Boy, I tell you, I was steamed by the malicious reaction yesterday to the sandwich shop anecdote in David Brooks’s column yesterday. The column was about the role cultural norms play in perpetuating inequality. His point was that the educated classes, perhaps unintentionally, have set up invisible but real barriers to keeping out the working class and the poor, through cultural codes. Here’s the anecdote that earned him such unfair criticism:

I was braced by Reeves’s book, but after speaking with him a few times about it, I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

That story earned Brooks a tidal wave of contempt. Alan Jacobs, though, gets it right:

You learn a lot about people by noting what trivial things they obsess over, and today’s David Brooks column is a perfect example. Let me be really clear about this: people are freaking out about The Sandwich Bar Anecdote for one major reason, which is that they know the rest of the column is dead-on accurate and they’d prefer not to think about what it tells us about our social order.

Absolutely. I wonder to what extent the people making fun of Brooks are what Chris Arnade calls “front row kids”: people who cannot imagine what it feels like to be the kind of person who walks into a sandwich shop and feels like you don’t belong there because of the menu. A few years back, the Baton Rouge Advocate did a series about chronic poverty in north Baton Rouge, which is predominantly black, and suffers from lots of crime. One person who works with youth there told the newspaper that those inner-city kids suffer from a devastating poverty of imagination as well. Most of them had never been outside of their north Baton Rouge neighborhoods, and didn’t know what life was like elsewhere. If I recall the story correctly, the woman interviewed made the point that these kids were so culturally deprived that they couldn’t imagine that there was any other way to live.

That stunned me. Baton Rouge is not a big city. I would have easily been able to grasp that these poor kids had not been to the symphony, or to a fancy restaurant in south Baton Rouge. But the idea that they had never left their neighborhood — honestly, it would not have occurred to me in a million years, any more than it occurred to David Brooks that his lunch guest with only a high school education would be unnerved by unfamiliar cold cuts. I’ve been trying to find that Advocate story online, but I can’t remember enough key words to search effectively, so I caution you that I might have some details wrong. I recall the interviewee saying that this poverty of imagination means that most of these kids will grow up to be adults who can’t function outside of their neighborhoods, because they don’t know the basic social codes required to navigate successfully outside.

How does one even begin to address that? I’m not sure, but this has to be part of any effective overall strategy for lifting people out of poverty.

This is not simply a matter of the well-off building cultural barriers that keep others out. These barriers exist in every human society, no matter what the income level, and cannot be fully eradicated. I think what Brooks is getting at is a need to be aware of these things, and to work to lower them. Someone who is unnerved by an Italian sandwich shop because it’s unfamiliar is someone who lacks the disposition and social skills to be professionally mobile. That is to say, there’s nothing wrong with not knowing the types of Italian cold cuts. The problem is being made so anxious by that fact that you have to leave the restaurant, because you feel that you don’t belong there. That sandwich shop is surely not the only place that woman felt was off-limits to her. Helping people like her overcome this crippling problem is not a matter of drilling them on the names of Italian sausages.

But you have to want to learn. This is hard for a lot of people to do, because they feel that their own identity is at risk. My late sister would criticize me for my tastes in food and travel, accusing me of being a phony because I didn’t share the tastes we were raised with. For example, I couldn’t be drinking imported beer because I liked the taste. In her mind, I could only be drinking it because I wanted to put on airs. This kind of thing ran very deep in the culture of my family, and ultimately broke us. In his blog post, Alan Jacobs tells a story about sending his working-class Alabama folks a nice fruit-and-cheese basket from Harry & David’s for Christmas one year. When he got home, he found the basket in a corner. Even though his folks liked fruit and cheese, they felt he was putting on airs by sending them that fancy basket. They rejected his gift as an insult.

As Alan mused in conversation last night, tribal and cultural identities can be so strong in people that they cancel out every other value. In this space before, I’ve mentioned an astrophysics PhD student I once met at the University of Cambridge. She came from a coal miner’s family. I told her that her family must be so proud of her accomplishment. No, she said, suddenly feeling downcast. They are ashamed of it, because they see it as my betraying them.

Prior to that, I could not have imagined being ashamed of your child because she is pursuing her PhD in  a scientific field at one of the greatest universities in the world. But if you live long enough, you’ll see that people are often willing to accept and inflict no end of suffering and destruction (including self-destruction) for the sake of defending their cultural identity. It’s all about pride.

UPDATE: Let me say point-blank: if you think the sandwich shop anecdote is about sandwich shops or David Brooks’s manners, you are completely missing the point.