Saturday, August 04, 2012

Intellectuals, Elitists, and Public Discourse

In Intellectuals, I tried to discuss what aspects contribute to an individual being considered an intellectual both in their own specific area of expertise, but also more generally in society.  Those who believe another an intellectual think that person contributes invaluably to matters relating to that expertise and generally has a strengthening effect on whatever group they're a part of.  If enough people in broader society agree, the intellectual has either in some way affected society's opinion or is particularly good at articulating an already held idea.  Elitists, as a conceptualization, would be the nemesis of this ideal.  It's not that they cannot make points or even can think for themselves, but that they are somehow disingenuous, illegitimate or condescending.

As part of demonstrating where those on the other side are coming from with their rhetoric, Dominick played a soundbite of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell laying into President Obama for being anti-capitalist, anti-success and a litany of other accusations.  Pete was almost at a loss for words, saying he didn't know how to even respond to it and didn't know where it was coming from.

Before I get too much into the meat of the post, a couple observations which can also be found, and perhaps better articulated, on the Wikipedia page on Elitism.  A person considered to be elite is someone to be considered at the forefront or top of their field, for our purposes perhaps even an intellectual.  From the perspective of government or business policy, it stands to reason these people would be desirable, even critical to have input on the discourse surrounding these policies' development and implementation.  While a representative system of government is built to provide equal weighting of individual citizens' on voting and, through that, the laws and regulations of society, there's always been the well-founded idea that those who have the most working and/or intellectual knowledge of certain areas have a highlighted, amplified voice.  In a similar vein would be those people most directly affected by the discussion at-hand.  This isn't necessarily in conflict with the ideas of democracy, especially in accompaniment with a capitalist economic system which values and rewards the achievements and merits of the individual, but recognizing this balance is critical in making sure one principle doesn't outweigh the other.

This takes me to the other popular use of the term elite, along with it the derivative terms such as elitist and elitism.  I'm no scholar, though these terms are thrown about nearly exclusively in a derisive, scornful manner as a means of identifying someone who is not to be trusted, regardless the content of their opinion though it's very common for the insult to be directed at someone with an opposing viewpoint.  This is often because the speaker considers the accused elitist to be of some isolated and entitled, unworthy group which has self-identified itself and like-minds as the supposed masters of valid, serious perspectives in a given area of debate.  Religious leaders are moral elitists, judging from on high based on archaic documents with outdated notions of right and wrong written by flawed human beings with their own prejudice; academic elitists are wonks with no real-world experience in the matters they presume to speak; Hollywood and media elites feel they ought to have a weighted voice on any topic simply because they're already on the public stage for some superficial reason like they're attractive or can sing well or did an article this one time at that one paper about an actual expert.  These elitists also may have such characteristics as being duplicitous, racist, sexist, classist, statist, or some other type of disqualifying inner motivation which isn't stated by the elitists, themselves.  It sometimes seems as though if we were to take all of the accusations of elitism to be truth, there'd be no one left to give an opinion.

Less frequently there are accusations of elitism within shared opinions because of a pedantically expressed opinion.  The economist Paul Krugman, near-universally thought of as an elitist by those of a conservative stripe, is generally held in high regard by liberals/progressives for his perspective and insight.  However, he upset some readers of his in a comment section concerning the Occupy movement.  He made a post stating(paraphrased) that it was really the job of policy intellectuals and politicians to come up with the things that are implemented in law, and that the things the movement want are clear enough.  This lead to some degree of outcry among people who might otherwise agree with him because of an understandably wounded pride that, essentially, the concrete actions taken by government should be handled by the adults and intelligent people who've spent perhaps years immersing themselves in the minutia of their respective expertise.  Defenders might say how can we be sure those people upset with him were even supporters of his upset at his style and were not, in fact, conservatives.  Regardless what label or ideology those offended attach to themselves, however, it speaks again to the frustration that a great many people feel on any given issue.  We are not all economists, but we all have an interest in the outcome economic policies produce.  We're not all military tacticians or experts in diplomacy, but the vast majority of people who end up spilling their blood in war or espionage aren't either.  There'll always be those who disagree or feel slighted by the outcome of public discourse, but in pursuit of encouraging an engaged and active electorate, those having spent their lives achieving merit in their field owe it to their own knowledge to do as much as possible to 'sell' their idea to the great audience of the world.  To ignore this, or worse, scorn needing to explain things in simpler or more identifiable language is to frustrate and enrage people who live in societies where the virtue of one person, one vote and the power of the common person is heralded as the paramount form of government.  Metaphors, talking points and personal anecdotes are powerful specifically because of this.  They allow complex issues to be articulated in a way much more readily identifiable to the people who ultimately, through nominations and elections, are those who legitimately operate the levers of public policy.

In summary, the pejorative 'elitist' could be applied to nearly any person asserting their opinion because another considers their input flawed in some way.  It behooves the accused to reconsider, reword, or otherwise try a different manner of communicating their idea.  Otherwise, they risk becoming a caricature who will do more harm than good to their own perspective.