Friday, May 16, 2008

Who's an elitist??

It looks like some of my blog friends have decided to gather together and form a Carnival of Elitist Bastards: see here and here.

I completely agree with some of the basic goals of this carnival: Ignorance shouldn't be praised as a virtue. It is a virtue to say "I don't know, but I'm willing to listen and learn," but it isn't a virtue to say "I don't know and I don't care to waste my time learning things I don't already know."

On the other hand, I'm a little leery of accepting the media-and-politicians' newspeaky use of the word "elitism" (even in jest) to mean favoring knowledge-based opinions over ignorant opinions. I think that favoring rich over poor can reasonably be called "elitism" as I've discussed with respect to G. W. Bush in this post. But spreading knowledge and attacking ignorance should be viewed as populism, not elitism. Sure not every single person has access to the Internet or to a public library or has the time to go there. But living in the "Information Age" as we do, tons of information is freely accessible to a greater proportion of the population than ever. Education is the key to making democracy work, it's what helps the little guy to avoid getting stepped on and taken advantage of. It's the "black is white and war is peace" dictionary that allows powerful people to call educators "elitists."

For myself -- as you can see from my post Question Mah Authoritah! I have a strong sentiment of anti-pretentiousness, or at least anti-taking-yourself-too-seriously. This goes hand-in-hand with being willing to seek out informed opinions.

Some people are better than others at various intellectual pursuits or at solving various types of problems. Some people have vastly more knowledge than others on various subjects. Such skills and talents are to be celebrated, praised, and honored. Yet I strongly reject the idea that the pursuit of knowledge it an elitist pursuit. Being open to learning often requires humility.

As I discussed in think for yourself, the Internet helps ordinary people grow in critical thinking skills. I think the people who enjoy the two-way communication of the Internet are probably smarter than the average bear and should be proud of it, but that doesn't mean this is a competition and only the very cleverest commenters are welcome to join in the fun. No one is too dumb to benefit from being exposed to new ideas and new viewpoints. And no one is too smart to benefit from being encouraged to look at familiar questions from new angles, either. This is why I resist embracing elitism. I don't want to dismiss anyone's perspective as irrelevant; I don't want to write off and exclude people -- even those who seem ignorant and closed-minded have potential. And I don't want encourage the smartest people to limit themselves by thinking that they're already right about everything.

Of course maybe this is just some sort of super-elitism: I think I'm superior to ordinary elitists. Or maybe it's sour grapes about the various elite groups I've been excluded from. Or maybe I'm just contrary. Or all of the above. ;^)


C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. to the CoEB folks: I mean for this post to be my submission to the carnival, as an alternate perspective to keep the discussion lively. That is if you're not too elitist to include it. Bastards.


Joe said...

Sounds a little to much like smug intellectualism. It's nice to say we should be informed about everything, but hopelessly unrealistic. It's a grave mistake to assume that superior knowledge leads to superior results. The reality is that the topics most likely to be discussed have a heavy sociological element and thus little objective and applicable knowledge.

To me, elitists are people running around claiming to know more than anyone AND whining how society would be perfect had everyone just listened to them.

Christopher Smith said...

I agree entirely. The problems only arise when the specialists start thinking of themselves as better or more important than others or when they start using their position as "experts" to exploit or control the masses. This unfortunately has occurred all too often in the history of the world.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Joe and Chris!!!

Am I misreading your comments? You both seem to be saying that intellectuals who are elitist are the problem. That's not my position at all. I'm saying the problem is when people with power (economic and political) claim that it's the educated people who are the elitists, when really it's not.

Take the example of G. W. Bush who says to the public: "See, I'm just like you, Joe Average -- ignorant and proud of it!" How arrogant and insulting! Especially considering the fact that he has no empathy for the people whose lives are profoundly affected by his decisions while he throws a barbecue for his friends back at the ranch.

I'd take an expert (even a condescending know-it-all) over that any day.

Matt said...

Great points, Chanson. Thanks! And thanks for joining the carnival where you should be right at home. It's interesting that the first two commenters missed the point of what you were saying and parroted the very derision of educated folks that has become so common in political discourse -- the very problem that was a key inspiration for The Carnival of the Elitist Bastards.

As Dana points out in her intro post, today we virtually worship the elites of sports, business, entertainment, politics and etc and we don't even blink at calling them elite. But the academic elite have become the subject of much derision by the current ruling class and the political populace that sustains them. It seems that only in this context does the word 'elite' acquire a suspect and even sinister meaning. It's crazy!

My working theory on this is that academic elites carry a double-edged sword, one side that threatens the power of demagogues and the other that so often demands that otherwise fearful, slack, and stubborn minds move in response to new data. IOW, academic elites appear bad to to a certain body politic and the one that happens to have grown astoundingly powerful and dominant over the past few decades.

With the carnival we aim to achieve many things but at the front of the list is that we want to help turn back this tide.


Matt said...

PS. Yes, we decided to use "elitist bastards" as a parody but when we talk seriously about elites it not with reference to the negative traits.sometimes associated, such as arrogance or disconnectedness, but with the primary definition in mind: excellence of a class paired with esprit de corps. We're talking about an appreciation of human excellence brought to bear on the greatest challenged that face humanity -- and fostering not just education but emulation of the elite by individuals and communities.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Matt!!!

It's true, it's weird that "elite" seems to only have negative connotations when talking about intellectuals.

I completely agree with the goal that great thinkers should be held up as the role models we'd most like to be like. In this case, the idea of elitiasm has its advantages and disadvantages. The up side is that a goal that's worth aspiring to is not something simple, immediate, or trivial. The down side is the potential for divisiveness when everyone can make significant progress towards this ideal.

Joe said...

I suggest that the problem here is semantic in the sense that "elite" does has a different meaning in common language than "elitist". The latter is a term of derision, commonly meaning "smug intellectual." Another definition could be that elitists are people ho claim to posses superior knowledge and lecture everyone else about what a bunch of fools they are.

Matt said...

Joe, I think we already agreed that the term 'elitist' has come to be used with derision, however, two important points of context:

First, the carnival uses the word in its title as parody of its derisive use.

Second, go search the word 'elitist' at and at and you'll find that the word has two primary meanings, neither of which included your derision. Turns out that calling someone an elitist is rather like calling someone an intellectual -- the derision is not in the definition but in the individual's subjective estimate of what intellectualism or elitism are worth.

The same kind of thing can occur when you call someone a Jew, or a politician, or a fundamentalist, etc. You personal value estimate can make such terms into dirty words regardless of the actual definition.

Matt said...

Again, not to say that the derisive aspect is incorrect, and not to say that persons of elite stature can't be complete "elitist bastards", but that the term has of late come to be virtually synonymous with intellectualism in some circles. As Chanson pointed out, a good example is GWB refusing counsel from highly qualified economists (just as one example) because he doesn't like what they're saying, then brushing them off by calling them elitist and therefor not worth listening to.

The truly rotten elitist, the one that comes to mind now when we hear the term, is just one personality among a broad range of folks who could be classified as elites in their field. But you hardly ever (if ever) hear of an elite athlete being called an elitist even though many NBA superstars, just as an example, clearly fit the bill. No, the invective is virtually always used to refer to intellectual elites regardless of whether they are truly "elitist bastards" or not. :)

C. L. Hanson said...

Woo-hoo, already sparking lively discussion!!! No need to thank me, all in a day's work. ;^)

Matt -- I'd like to call your attention to one more post which I think would be fantastic in your carnival. It's The Angry Young Man on Obama's Gaffe (and the charge of "elitism"). I think the Angry Young Man really nails it. It also relates to my discussion here: Obama was being frank with people, and Clinton calls him an "elitist" for it (while explaining that working class people are a bunch of babies that can't handle that kind of discussion).

Alon Levy said...

The people running this aren't elites. They're just pissed that they don't get to tell the unwashed masses how to think.

The real elites - the people who run Wall Street and the City of London, who own stock in Fortune Global 500 companies, who run governments, who write for prestigious newspapers - don't have time for this crap. By virtue of their elite status, they're insulated from what common people think about them; even if everyone hates them, even if they create more problems than they solve, their income is assured, and they know it.

I don't buy that it's just a way of making intellectualism respectable again. There are plenty of scientists who're trying with reasonable degrees of success to make people think science is cool. None of them does it by pretending to be authorities about history or sociology, or by telling everyone how great elitism is, and meanwhile looking down on television.

Matt said...

Oh yeah, the "Obama is an elitist for suggesting that people are bitter" controversy. That's a fine example of tossing the word into the abyss of meaninglessness.

And yeah, this topic is hot. It seems that a lot of folks really hate the idea of being instructed in anything but what they already believe or desperately want to be so. Then, as if it weren't enough to be free to ignore and thereby remain personally ignorant, some people clearly want to shut-down public conversation of certain topics all together by shouting "elitist!" at the top of their lungs.

It all seems so strange that a word can have so much power to cause vast swaths of society to stop listening. Why is it? Simple, I think. As every good demagogue knows, prejudice is power and there are few prejudices more powerful than hatred of learning things that require one to change one's mind. People hate, hate, hate to be shown that they are wrong--and the more wrong they are (ie the more ignorant they are) the more passionately they hate anything that would sway them.

Elite athletes require nothing of you. Elite politicians have masted the art of wooing you in your ignorance. Elite religionists, yes they require something of you but promise you vast tracts of fool's gold in exchange for your devotion such that you think you're getting the bargain of a lifetime. But intellectuals elites? Strictly a pain in your ass and constantly threatening to take away your mind candy. Sure, these folks may not me right but you can't be bothered either way. Too much damn trouble to have to use your own intellectual equipment. Which is then the point: intellectual elites are the only elites challenging you to use your own intellectual equipment. In the minds of some, they will burn in hell for this. ;)

PS. To Alon Levy: Your description of the "only true elites" is fraught with the the "one true scotsman" fallacy. And the process of restoring the respectability of intellectualism isn't a marketing campaign--it's only done by seeking to diminish its opposite: the pie-in-the-sky worship of common ignorance and intellectual laziness. Furthermore, an elite is not required to go around claiming to be an elite or acting in a manner which confirms the worst possible suspicions of anti-elitism. Rather, elites are those who excel in any given discipline.

Not sorry to be such an elitist bastard.

Alon Levy said...

Rather, elites are those who excel in any given discipline.

Yes, and these elites nobody has a particular problem with. Carl Sagan excelled as a scientist and a science popularizer. But it's not him who certain religious people hate the most; it's Dawkins, who specializes in calling religious people stupid. Similarly, very successful businesspeople, such as Warren Buffett, are respected. It's the flashy people who show off their wealth, like Donald Trump, who the public loathes.

My problem with these proud elitists is, among other things, that they fail to see this distinction. On the contrary: many science bloggers worship scientists who're in your face about things, in practically the same way racists in New York worship Giuliani for being in your face about crime.

There are more specific concerns. Certain people at the Center for Inquiry, for example Susan Jacoby, push the idea that American culture declined from a pro-intellectual past, usually given as the time of the Founding Fathers. In other words, they end up saying, the state of American education was better when most people were illiterate, and cultural consumption was dominated by a handful of landowners.

beatdad said...

So is it a regular cup of coffee or a latte?

mathmom said...

Hey Chanson, this was fun to think about. I think if the CoEB can do elitism without the arrogance and social division, then they should go for it! If it becomes just another excuse for not listening to people who are less intelligent or have less education, then it doesn't seem worthwhile. I'd rather get intellectualism more valued in some other way. Do you remember in HS when they gave out letters for academic achievements in addition to athletic achievements? Perhaps the CoEB can think of something better...

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Alon and Matt!!!

Good points. I haven't been doing my usual "comment on every comment" on this thread because I haven't really had a particular opinion on some of ideas raised, so I figured there's reason to interfere with the discussion.

Hey Wayne!!!

For me, just regular coffee...

Hey Mathmom!!!

So did you think the thing with the letters in HS was good or bad? Personally, I thought it was cool that I earned a letter. But of course I didn't have it sewn onto a jacket like an athlete since that's not what the others with academic letters were doing. You know how it is in H.S. -- it's not even a question of wanting to follow the crowd, it's a question of not wanting to stand out and get teased...

mathmom said...

It seems to me that a letter for athletics or academics is meant to convey recognition and status. On the one hand, it was nice to be recognized in a public way. On the other hand, as far as impressing other people (or giving intellectualism a good name among non-intellectuals, which is one of the things we're talking about here, I think) it really didn't go very far.

So it wasn't a bad thing, it just wasn't useful for making me attractive or interesting to the non-geeks in HS.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MathMom!!!

LOL, true, but the most interesting people in our H.S. were the geeks, weren't they?

Weirdly -- as painful as it was at the time to be a social outcast -- I don't regret having geekdom (and being excluded) among my formative experiences...

mathmom said...

Being a social outcast can be ok as long as you have someone to do it with =) Frankly, we went to a hs which was not a bad place to be a geek, as things go (something above 90 percent of the kids went to college, as I remember). My husband went to an agricultural high school, and had a much rougher time.

I am preparing my girls to be geeky, and am actually trying to teach them a bit of elitism in order to protect themselves ("The girl who said you were a baby is wrong, and doesn't know anything, so you don't have to pay attention to her).

Anti intellectualism in high school can hurt feelings, and occasionally has tragic personal results. Anti intellectualism in "real life" has much further reaching results. I wish we could move beyond high school---probably most people do, but the ones who don't cause the most trouble.

Thanks for the tag! I'm excited, and working on it =)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MathMom!!!

That's probably a good system for your kids. It's essentially a type of "question authority" message: countering your child's natural inclination to fit in at all costs with the information that not everyone agrees on who's opinion is important.

Oh, and Re: "I wish we could move beyond high school---probably most people do,"

Ha, right there. You think you're an elitist, but you're not! ;^)

I look forward to your poem! :D