26 Feb 2011

Chavs: Scum or Scapegoats?

Nothing to do with food or wine this, just something interesting I've noticed lately - how the word chav has increasingly entered common speech. Not just among schoolkids, but among adults who put themselves across as otherwise intelligent, broad-minded people. It's used on social media, in blogs, on twitter. And I wondered, why is there something about the word that doesn't sit quite right? When someone who's quite well-off uses the word, why does it seem just a bit unpleasant? Is it an acceptable word to use or not? Is it just harmless snobbery, if there is such a thing, or is it something more nasty? And then I noticed there's a book coming out later this year entitled 'Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class'. So, is chav-bashing the demonisation of the working class?

The joke seems to be: chavs are unemployed, or at least poor, lacking in class, and they all dress the same, and eat and drink the same things (as if the middle classes don't); they don't have much money or taste. That seems to be the joke. You read stuff on twitter along the lines of, "Ha ha, I just saw someone in a tracksuit who hasn't got a job like I've got, they don't do the civilised things I do, what a loser." The Top Gear school of satire.

Maybe using the word is a bit of a giveaway of your own politics. You're skating over the fact that the person in the tracksuit might not have enjoyed the same upbringing, the same life chances, you had. An insult for our 1980s-style times. Previously it was the Irish, blacks, gays, more recently asylum seekers and Muslims, now it's chavs.

Perhaps when we hear the word chav in 20 years' time, we might cringe a bit, like when we see a clip from a 1970s sitcom and the middle class characters are spouting casual racism about their next-door neighbours.

Or is it not so bad? Is it a harmless nickname for people who are lazy, antisocial, aggressive, uncivilised? Perhaps also it depends how you use the word?

But even if you say you're using the word against a certain type of person who doesn't work and doesn't apparently contribute much to society – isn't that still a bit nasty? Are you naturally morally superior to them? If you'd had their opportunities, their school life, been born to their parents, had their home life, done their jobs… who would you be?


  1. Simon, I detest the word chav. It depresses me hugely to hear it used in a way that oozes judgmental smugness. 'The Top Gear school of satire' indeed — a phrase I'll remember and probably shamelessly steal.

    Any kind of dismissive, catch-all term like chav is deeply lazy and cowardly, because it is a way of avoiding a difficult reality: that these are people, individuals.

    Really good piece. Thanks.

  2. Tom,

    Many thanks for the comment. In a couple of sentences you make *the* vital point that I labour over half-a-dozen paragraphs. These are people, individuals.