Elitist is Not a Four-Letter Word

One of my most evolved male friends once told me he felt he could not label himself a “feminist,” even though he tries to espouse feminist ideals and behaviors. “I don’t get to decide if I’m a feminist-- women get to decide that.” It’s an incredibly generous and selfless perspective, to allow oneself to be actively critiqued by others. To surrender the power of identity to those who know you best, rather than defining yourself by your own biased self-impressions.

I don’t know that the analogy is perfect, but my reaction after reading Peter Amos’s column “So I Guess I’m an Elitist Now” was essentially along the same line. It may be frustrating, but ultimately-- you don’t get to decide whether you’re an elitist. Those who lacked the same advantages as you and feel disconnected from your politics and culture get to make that determination. Peter-- you are an elitist. And so am I. And I think that’s okay, and I don’t think it needs to be a slur against liberals, or coastal-dwellers, or college-educated people. I don’t think it’s a moral judgement. But most importantly-- I think there are better uses of our time than trying to convince people who label us elitist that “it’s just not true!” 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. Let’s concede to the zeitgeist; 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.

Why? Because, first of all, this ill-defined “we,” this amorphous group of out-of-touch liberal voters, do have a distinct cultural and political perspective. Maybe I’m being too generous to the rural conservative voter who most often coins the term-- maybe he means it derisively. But I think labeling me an elitist is within his rights-- to him, it seems, I am. And it’s helpful for him to have a monolith with which to contend-- even if it’s an imaginary coalition of his own making.

Here’s the thing-- I completely understand Peter’s frustration and indignation. Much like him, I grew up in a rural town in western Maryland. Like him, I was steeped in conservative social mores. Following my parents’ example, I worked incredibly hard to make sure I had a comfortable life. I got a job when I turned 15. I worked at a family-owned grocery store and served nearly everyone in town for all my high school years. I studied diligently so I could go to a well-respected college. Nothing was handed to me. There were no silver spoons in my childhood. And despite philosophical disagreements, I respected the people around me. They were good, hard-working people who loved their families-- just like my own family members. We didn’t always agree on what this meant, but they always tried to do what was right. They were friendly. They were genial. People trusted one another. (I’m painting with a broad brush-- small towns certainly have their downfalls.) But the point I’m making is: I don’t feel like an elitist, either.

I understand “Real America”-- I really do. How its economy functions, what its citizens value. I lived there! I worked there! I loved those people and called them friends-- Hell, I was one of them. I often felt like a fish out of water when I got to my “fancy,” “liberal bubble” of a university, because I couldn’t relate to my fellow students. They did seem out-of-touch to me, with their metropolitan, moneyed, exceedingly privileged upbringings.

So I get it-- but I still know I’m an elitist. Because contrary to Peter’s contention, a common upbringing does not necessarily beget a common lived experience. Yes-- I went to public school and sports practices and spaghetti dinners with a lot of people who would now call me an elitist. But then I went home. And I was raised by progressive parents, and I was encouraged to improve my own life by going to college. I was taught to value different things than my peers-- my household was different, our dinner-time conversations were different, my family’s rules and goals were different. And now, I’ve been given opportunities and been lucky enough to have experiences that people in my hometown have not-- nor do they want to. Our perspectives are simply out-of-sync.

It’s a better use of elitists' time, I think, to stop being on the defensive and instead just argue and campaign from a place of agreement. You know what? You’re right. I don’t know what it’s like to work sun-up to sun-down on a farm. I grew up around farms, but my family didn’t support itself that way. I can’t relate to that-- I do not understand your lived experience. (That doesn’t mean I don’t respect it, which conservatives seem to think, but I digress.) Likewise, some conservative voters can’t fathom how I live my life, day-to-day. I’m not going to be offended by that reality or turn away from it.

At least for the purposes of preserving the “discourse” and trying to move forward with our conversations, campaigns and policies, let’s just let this one go. I’m an elitist-- now help me understand how my experience can help serve you. Let’s use our differences to contribute to the common good.

Ashley Spinksculture, politics