"Elitist" is a Seven-Letter Word. It's Also a Terrible One.
On Wednesday Ashley Spinks posted a criticism of my essay on being labeled an elitist, entitled “Elitist is Not a Four-Letter Word.” In it she stated:
“Because contrary to Peter’s contention, a common upbringing does not necessarily beget a common lived experience.”
But she misinterprets my contention. I wasn’t attempting to argue that everyone who has the same upbringing has the same experiences and should believe the same things, but rather that people who have similar experiences can believe radically different things. And more importantly that people who believe radically different things can have common or parallel experiences. The difference is that that reality is usually used to justify simply agreeing to disagree; avoiding conflict; disengaging completely. I was attempting to use that reality to show that the decisions we make are not determined by who we are, where we come from, and that’s it and that’s all. We have agency and make decisions and those decisions should be examined and dissected and defended and argued and inverted and explored.
She also argues that she thinks “there are better uses of our time than trying to convince people who label us elitist that ‘it’s just not true!’” I certainly agree with her, but, in my essay, I never actually said that I’m not an elitist. It wasn’t really a chess move or a battle tactic, but rather that I wasn’t really thinking about that when I wrote it. I obviously take issue with its application to me, but my issue isn’t with its truth per se. My real problem with the term is that it has no relationship to truth whatsoever. My irritation is not with being inaccurately labeled. My irritation is with the level of bullshit implied in that label. Ashley continues:
“We’re not arguing from the same place. To harken back to a prior column I contributed, we’re not coming to the table with a shared vocabulary.”
I loved that column and I agree with her completely. But it’s important, not only to try to use the same vocabulary, but also to come into a discussion assuming the honesty of our counterparts and describing our positions clearly. To that end, I think it’s important to strip the deadwood from our discourse and point out the rot when we see it.
For example, Ashley argued further:
“We should accept and use the popularized definition of ‘elitist’-- college-educated, liberal, living in a coastal city, (often) white-collar workers, (often) not people-of-color”
Is this, in fact, the popular definition of the term? In the interest of full disclosure, I sent her column to a Trump supporter with whom I have been exchanging emails and he took issue with her assumption that conservatives resented the education of liberals and, by extension, that conservatives were themselves uneducated. His definition was a certain sort of “smugness” that one knows when one sees it.
And around and around we go.
In his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell enumerates the various sins of political writers and speechifiers of the time, eviscerating them for their deployment of useless “operators,” “verbal false limbs,” “dying metaphors,” and empty speech of all kinds.
“Elitist” is a meaningless word. It’s a word for which there is no broadly agreed upon definition, which makes it possible for everyone to have a separate definition that suits their own purposes. A useless operator and a verbal false limb. It’s a not a word meant to be true or untrue in any traditional sense, but a word meant to fill space, distract, discredit, and dismiss. Orwell comments, in particular, on the way politicians use the word “democracy” to inoculate themselves from criticism. It is universally understood to mean “good” and its opposite “bad.” But politicians are loathe to define the word in solid terms for “fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.” He argues that “words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.”
I take issue with being called an elitist, not (really) because I think it's inaccurate, but rather because it ends the conversation before it starts. For the same reason that starting with the assumption that your counterpart is stupid, that he or she is an ideologue, or that he or she is evil ends a conversation before it starts. It implies that we can’t understand or empathize with another person because of something buried deep in our character or because of who we are or our upbringing or something fundamental and inalterable in our personality. (This probably won’t help my case, but) fuck that.
Ashley and I at least end up in the same place. We want to have conversations with people who disagree with us. The problem is that I’m not sure what happens after “yes, I am an elitist but …” I’m not sure that I think it’s a good idea to simply accede to being defined by a word when I’m not sure I understand how it’s being used. When I’m skeptical that it’s being used in an honest or concrete way in the first place. That doesn’t really put anyone on equal footing to have a discussion. Better to just abandon the bullshit altogether and assume that others are genuinely curious and want to understand and find common ground. We will certainly be wrong more often than we’d like but it least it puts us in a position to expect the same of others.