Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Standards And Elitism

The C.S.O. and I went to see Ridley Scott's new movie Prometheus just this past Sunday, and were blown away by it. If you haven't seen the movie, I shan't spoil it for you, but I must mention this: one of the subcurrents in the plot involves the Christian faith of protagonist Dr. Elizabeth Shaw.

The Prometheus expedition is an attempt to determine the source of Mankind -- the nature of our progenitors, if any. Dr. Shaw's great enthusiasm for the undertaking is founded, in large measure, on her faith. However, that aspect of the movie is handled very delicately: not as an afterthought, but rather as a subtle inducement to think about the nature of faith and the obstacles to expressing it in a militantly secular age.

In a comment I made to Andrew Klavan's brief review of Prometheus, I called it "a true piece of visual fiction for the thinking man." Well, apparently that was enough to set off another commenter, who riposted thus:

Insisting a movie is for "the thinking man" smacks of elitism....Science Fiction should be about educating the masses by asking the question in a way they understand, not obfuscating secret meanings in language only understood by a certain subculture.

I very nearly fell off my chair from laughter. Who but a total numbskull could proceed from an accusation of "elitism," a concept I'm certain he does not understand, to a statement about "educating the masses" -- ? But it did provide stimulus for an essay here at Liberty's Torch.

***

"Elitism" sounds vaguely sinister. It implies the exclusion of some, under certain circumstances at least, according to the preferences of others. But what is an elite? Are there different sorts of elite? Is it a completely subjective construct, or can an elite have objective significance?

I can think of at least two kinds of common elites:

  • Elites based on tastes;
  • Elites based on ability.

The former sort of elite is rather insubstantial. Anyone can affect a preference for this over that. It doesn't have to be sincere, as long as one can mouth the right sentiments at the right time...and not get caught indulging in one's true but contrary preferences, of course. So here we're discussing something that has no true boundaries, and thus no claim to objective import. It's also called snobbery.

The latter sort of elite will be populated by persons capable of a thing or things that outsiders cannot do. This is, in my view, a true elite, of the sort that's defensible on objective grounds. If we speak of a technique, such as masonry or prestidigitation, then the elite is actually a "guild" of sorts. If we speak of a cultivated virtuosity, such as great skill at commerce or with the sword, we'd simply emphasize the performance aspect. If we speak of an intellectual attainment, it will involve either demonstrable intelligence or a relevant credential.

(A tangent: Much fiction has been written about "fallen" elites that persist long after the members' supposed qualifications for membership have fallen into desuetude. If you've ever read a story in which the phrases "old money" and "nouveau riche" occur, you've read of that sort of elite. An excellent example is Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. There are others of that kind, of course.)

A true elite will possess objective standards for inclusion. Among those who aspire to admission but cannot meet the standard, there will be some who refuse to acknowledge that the shortcoming is theirs. Here's where the usual resentments against "elites" and "elitism" arise. It is those resentments that a charge of "elitism" normally expresses.

***

In The Hot Gate, the third installment in John Ringo's "Troy Rising" series, one of the critical plot points involves the resentment of a group of Latin American engineers and technicians on an orbital battlestation against the requirement that they...perform the duties of engineers and technicians on an orbital battlestation. Because the attitude is cultural rather than a matter of innate incapacity, it is correctable...but the persons involved are anything but willing to address it.

The consequences are dire for the nations of those involved: they're automatically excluded from the international military alliance to which the battlestation belongs. The announcement is delivered in a setting that leaves those nations' grandees no maneuvering room whatsoever. It's a wound to their pride that challenges their self-concept in a way they cannot evade. Worse, it couples to Latin resentment of "the gringo" that reaches well back into the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries.

But the defense of Earth against rapacious, aggressive, extremely well armed forces cannot make room for the pride of the Latins or their disdain for performing "menial" duties. As a general at the critical conference informs them with not a scintilla of salve for their egos, "If you do not meet the standard, then you do not meet the standard." Quod erat demonstrandum.

Standards are like that. Objective ones, anyway. Either you meet them, or you don't. If the standard exists for an important reason, it will not be relaxed simply to spare your feelings.

***

Each of us has standards of some sort, by which we choose our associates, our employers, and our other involvements. The process is bidirectional: those people and institutions have their own standards, which we must meet to be acceptable to them. Sometimes, Smith will find Jones entirely acceptable by his standards but fail to meet Jones's standards, reciprocally applied. Life is like that.

Those who dislike this simple fact tend to condemn it as "discrimination." That happens to be one of my favorite words; rescuing it from its common employment as a tool of derision is one of my passions.

To discriminate is merely to include or exclude according to a standard. If the standard is wholesome, so is the practice of discrimination. But try putting that across to someone who regards you as a dirty elitist.

What standards of yours, Gentle Reader, have you enforced against resistance and resentment from others? Have they responded by calling you an elitist? If so, how did you respond?

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