• The Problems of Class Distinction


    So said Honoré de Balzac, 19th-century French novelist. Do you agree with him? Many instinctively feel that class distinctions are wrong. Yet, even in this 21st century, human society is still divided into numerous social classes.

    CALVIN COOLIDGE, president of the United States from 1923 to 1929, was concerned with the problem of social class distinctions and spoke of “the ultimate extinction of all privileged classes.” Nevertheless, some 40 years after Coolidge’s presidency, the Kerner Commission, appointed to study race relations, expressed fears that the United States would inevitably become two societies: “one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Some claim that this prediction has already come true and that “the economic and racial divide is growing” in that country.

    Why is it so difficult to turn the idea of human equality into a reality? A major factor is human nature. Former U.S. congressman William Randolph Hearst once said: “All men are created equal in one respect, at least, and that is their desire to be unequal.” What did he mean? Perhaps 19th-century French dramatist Henry Becque said it more clearly: “What makes equality such a difficult business is that we only want it with our superiors.” In other words, people want to be equal with those above them on the social scale; but not many would be willing to limit their privileges and advantages by granting equality to those they consider to be below them.

    In past times, people were born as commoners, as part of an aristocracy, or even as members of royalty. That is still true in a few places. However, in most lands today, it is money—or a lack of it—that determines whether someone is of the lower, middle, or upper class. Yet, there are other class indicators, such as race, education, and literacy. And in some places, gender is a major ground for discrimination, with women being viewed as an inferior class.

    Glimmers of Hope?

    Human rights legislation has helped to break down some class barriers. Antisegregation laws were passed in the United States. Apartheid was outlawed in South Africa. Slavery, although still existing, is illegal in much of the world. Legal decisions have forced recognition of the land rights of certain indigenous people, and antidiscrimination laws have provided relief for some disadvantaged classes.

    Does this indicate the end of social class distinctions? Not really. While some social class distinctions may now be weakened, new divisions have begun to appear. The book Class Warfare in the Information Age says: “Generic classes of capitalists and workers seem inappropriate today, but only because these great classes have fragmented into smaller grouplets of angry people.”

    Will social classes forever divide people? Well, as the following article will show, the situation is not hopeless.

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