George Orwell’s – “The Lower Classes smell”

One of our readings for this week was George Orwell’s The Lower Classes Smell From his book The Road to Wigam Pier. It is fascinating discussion and reflection on the human desire to be superior and how we are capable of constructing a harmful perception of our fellow human beings based on something simple like smell, and how those simplistic ideas are often more harmful than other more abstract ideas like laziness or stupidity.

Orwell identifies a few key social conditions and constructions that serve to drive classism and caste like systems in social structures and communities.

The first is that these class structures are seldom overt and are often only vaguely defined, identifed more by practices, reactions, and motiviations than by hard and fast rules.

The second is the drive to feel superior to others. This can be seen in the following quote about the motivations of people who moved from England to India during the colonial period.

“The people who went there as soldiers and officials did not go there to make money, for a soldier or an official does not make money; they went there because in India, with cheap horses, free shooting, and hordes of black servants, it was so easy to play at being a gentleman.” (Orwell, 1958, page 298)

This is perhaps an inborn, but more likely socially constructed need to feel that your life is not as bad as it could be. It is often helpful in this vein to find people whose life is worse who have a lower standing that can help you feel like you have achieved something and have power.

Orwell implies that the colonization of India by the middle and upper middle class was partially driven by a desire to have the lives of privilege that they could not have in their home country.

He continues later in the article to articulate the true simplistic nature of class or caste barriers and their social construction and the relationship between scent and superiority. It starts with the stories and lies that we tell ourselves and our children that change how people are perceived. For Orwell it started with four simple words “The lower classes smell”

“it may not greatly matter if the average middle-class person is brought up to believe that the working classes are ignorant, lazy, drunken, boorish, and dishonest; it is when he is brought up to believe that they are dirty that the harm is done. And in my childhood we were brought up to believe they were dirty. Very early in life you acquired the idea that there was something subtly repulsive about a working-class body;” (Orwell, 1958)

These constructions of value, or lack of value, contribute to a degraded perception that can trigger on physical revulsion, and these types of responses are incredibly difficult to reconstruct into healthy, positive attitudes and perceptions of a persons value.

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