Holding forth

What's wrong with the right kind of elitism?

Piers Benn

Topics Politics

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One of the worst charges that can be levelled against a person today is the charge of elitism. Throughout the UK media and government, there is the pervasive view that elitism is one of those malign ‘forces of conservatism’ that are responsible for denying opportunities and recognition to vast numbers of deserving people.

But what is elitism, and what is wrong with it?

One of the hallmarks of our decaying cultural life is the philosophy of ‘anti-elitism’. This view of the world has no explicit manifesto (words would reveal the nonsense), but appeals to a wide constituency – especially ‘yoof’.

Admittedly, I have little conclusive evidence for this, since I often have difficulty understanding what yoof are on about. But there are a number of indicators. Upon casual observation yoof seem a sociable and tolerant crowd – boys with their uniform cropped hair, girls in their tight black trousers and post-feminist get-up, the more aggressive attires of the 1970s and 80s mostly forgotten or derided. But if you listen to them carefully, you will be struck by their curious way of talking – chirpy, non-threatening, yet oddly banal.

One of the most striking features of this language is the lilt, or rising intonation. For the past few years, a remarkable phonetic mutation has been creeping into the speech of the under-35s. Every statement now sounds like a question: as in, ‘Hi, it’s me? I’m on my mobile?’.

Naively, I once assumed that the rising intonation could simply be attributed to the Australian soap operas popular in Britain. But there may be another more suggestive explanation. Perhaps the purpose of the rising intonation is to create the impression that you are simultaneously questioning whatever you are saying. This makes you sound non-dogmatic, not arrogantly assuming that your views are literally and objectively true. Surely, people have their different beliefs, and all beliefs are equally valid? Your opinion is just your opinion, and you can’t say that other people’s opinions are wrong?? It’s their reality??? And your reality is no better than theirs????

Perhaps I am jumping to conclusions in associating this cultural phenomenon with the philosophy of anti-elitism. But the idea is too tempting to let go.

If you say that the way things are is independent of how people think they are, and that some people have better access to reality than others – perhaps due to superior knowledge, education or intelligence – you will soon find yourself damned as an elitist. Elitism, in this sense, is an affront to the widespread and sentimental conviction that an idea is valuable just because somebody sincerely believes in it. Hence elitists turn out to be those who claim there are such things as superior reasoning, artistic sensibility, scientific rigour and moral insight, which give people with these gifts an advantage when it comes to grasping reality.

Of course, there are difficult philosophical issues behind this, and genuine problems in conceptualising a reality that transcends human understanding. But the lazy relativism I am referring to is rarely the product of anguished metaphysical inquiry. It arises instead from our culture.

Against this, we should uphold the notions of objective knowledge and reality, and we should be prepared to accept that difficult training – of which not everybody is capable – is necessary to attain such knowledge. It is, of course, an uphill struggle to do this convincingly when every reasonable argument is dismissed as yet another sign of ‘arrogance’ or ‘exclusivity’.

But these derided opinions are, in fact, clearly different from a genuinely objectionable kind of elitism.

To see this, distinguish meritocratic elitism from aristocratic elitism and its variants. The aristocratic elitist thinks that people should be allowed entry to education, the arts, or politics by reason of their membership of some privileged group – a group that is itself defined without any reference to talent or attainment. The meritocratic elitist, by contrast, believes in objective standards of rationality, artistic sensibility and scientific rigour – and thinks that it is wrong to offer those born to certain privileges any superior access to the learning that gives people the chance to see the real value of ideas.

The genuinely egalitarian idea, surely, is that there is something valuable and difficult to be appreciated in the arts, philosophy or science – and that everybody should have the chance to acquire the discipline necessary for such appreciation. Some people will find this easier than others, and many will not be interested; but at least they should have the opportunity.

By contrast, the prevailing philosophy of anti-elitism, spread over the media and encouraged by the shallow government we have sleepwalked ourselves into re-electing, thinks it is patronising to suggest that people may have something valuable to learn from experts, and prefers instead to flatter the people whose popularity they court by doling out to them what they already want.

The unstated assumption behind this is more patronising than anything the elitist bogeymen ever claimed. Without admitting it, the anti-elitists are saying the higher reaches of culture or ideas could not possibly be of interest to most people, so there is no point in offering them these things. They brand reflective intellectual or cultural debate as inherently middle class, and therefore of no possible interest to hoi polloi, unless, perhaps, they are dumbed down beyond recognition (1).

For example, it does not occur to many of those who commission TV programmes that if only they put out more demanding material, its popularity might extend beyond the despised middle classes, and hence become less (in their sense) elitist. But cogent reasoning was never their strong point. This dumbing down phenomenon in the media and elsewhere is all of a piece with the philosophy of anti-elitism.

But when will anti-elitism be seen for what it is? And what then will become of the rising intonation?

Dr Piers Benn is a lecturer in medical ethics at Imperial College, London.

Read on:

Speaking by formula, by Mark Ryan

1) The dumbing down phenomenon is nicely described in a recent book of essays: Ivo Mosely (ed.) Dumbing Down, culture politics and the mass media, Exeter: Short Run Press Ltd, 2000

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Topics Politics


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