Dubai after writing ‘The Sand Men’ – not that I’d want to. My occupation heavily affects my insurance premiums.

The analysts felt that other circumstances preselected my side; our family was neither rich nor poor, but my mother always had two jobs. My school was neither state nor private; London’s guild schools were public and independent until Mrs Thatcher privatised them, eventually stopping boys like me from admittance. I did not take a gap year and started work immediately, remaining in employment to the present day, and I’m a baby-boomer, so all this should push me toward conservatism, but it hasn’t. I remain a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. That confused my dinner guests.

When you break it down like a charge sheet, you start to wonder just how much you manage to choose for yourself. Clearly what set me on a course that confounds people to this day was my choice of occupation. But you need the opportunity to be able to make the choice, and that door is closing.

Now that Priti Patel and her gang of unprincipled street thugs are proudly killing free movement, the young will find their choices curtailed. All across Europe I meet young people who speak several languages, have degrees in different countries from where they were born or where they live now, who marry and have children with others across these borders, who have portfolio jobs and even commute between countries.

This must not be the last generation who can live outside of those boxes.


15 comments on “Living In A Box”

  1. John Howard says:

    With that little list in para 3 if you substitute college VS school for male education VS no female education we could be in the 18th century
    I identify with the family set up as mine was very similar. My mother, when we were in England, only had 1 job though so that they could afford to send my brother and 1 on the school foreign trips. The irony there being that every 2/3 years we lived in Malta or Gibraltar for 3 years as my dad worked in the Dockyards so by the time I was 17 I had lived in the Mediterranean for 10 years at various times.
    My kids have had the luck to be able to globe trot as they wished, some taking to it more than others. It’s my grandchildren I feel for and I am quietly, apart from this post, proud of my very conservative mother having the foresight to vote leave because of ALL the youngsters and what they will be losing.

  2. John Griffin says:

    Algorithms are like millenarian predictions, they are bound to be right sometimes. With my generation, and the next, you just needed to know what newspaper they read.
    As a semi-retired bloke teaching 16-19 year-olds I am exposed to their views. Almost all in 3 schools I have taught since 2010 (as cover or permanent part-time), the students complain they have never been taught anything about the society they live in, and virtually none follow current affairs – but many have views on immigration (from where…..”don’t know”) and Strictly Come Dancing/Love Island etc. Almost none are interested in knowledge for its own sake. They don’t follow the news.
    The one exception was a state grammar with 40% West Mids Asian, where students were up on current affairs, where school was a step to a glittering career in medicine etc, and many were already very ‘conservative’. Even the business/economics teacher found them “to the right of Genghis Khan”.
    What was the distinguishing feature for the algorithm? Social class and/or self perceived status in the main.

  3. Brooke says:

    As Jessye Norman said, ““Pigeonholes are only comfortable for pigeons.” Or their keepers. Your data analysts may be “nice,” but I’m horrified by minds that make a living categorizing other people. To what purpose other than manipulation?

    Speaking of Norman, child of 1940 segregated U.S. South, youngs, especially those with talent, will find a way forward.

  4. David Ronaldson says:

    People are harder to categorise than ever. At one time, Money, Social Class and Education were pretty linear. Now we have the rich and gormless TOWIE brigade and genteel but boracic bookshop owners. As a 6’4″ former Rugby player and yet writer of poetry, a former Whitehall Civil Servant and yet staunch Trade Unionist, an outwardly confident classic introvert, I enjoy being hard to pigeonhole and annoying at least 50% of my diverse group of friends which each social media post. My Son is developing in a similarly disparate fashion and I hope borders aren’t closed to him.

  5. Andrew Holme says:

    I think your teenage years are the time to try and find yourself. Am I with the crowd, against the crowd, or different from the crowd. Like John G. I work in a Secondary School, and I reconise the apparant apathy concerning current affairs, ( if I had one wish it would be to get every teenager to read a decent newspaper of whatever hue), but I also see fierce arguments during our 6th Form debates. I see two Yr.8 girls writing a polemic called ‘What Two Girls Think’, that we published as a book. I hope when our students leave that they represent the rich diversity of class/ race/ sexuality and thought. Finally, ‘Strictly’ is great this year!

  6. admin says:

    I read about a famous African-American classical pianist who was also a body-builder because it gave him greater manual dexterity for difficult pieces. He said people regularly assumed he’d been in jail!

    RIP Jessye Norman, whom I once had the pleasure of meeting. She used to give her builder/decorator tickets for her operas.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    I’d take it as a compliment to be called an ‘Outlier who doesn’t fit our paradigms’. For years, I have refused to do surveys, as the answers I give are not going to tally with the answers they want. I have never been a ‘sheep’, and have never been swayed by peer pressure. I have a couple of good friends, whom I have known for many years, and both are ‘Outliers who don’t fit paradigms’ I think I’d hate to fit the paradigm of anyone who pigeonholes people in such a way. It’s the sort of thing that my late father would say was the talk of someone who has never done a proper day’s work in their life. And he’d be perfectly correct.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Oh, and I’m completely non-competitive, and was never bothered what side I was picked for. There are two things in life that I have neither time for, or interest in: Religion and Sport. Had I to pick one or die, it would be religion, simply because of it’s antiquity. Sport is simply people showing off, or running about after kid’s toys, as far as I’m concerned. How big a dislike? – I never saw one second of the 2012 Olympics. Throw me in the Tower now.

  9. Jan says:

    Wots a PARADIGM then?

    Can you get an ointment for it?

  10. Roger says:

    it isn’t just a matter of paradigms. As a teenager in the 1960s I was a libertarian one-nation Tory and was despised as right-wing by most of my coevals. Now I hold much the same views I did then and I’m regarded as a dangerous leftie by the same peopleor others like them.

  11. Brooke says:

    A-A classical pianist… I think you mean Leon Bates who lives here (in Philadelphia)?

  12. eggsy says:

    In contrast to Ian, I like messing with surveys and other data analysts – I normally select “other”. Please make sure your search history contains at least one thing entirely random, every time.
    Data analysis can be a useful tool, but when you hear stories of people being bombarded with sofa adverts after buying a sofa, you do wonder who is applying that tool, and if they’re holding it the right way up.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Unwanted adverts are a pain in the arse. Earlier this week, I helped out an older lady who had a bad fall. As I used my phone to call an ambulance, and let her use it to call her husband, waiting with her after the paramedic had checked her over (she had obviously broken her nose, and possibly injured her shoulder), seeing she got into the ambulance, I went on my way. Hadn’t gone fifty yards, when adverts for businesses near where the poor lady had fallen over, popped up on my phone. Some had questionnaires on them, and I sent the ones that didn’t, to ‘File 13’, from whose bourne no message is ever retrieved. The questionnaires were just answered with:
    “Helping an elderly lady who had had a bad fall.” I’ve not heard back from any of them. Good.

  14. J. Clarke says:

    Interesting comments on paradigms. I wonder where I would fit. Whenever someone stops me, or phones me for a survey they decide my group has already been ‘done’. Questionnaires through the post are fun – one can say anything, and the junk mail gets interesting for a while. My parents were poor, and my mother cleaned other people’s houses so we three children could stay at school (meant I got to see how the other half lived!) – they got two of us to university and one into a skilled trade. They produced two writers, and three socialists who believe in the Union (and unions) and also voted to leave the EU, for the sake of their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. All three of us have been artists, interested in history, antiques and philosophy – and religion. Voting to leave the EU was a socialist decision. We believe in the right of ordinary people to make politicians accountable, and that cannot happen if decisions are made in supranational meetings that electorates do not have access to and cannot dismiss. Free movement of labour doesn’t wow us because we see it for what it is, a process to save money on training in richer countries of the EU, and lower the wage and rights base for people across the EU – very few get to study abroad, and they come from the well-off, not people whose parents do shifts in Tesco, or, indeed, run their own small plumbing business. The press occasionally calls Leavers like us Lexiteers. Elsewhere they are the gilets jaune, among others.
    But how much of what we became politically and socially, is based on nurture is very difficult to work out. Researching family history we found cabinet makers,dairy operators in Dublin, a quite famous Victorian artist and a writer who made herself very unpopular with Mormons in the nineteenth century USA, outing the real way that polygamy worked out for women. We also found a family that travelled all over Britain and into France – bucking the geneologists’ contention that people did not move about much in the past: in our experience they were running all over the place.
    DNA and ancestral memory have as much to do with making people outliers as how they were brought up or where they went to school – I went to a secondary modern, my siblings went to grammar school, the difference seems to be based on sex (sorry, gender is for nouns), with different pass marks in the London borough we lived in. From that secondary modern I went to university. I have meandered off my point, but paradigms are averages, boxes for advertisers and civil servants to use, they are not real, and they do not define real people.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    J. Clark, that was an extremely interesting post. I will come back and read it again to remind myself of the variety of opinions that there is on every issue.

Comments are closed.