A Market Model of Human Personality 3: Classism

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Baron-Cohen pages on this site:
The Essential Difference (2003):

The Essential DifferenceSummaryCommentsClassismFive Brain Types

This page is about the market model of personality already referred to on earlier pages. In particular, it is about classism in Simon Baron-Cohen's recent book, The Essential Difference.

This leading autism specialist, a Cambridge psychology professor, offers a normative approach to personality based on contemporary professional middle class conformism. It is something that anybody who is concerned for the path our society is taking should be looking at, given the influence that people like the professor wield.

There are two sorts of problems with the Baron-Cohen approach. Firstly, there is the unquestioned assumption that traditional middle class conformism in its twenty-first century incarnation is the normal human behaviour that everybody either already experiences or should aspire to. Secondly, there is matter of the point at which departure from this norm becomes shall we say clinical. I propose to take these matters a bit at a time, starting on this page with classism.

Classism in Baron-Cohen

Early in The Essential Difference, the author declares:

Stereotyping ... is pernicious. We must recognise it as such in the context of racism, sexism, ageism and classism. [p 9].

However, from cover to cover, the book shows almost no awareness that any class exists, other than the professional middle class.

There is the same feeling of unreality in the book as in those 1930s and 1940s British films in which the working class characters are played by ex public school boys, who say ruddy all the time: for instance, in all those war films which lead you to suppose that all the Battle of Britain pilots were from public schools, when most were not.

University maths

Thus here is a warning against sexist stereotyping:

don't assume that a young woman won't survive the university maths course she has applied for. [p 12]

This example would be fine if, as the book progressed, an awareness was shown of the lives of all those young women who do not get A levels and go to university. But that is not the case.

A few lines later, exemplifying things women do better, we have

Hosting a large party tactfully, making everyone feel included, is just one example of something many men may shy away from. [p 12]

For most British women, this must be totally unreal: part of a Ferrero Rocher dream world they might aspire to only if they won the National Lottery. The majority of men are never going to shy away from hosting a large party, because it's not going to be something they will ever be faced with.

Supper with friends

Here's another from the same page - I just can't resist it:

Those with the female brain prefer to spend their time engaged in coffee mornings or having supper with friends. [p 12]

This kind of thing puts me in mind of Beyond the Fringe and the like: the courtroom sketches with judges rightly being derided for being out of touch with the reality of the lives of ordinary defendants. Just what proportion of women

spend their time engaged in coffee mornings or having supper with friends?

Our nanny

Baron-Cohen's whole short second chapter is a set piece in which a mother describes what interested her son and daughter at various stages as they grew up. This is about how boys and girls seem to differ naturally in their interests as they develop. Commenting on her son's early fascination with toy vehicles, which she can't explain, the mother remarks:

And our nanny was one of the those gentle people who thought cars were the source of the world's problems. [p 15]

The author is presumably oblivious to how patronising that remark sounds. But more importantly, we need to get a grip and ask ourselves how representative of normal child development are children who have had a nanny, whose mothers could afford a nanny, rather than looking after them themselves or having them looked after by granny or by a childminder, say.

Summer camp

In a second major set piece, the author reports on an anthropologist's survey of the behaviour of adolescents at summer camp, presumably in the USA, contrasting the behaviour of boys and girls. I'm guessing that only affluent Americans send their offspring to summer camp, the same way the affluent British send theirs to boarding school. The aim in both cases is presumably partly to develop the teenagers' personalities.

This consideration alone means that the individuals concerned must be essentially atypical. In so far as you are not just being packed off out of the way, meaning your parents don't care for you all that much, you are being sent to summer camp to have your middle class claws sharpened, to increase your prospects of success in the corporate or other jungle that will be your adult life. One way or another, the experience will make you different from the mass of other people in your age group: that's its whole point.

Covent Garden

A bit later, to illustrate female empathising, Baron-Cohen imagines one woman telling another about a new dress shop she's found: in Covent Garden. Now correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't this belong to the world of women with nannies, coffee mornings and supper with friends, rather than that of at least 95% of the female population.

A world class mathematician

The third of the set pieces in the book is Baron-Cohen's work with a fellow Cambridge professor, Richard Borcherds, a mathematician who has the equivalent of a Nobel Prize, work to see whether the professor has Asperger's syndrome. The point here is not the diagnosis, but simply the author's choice of case to feature in his book. It is just another instance of the author's unrelenting focus on the professional middle class.

Now it may be that, because his clinic is associated with Cambridge University, Baron-Cohen's own case histories mainly involve the professional middle class. But he has no warrant to assume that he can offer valid generalisations about the human personality on the basis of such atypical evidence.

There are no other extended examples other than the three set pieces I have indicated. It's the affluent middle class all the way.

Just call the mechanic

My final example of the author's classism occurs in his discussion of the theoretical existence of an extreme female brain type. Baron-Cohen remarks:

If you were a systemblind adult and your car didn't work, you could just call the mechanic. [p 171]

This is particularly mind-boggling to me. There is, firstly, the bland assumption in the word just that when your car breaks down, you will necessarily have a mechanic on standby. For the majority of motorists this must surely in practice be unreal. [1]

But there is also the use of the mechanic, when most people would say a mechanic. This is especially indicative of the traditional middle class. I am reminded of the way middle class women say I know a little man, referring to people like plumbers. As in the Oscar winner's I want to thank all the little people, they don't mean little physically, but socio-economically: it's a message they are putting out about their own social status.

While on the subject of class, let's note one of the author's reasons for considering Michael Ventris as a candidate for AS. This is the co-decipherer of Linear B's aloofness: he had his children living downstairs while he and his wife lived upstairs. But surely, that is just a variant on the English upper class tradition of keeping the children out of the way upstairs with nannies, before packing them off to boarding school. We might question how far Ventris's aloofness differed from upper class male aloofness generally.


1 An impossible situation

In Baron-Cohen's own terms this situation is impossible. His systemblindness is an extreme lack of ability to deal with systems of various kinds. The way he has defined systems earlier in the book means that anybody who couldn't handle them, wouldn't be able to drive a car in the first place, never mind not fix it. [Back to Article]


(c) John C Durham, 2003

Baron-Cohen pages on this site:
The Essential Difference (2003):

The Essential DifferenceSummaryCommentsClassismFive Brain Types