January 17, 2008

Class differences in bathroom stall graffiti

Civil libertarians are fond of saying things like, "We should judge how well a government treats its citizens by how it treats its prisoners." That case really puts the state to the test. In the same way, we might turn to an institution almost as wretched as prison, namely the public bathroom stall, to learn about the ways of its patrons. I studied at a Fancypants school for undergrad, where most of the students were upper-middle class, whereas I'm at a BigState school for graduate work, where most students are middle or lower-middle class.

Fancypants was a bastion of liberalism, while students are more politically conservative here. The average student at the former had an IQ of about 3 standard deviations above the mean, in contrast to the average IQ here of probably 1 s.d. above the mean. In fact, many of these class differences may just be due to IQ differences. Both schools have low percentages of Black and Hispanic students, though BigState has hardly any.

The first great difference is that there's just a lot more graffiti at BigState. More affluent people sure can pointlessly complain, but they do it in smarmy letters-to-the-editor, not by vandalizing public property. The walls are cleaned up somewhat regularly, but they become immediately covered again within a five to seven days. People lower on the class hierarchy really are more uncivilized on their own turf (although upper-middles tend to be the most vocal for bombing a country into oblivion for no apparent reason). No real surprise here.

More interesting is that there is a far more political streak to graffiti at BigState -- I don't remember much of this at all at Fancypants, where it was devoted more to geeky or ironic indie-rock topics. In particular, there is almost no Marxist-Leninist graffiti here: almost all of the radical Left scrawling is from Left Libertarians. At least that's what I used to call myself when I was one of them during my undergrad years -- other names are anarcho-syndicalist, Left Anarchist, etc. Marxism belongs to the upper-middle class, from whom the intelligentsia is drawn, while Left Libertarianism is more middle or prole.

While that sounds like a compliment to Marxists, their toes curl when you state this truth, since they strive desperately to appear in touch with the working class. I still recall "how prole are you?" contests among the radicals at Fancypants, where we'd talk up whatever working class connections we had. I won just about all of them, since my mother's side of the family hails from hotheaded hillbilly country, well known for labor activism. (Bonus points awarded since it was in more manly industries like coal mines, steel mills, etc., and upper-middle radicals of both sexes get sexually aroused by prole masculinity.) Mind you, neither of my parents had working class jobs, but it was enough to trump the spoiled brats who made up most activist groups.

There is plenty of conservative graffiti here, too, although it is typically counter-graffiti. A soi-disant iconoclast will write something knocking a Republican, and a conservative will respond as though it were a polite debate rather than a shouting contest.

The second-most popular category at BigState consists of ragging on gays, which I saw little of at Fancypants. Liberals really do bring about their own undoing, since by lionizing the common man, the turn a blind eye to his prejudices. I don't mind if someone doesn't like gays, or Blacks, or Whites, or men or women, but tagging a bathroom wall with this stuff is in poor taste. Moreover, most of it, along with the endless drawings of hairy dicks shooting loads into cartoon mouths, just highlights how unlikely many lower-middles are to ever reach maturity.

Finally, I haven't seen any pictures of naked females, female sex organs, or paroxysms of the "Jessica Alba's hot!" type. I remember seeing a couple of those at Fancypants, although again there wasn't a lot to begin with, so my memory may be off. Combine this with the fact that there are almost no jokes to be found among graffiti here, and it's reasonable to conclude that the bathroom stall serves as an arena of intense male-male competition at BigState, while it serves only as a place to relieve yourself and write the occasional pun at Fancypants. Lower-middle class males don't have many dignified ways to compete with each other, but males have to get out their aggression one way or another. As long as it's confined to goofy graffiti, I don't mind -- it could be worse.

Addendum: (Gross-out warning) On the topic of how patrons treat the public bathroom, I have never seen so many toilets stuffed with paper towels, which a janitor has to remove since they can't be flushed. Also, I see at least two or three times a week a toilet where some jackass has left a large gift for the next person. Often it too will be wrapped in paper towels so that it cannot be flushed and must remain there to befoul an already dirty place. I'm starting to wonder if lack of success at anything as adolescents results in lower-middle males not producing some hormone that eventually moves them beyond where they were at 11 years old.

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