Listening to Poor People 'Offstage'

I have a neighbor who has a little maxim he uses to explain much of what he sees on the news or reads about in the local paper. "Rich folks are stupid," he says to me when a millionaire files for bankruptcy or a politician gets caught embezzling money. That pretty much explains things for my neighbor. He usually doesn't say much more. If power corrupts, he figures, then money makes people stupid.

Of course, he doesn't talk that way to rich folks. He's good at knowing when to smile and when to compliment someone in power. He has made his living in service jobs. But working at restaurants and fancy hotels has only given him more evidence for his main conviction about money. Rich people are stupid because they can't begin to make a dollar go as far as his single mother could, who raised five kids doing domestic work. What's more, rich folks think a waiter is their friend when he says, "Yes, Sir" and "Sure is a nice day, ain't it?"

Anthropologist James C. Scott says that there's a difference between the way poor people talk "onstage" and "offstage." Studying forms of everyday resistance among peasants in a small Malaysian village, he noticed how the poor and weak were good at acting like they recognized the authority of the ruling elite in public. "Onstage" they almost always gave the impression of complying with a social order in which they suffered injustice. "Offstage," however, when no one in authority was around, peasants mocked the system through gossip, slander, stealing, dragging their feet, and sabotaging their masters' plans.

"It is my guess," Scott writes, "that just such kinds of resistance are often the most significant and the most effective over the long run

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