The Stigma of Elitism

On worth, judgment and discrimination

Ever since the term ‘Republican’ has been known, another word ‘elitism’ has been used an insult – meant to revile the Wall Street bankers, presidents-the-sons-of-presidents and other glitterati, a class insulated by their money. Out of touch, alienating, with connections like spiderwebs. They carry the odious shine of silver spoons, and the whiff of privilege. But what of another type of elitism, that which is closer to home and considerably less moneyed?

How about the elitism of selective high schools and universities, and of higher education? This sort of elitism is less apparent but no less real. After many a biting discussion over this, a dear friend suggested that I should write a personal account about local, undergraduate elitism. He may have thought it would become a self-realisation of sorts, but secretly I’m not so sure I’ve reached it yet. I won’t pretend that this is a topic I don’t feel self-conflicted about from time to time. (And I will try not to let this run like a rambling, indecisive monologue).

The question at hand is an uncomfortable one: how elitist are you?

Have you ever poked fun at other, lower-ranked universities? And by extension, the students of those universities? I’ll admit I have, chuckling at my fair share of university memes and obsessing over grades and qualifications; the opportunities I’ll have.

In spite of this no doubt lighthearted banter, do you believe you really are better? Or at the very least, more intelligent? Now, depending on whether you say yes or no, there are implications for what your answer means. And I think we have yet to take a deep, long look at this.

If your answer is no, it probably means that you do not consider intelligence to be the best measurement of human worth. Rather, you prioritise qualities like kindness, honesty, loyalty and morality (however, it is sadly clear that in our world, at least currently, these are not appropriate measures. Throughout history, humans have obstinately set about building hierarchies based on wealth and dominance). Social class and quality of education may not matter one whit to you when it comes to choosing friends. But here’s another thing to consider: even if morality rather than intelligence is your yardstick, one’s ethics and morals are widely accepted to be a product of one’s social environment and norms. Discrimination by moral calibre will often, but not always result in you selecting from a pool of well-raised individuals anyway.

Or perhaps you are (rightfully) of the belief that all humans are equal, regardless of moral intent or education. In the humane sense of the word, this is of course true. All humans should have the same basic civic rights and freedoms – to be safe, to learn as much as one desires, and to be free from hunger. The question is from there, is it still wrong to sort people apart from each other? And if so, then why has it been done and still is, today? The Commons from the Upper Classes. The proletariat, bourgeois, the ‘makers’, the ‘takers’, bogans, dolebludgers, ‘fobs’, is there not an accepted judgment inherently there, acceptable racism, even?

And if your answer is yes? If you say hold on, why should I be guilty of having worked so hard and for so long to get where I am today? Of course I wanted to go off and play with the others when it got too boring or too painful, but I didn’t. I kept at it, and now I don’t see why those others should shame me for my success and perseverance. Just substitute ‘study’ with training or exercise, and you’ll see why we call them ‘elite’ sports.

Behavioural economists tell us that search-and-compare is a perfectly rational thing to do. Humans aren’t born with an ‘internal value meter’ that can tell us what any one thing is worth (Dan Ariely explores human relativity in his book, Predictably Irrational). In an arbitrary world, there is no way for us to know the absolute value of a wide screen plasma TV – the only determinants we can use are figures we’ve encountered in the past, prices that we’ve seen in catalogues, prices paid by our friends. This is called price anchoring, and its relevance to our question here is that just as it is necessary to know how much a smaller screen TV costs in order to gauge the value of a wider screen TV, so too is it natural to determine the worth of others relative to our own self-worth. Relative worth is just how we see the world, and lately I’ve been kept up by this thought: I should try more to appreciate qualities in absolute rather than relative terms, hard as it may be.

It can be dangerous to place too high a premium on intelligence. The elite theory of the Fascists clearly did, above even moral concern. Said William Pareto: ‘to the clever rascal who knows how to fool people and still keep clear of the penitentiary, we shall give [a score of] 8-10 according to the number of geese he has plucked; to the sneak-thief who snatches a piece of silver from a restaurant table and runs away into the arms of a policeman, we shall give 1.’

Perhaps it all comes down to preference. If so-called elitists choose other well-rounded, highly educated people to be their friends, is this because they are being elitist, or because they wish to be friends with people who have common interests and therefore have more to talk about with?

I refuse to believe that pride in oneself is direct evidence of elitism. It’s true, the desire to succeed sets the brightest and most strong-willed apart. I respect everyone under the standard of humanity, but I have most admiration for those who refuse to be chained down by their initial circumstances. I respect social mobility and those who are self-made. Perhaps my view of ambition has been too narrow. Often I have gotten carried away with issues of social change. If I wonder, ‘why don’t people care about these things?’ the natural conclusion I come to is, ‘in this age of information, ignorance is a choice.’ I worry that there have been occasions in which I have acted condescending with superior airs; if so, I am ashamed and deeply humbled. If you have the desire to do good and get forward in the world, it doesn’t matter where or how you are educated.

I do know that I started off wanting nothing more than to learn greater empathy, to hear the stories of anyone who had anything to say. Perhaps I’ve lost my way once or twice in being so quick to judge. I cannot hide behind journalist-wannabe critique any longer when casting hasty opinion on the wrinkles of society. All I wanted was to listen and to write; and this is still what I want.

It is a slippery slope to hubris and arrogance. These can be particularly hard to resist for those with have achieved notable success. Who can we blame? Globalisation, for making us ever more connected and able to share our achievements, joys and sorrows? Capitalism, for letting us indulge in conspicuous consumption, to showcase our triumphs with the accumulation of material possessions? Or ourselves, for always wanting more, being more, the relentless pace of success and failure, acceptance and judgment? We have ourselves drawn the lines by which we stand and fall.

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2 thoughts on “The Stigma of Elitism

  1. Jessie says:

    It is not our abilities that show who we truly are – it is our choices!

  2. Indeed Jessie 🙂 here’s to a new year of fantabulous choices

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