Breathing Room

Okay, first, to be fair, let’s try to make a case for anti-‘elitism’. Let’s try to figure out if people who stake out claims to the anti-elitist moral high ground have any good reasons for such claims – let’s try to figure out if there is anything going on here besides one-upsmanship and a paradoxical (not to say ironic) kind of elitism via reverse-elitism. (It is kind of funny from that point of view. It can be seen as nothing but an endless silly regress. ‘You’re an elitist and I’m not, therefore I’m better so I’m in the elite and you’re not…um…wait…’) Let’s try to do the charitable reading thing, just this once.

The moral core of the idea seems to have to do with feelings of superiority. The thought is that people who like or profess to like (or who know something about or profess to know something about) certain cultural products – literature, art, classical music – as opposed to others – tv shows, movies, pop music – think they are better than people who don’t like or know about such products. That, in short, people who prefer or claim to prefer ‘Hamlet’ to ‘Titanic’ think they are better than people who prefer ‘Titanic’ to ‘Hamlet’.

There’s still some unpacking to do there, such as asking how the word ‘better’ is defined or used or meant in such a context, and then asking some (doubtless unanswerable but still pertinent) factual questions about whether people really do think they are ‘better’ in all possible senses of the word or only in a pretty narrow sense and whether that makes any difference and whether the whole thing isn’t drastically muddied and qualified and complicated by the possibly infinite other criteria for ‘better’ that could be relevant. That is, even if it is true that everyone who prefers ‘Hamlet’ to ‘Titanic’ thinks she is better than ‘Titanic’-preferrers in the sense of having better taste of a certain kind, does it follow that all Hamlet-preferrers think they are better in every possible way? What about ‘Titanic’-preferrers who are also brilliant astronomers or cooks or mountaineers or (as Mike said) plumbers? At least some people who like artifacts such as Hamlet have enough sense to know that there are many many criteria for what’s ‘better’ among humans and that no one is likely to be decisive.

And so on. But that’s a large subject, one we might go into another day, but for the moment let’s give the charitable reading room to breathe.

Okay, here’s the room to breathe. Sure – it’s true – preferences in the matter of literature, music and the like can prompt and foster feelings of superiority. Definitely. Thorstein Veblen made the point quite wittily a century ago, and people have gone on making it ever since. It’s a fair cop. I certainly had such feelings when I was a teenager, and possibly more recently. I may even have them still, although I do think they’re very attenuated if they exist at all, because I’m so sharply and permanently aware of all the things I don’t know – but then that’s a self-serving thing to think, so treat it with due caution.

But now – we’ve given the superiority-feelings room to breathe, so now what? What follows from that? That liking ‘Hamlet’ or the equivalent can lead to feelings of superiority therefore – what? No one should ever read ‘Hamlet’ again? Everyone should look around and figure out what is the most popular cultural artifact of the moment and then consume only that and nothing else lest feelings of superiority might be aroused? But then what would stop people deciding they had a more profound or refined or sophisticated or enlightened appreciation of the given cultural artifact? So – what? No one should read or listen to or look at anything ever lest feelings of superiority might be aroused? But then wouldn’t people just decide their appreciation of food or sex or breathing was in some way better than other people’s? So – what? People should blindfold themselves, wear ear-muffs, cut off their genitals? Or just jump off a cliff and have done with it?

Nope. This is a mug’s game, obviously. Or at least it’s obvious to me. Yes, things like a taste for literature can cause feelings of superiority and smugness, but then, so can just about anything else. Or not. People are very resourceful, and can find reasons to feel superior almost anywhere. That’s even a good thing in some ways – a source of ego-strength, motivation, energy, commitment, and the like. So we kind of have to live with it, don’t we. This one is smug because she is keen on Wordsworth, that one is smug because he can run a marathon in two hours and twenty minutes; she works hard at learning about medieval agriculture, he works hard at playing squash. R is thin and disdains fat people, Q is rich and disdains poor people, L is idealistic and disdains materialistic people, and so it goes.

Or at least so it always can go. It doesn’t absolutely have to, or it doesn’t absolutely have to loom large, I don’t think. Such feelings can be background feelings, there when needed for self-defense or a spur to energy, but otherwise shrunk very small and stuffed in a corner. It is possible for people to talk about subjects that happen to interest them, even if they are things that don’t interest most people, without preening or self-congratulation, merely because the subjects in fact interest them. Elitism wars can cause people to think dark thoughts about moving to a desert island or a mountaintop cabin or central Greenland and talking to seals or bats or palm trees but not human beings any more. Could be quite good fun, provided it’s a really superior bit of central Greenland, one that most people have never heard of.

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