Reclaiming Elitism

Photo by James Barwell
Photo by James Barwell

The majority has enclosed thought within a formidable fence. A writer is free inside that area, but woe to the man who goes beyond it, not that he stands in fear of an inquisition, but he must face all kinds of unpleasantness in every day persecution. –Alexis de Tocqueville

All other things being equal, if given a choice I would rather eat mediocre food or the best-prepared version of my favorite dish.

All other things being equal, I would rather listen to my favorite music on headphones that sound not unlike two tin cans on a string instead of a comfortable set of well-designed phones with handy volume controls, noise isolation and an even dynamic range that covers the entire range of my hearing.

I want my city to be largely uninteresting, with nothing really outstanding, and overall half-baked.

Our most important military missions should be done by specialists but rather the most run-of-the-mill operatives.

If you have actually said these things to yourself without jest you are probably an idiot and I cannot help you. If, however, you prefer your favorite food and comfortable accessories and a livable society, you are undoubtedly an elitist and your friends and your culture will deride you and cast you out like lepers from their company.

Elitism has a bad name. One need not look too far to find the epithet being flung about wantonly. Nowhere is it more noticeable than in our political “discussions”: these people from (insert social group here) are elitist, therefore we must shun them, shame them, fear them. Behind all of this is some voiceless, nameless, bodiless fear that some mythical Elite are out to take over the world.

Where does this come from?

Part of it has its origins in the bunco version of American democracy, residual in people’s heads from years of elementary and middle school. Everyone wins. Everyone is equal. Everyone’s opinion counts. Yet in reality, what is professed is not true. Schools remain essentially competitive and non-cooperative. Grades and tests still exist. Classes still have valedictorians. Students are still judged by the coolness of the cliques to which they belong. Guys are still judged by their machismo. Girls are still judged by their hotness. These divisions are the essence of social grouping at that level.

Our political structure holds essentially the same tenet. The deep-rooted myth that “anyone can be president” crumbles quickly when one has to listen to a vocal group of birthers. As polls will show, Americans do not fundamentally believe this. Publicly, however, they act as though the belief in the “common man” quality of the President is essential. The majority of which Alexis de Tocqueville speaks above is the same majority that derides a candidate who stands outside of the formidable thought fence. To complete the epigraph above, de Tocqueville notes “A career in politics is closed to him for he has offended the only power that holds the keys.” America fundamentally in believes in the pale commonality of its political candidates. Yet simultaneously it desires those candidates to be moral leaders–as long as they are not simultaneously free thinking.

Within these institutions, Americans not only encourage mediocrity but also positively demand it. As a result, the consequences of our national glorification of the dull, trite and average have ranged from the comic to the tragic back to the nonsensical.

On the nonsensical level this notion leads to the kind of reactions I have read to Will Leitch’s Deadspin article, “It’s Not OK to be Shitty: Guy Fieri, Buzzfeed and the Tyranny of Stupid Popular Things.”

I cannot divine why anyone would object to such an idea, and yet I have read responses that decry such a statement. In this article specifically, Mr. Leitch is talking about Guy Fieri’s new grill which has received bad reviews in the press. Fine: bad reviews are bad reviews. Take them or leave them. But no: the backlash the original writer of the review received was, essentially, “Well, you can’t expect it to be any good, so you can’t be disappointed when it isn’t. And it’s popular anyway, so it must have merit.”

Mr. Leitch responded with the following lines–an excellent summation of one of our big problems as a culture and society:

Just because you imagine his chain restaurant is awful doesn’t mean it’s OK if it actually is. I bring all this up because I think we’re starting to care more about popularity and financial success than legitimate quality. All right, so that’s hardly news; that’s always been the case, as a general rule, for most of humanity’s reign. But now the smart people are doing it: People who should know better. I’m talking about you, dear reader: You, me, all of us…. Any cries that should we expect better are deemed jealous carping or, worse, elitist. It’s OK to want more. It’s OK to demand it. Only you can.

But no: that would place responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the consumer–and we all know that such things are always a la Douglas Adams, an SEP matter. It does not stop there, of course. No sooner does that article come out on Deadspin than one of my friends, whom I consider to be one of Mr. Leitch’s “smart people” who should know better, defends the tackiness.

Isn’t there a place (an appropriate venue for the provision) for stupid popular things, though? Why not acknowledge that the popular preferences exist in their own right, and will probably find (and cluster to) places to eat that serve that group? And isn’t doing otherwise just the call of the same group that wants a society that avidly reads, and understands the sciences, and has taste, and other things that never existed popularly?

Without being too much of a mathematician about it, this is a confusion of class and category. No one is suggesting, for instance, that comics are not worth reading simply because they are not a) oil painting in the European art history tradition or b) literature in the very same tradition. Anyone who suggests this is not an elitist, but rather a Philistine. But within the field of comics there are good comics and poor comics. Similarly, no one is suggesting that everyone must eat at an upscale restaurant instead of a greasy spoon, but among greasy spoons some are clearly better or worse than others.

There is most certainly a place for stupid popular things: the Internet hosts many such places one can find without too much effort. (Take a look at the Yahoo! front page.) Popular preferences do exist in their own right. But they are completely beside the point. The issue is not popularity. The issue is quality. This is exactly what is at issue in Will Leitch’s article and, like him, I happen not to share the belief that mass acceptance is particularly relevant to any matters of taste, value, quality, vision or truth. I also happen to believe that it is possible to raise the bar.

Popularity and quality are not and should never be mutually exclusive ideas. Kind of Blue is a quadruple platinum album. Tickets to the Picasso exhibit at SAM did sell out. Watchmen has sold at least 900,000 book copies. These things do happen, but they require a vanguard of people to cross the popularity lines and open up not only themselves but others to unusual experiences. They require someone to make judgments of beauty, or excellence if you prefer, without regard to popularity. One does not make such things happen by having low expectations or simply accepting what appeals to any given mass of people. One makes it happen by endeavor. Rather than appealing to the lowest common denominator, why not aim for the greatest common factor?

This is the function of what Immanuel Kant called the sensus communis, the idea of a public sense, a critical faculty practiced within a community and weighs its judgments of beauty and the sublime with the collective reason of mankind. The sensus communis is essentially a community of taste. But in no way is this community a closed one. Anyone can be a part of it. It does not distinguish between great and small, rich or poor, toff or chav. It does not care whether you are male or female or other, nor what race box you check on IRS forms. It cares only whether or not you care to enlarge your thoughts and move from the realm of private opinion to public judgments. To quote Kant:

However small may be the area or the degree to which a man’s natural gifts reach, yet it indicates a man of enlarged thought if he disregards the subjective private conditions of his own judgment, by which so many others are confined, and reflects upon it from a general standpoint (which he can only determine by placing himself at the standpoint of others).

Furthermore, commitment to the sensus communis is a way of breaking down the power structures that people fear when they fear so-called elitism. That so-called elitism stems largely from a political system (I mean political in the largest sense) in which privileged experts are the only opinions that matter. The sensus communis works against such an idea by accepting the input of all its members. Expertise and specialization are valuable but they are neither definitive nor final. Both remain subject to review at all times. Knowledge is open to everyone, and tastes evolve as knowledge accrues.

If one were to take a formal survey of individuals across the country, I doubt highly that many people would say they prefer crap over quality. Intellectually, their minds would determine that there is a need for a scale of values. And yet emotionally most are stuck the world of the sensus privatus, the private and narrow view of reality. Admitting to themselves that what they find “agreeable” in the Kantian sense–purely sensory, purely subjective and singular judgment–is not necessarily “beautiful” or “sublime” which both rely upon the community for verification. But to submit, in some sense, to the rigors of public judgment rather than private opinion requires a sense of meaning, a value placed upon belonging to the world at large rather than simply “you know, doing my thang, man.” I am under no illusion that people are always at work for the public good, or that the community matters at all in their eyes much of the time. I do however believe that working communities that value the work of their members are healthier groups than those that do not and–if I may make an “agreeable” judgment–I had rather keep the company of those who value discussion and work rather than the company of those who value only their own views.

But there again is that word in Mr. Leitch’s article: elitist. There seems to be some convenient and popular notion that replacing a meritocracy based on class with a meritocracy based on mass popularity is somehow less elitist and somehow an improvement. Such a meritocracy is probably even worse than the one before. Where members of a class might at least have individual qualities that lift them into a humane realm, those who rise through a system based on popularity are far more likely to be demagogues–it is exactly the origin of the word. This is why de Tocqueville cautions his readers about the “tyranny of the majority.” His belief in human beings as members of a civic society and larger community is similar to the view of Jürgen Habermas: that the most important thing in a civil society is a public arena in which active discussion and debate of value is a necessity.  The community must allow and monitor and process the meaning of its public discussions based on the simple principles of “enlarged thought”:

  1. Think for oneself.
  2. Think from the standpoint of everyone else.
  3. Always think consistently.

The process is often flawed and the sensus communis itself is always incomplete, but that is the nature of knowledge. One never knows exactly, and one never knows enough. As Hannah Arendt put it, one is always looking for the reality in which the thinking ego has withdrawn from the world of appearances and simply knows without thinking. But humankind does not live in that reality. It lives in the reality where the sensus communis is the primary guide in the world. That sensus communis must have standards of taste and must strive toward the subjective universal–the idea that others ought to make similar judgments about the beautiful and the sublime. Removing those standards removes the primary purpose of community itself.

It is, I think, also part of the sensus communis that it desires the experience of the beautiful and the sublime. But more simply that community desires what it best from and for all its members. This seems egalitarian in principle and I think it is. However, to suggest that there is at all a “best” or even a “better” is to court the same old charge of elitism.

But so what? I find no shame in wanting what is best for my own well-being. I certainly find no shame in wanting what is best for my community. I do want the best service, the best food, the best music, the best composition, the best voice. I do believe there is a scale of value in these things, even if one wants to slide it according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I understand also that there is no one true best in the discussion of the beautiful because experience modifies perception. As David Hume noted, “At twenty, Ovid may be the favourite author; Horace at forty; and perhaps Tacitus at fifty.” Still, I am not afraid to share what I think is beautiful, because if it is beautiful to me it may well be beautiful for others. It may not. I may well be wrong. But I will take that chance.

The time is long overdue to reclaim elitism from the mouths of the dishonest. But this is really part of a greater project to revive the vitality and creativity of community. Thoughtful communities should always value judgment over opinion. Popularity is not a judgment and should never concern anyone thinking about what is beautiful. Push come to shove, I will always encourage what is beautiful over what is popular. For me, the ideal is to encourage the best in every field and to discourage crap whenever possible. If I did not believe this I could not write critically about anything. I certainly understand that people will settle for less than the best, but that is a different issue. Why on earth anyone would desire less than what they think is the best and actively encourage it is beyond my understanding.

But then, obviously, I am an elitist.

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, the content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.