Tuesday, 7 January 2014

on elitism and the need for superiority

the summer break is continuing, and it is definitely everything i was hoping for.  a complete break, where i am not doing anything too much, staying away from all the things i don't want to deal with, and generally just relaxing and enjoying the company of the people i'm with.  couldn't have asked for better, and i know how incredibly lucky i am to be in this position.

i have been busy on the internet in various ways, and i'm hoping that it has been useful.  i have a post that's been in my head for a while, but just hasn't managed to come out.  it's basically about the various ways that people have an inherent need to feel superior to other people.  i've probably written about this before, and i certainly don't exempt myself from this tendency.

i think it's a very human characteristic, based on our egos and our need to feel important in the scheme of things.  one way to make ourselves look/feel important is by showing that we're better than others, in various ways.  we want to be exceptional, better than the rest.  mediocrity is something that i think few people aspire to, or at least they tend not to aspire to it in all areas of their lives, all the time.

perhaps it lies in the fact that we want our lives to have meaning, and meaning only comes with success (whatever success means for a particular individual).  most of us hate to think that we spent a lifetime on this planet and it was all for nothing - that we achieved nothing, that our time here was not valued by anyone.  we want to be valued, we need to see ourselves as being worthy of being valued.  so we create ways in which we are exceptional or different or better than that other group of people over there.

there are many ways of creating that exceptionalism, that sense of superiority.  we're now used to the traditional ways that people discriminate against others, in fact these are now enshrined in legislation.  here's a good run-down of the prohibited grounds of discrimination included in the human rights act & the bill of rights act, from the ministry of justice.  mostly, people are familiar with all of these, and there is generally a shared societal understanding that feeling oneself superior or inferior on any one of those grounds.  hence the reason they are enshrined in law.

that doesn't stop people from discrimination in words, attitudes, behaviour and decision-making.  we know we shouldn't discriminate based on family status or marital status, but the level of contempt directed by many at single mothers is pretty high, and pretty damaging as well, since it leads to government being able to enact policy harmful to this group (eg cutting the training incentive allowance, forcing single mums into jobs which means other people will be paid to care for their children, and so on).

we also know that we shouldn't discriminate based on employment status.  that doesn't stop a large section of society from heaping judgement on people who are beneficiaries and out of work for one reason or another.  sure, beneficiaries aren't all perfect people, but then which group of people is?  no one individual is perfect, let alone a subset of people within society.  even though we know that to be a fact, we are still happy to pass judgement on the life of others, often without knowing much about the reality of their individual situation.

then there are the things not included in legislation.  things like weight, for example.  there's plenty of research showing that fat people suffer at work due to judgements made about them.  we're constantly encouraged, through media, advertising & the health system, to assume that people are fat simply because they eat too much and are too lazy to exercise.  that metabolism plays a large part, that weight is linked to mental health, that there are many physical illnesses that cause weight gain, that there are many medications that people may be reliant on which cause weight gain: all of these factors are ignored in our rush to judge people who aren't considered skinny enough.  and then we also judge people who are considered to be too skinny, even though that is often related to metabolism or health issues rather than any moral failing.

one area of elitism that really struck me last year was around education.  i value education, i think it's a good thing, and i continue to be a proponent of education being free and available at any age.  i've often written about how i see education as a public good, how education helps to reduce oppression and leads to empowerment and greater freedom.  and yet, i find i can't stand to see people with tertiary education who see themselves as so much better, smarter, superior because of that education.  i don't think the fact that i have an education makes me a person of more intrinsic value than someone who doesn't.  that other person may not have had the same opportunities, may not be able to learn in the educational environments or institutions our society has set up, and they may have learned a whole lot of valuable things from their life experiences or from their own reading & interaction.  that we should make value judgements about the worth of individuals just because we were able to have access to good quality education seems incredibly patronising and harmful to me.  wisdom can come from any person, and when you shut your mind to the possibility of a seemingly uneducated person having something to teach you, you're missing out on a lot.

over this summer period, i saw another form of elitism and it's a difficult one to describe.  it's where people feel themselves so far above the rabble, the unthinking masses, and go out of their way to highlight the fact that they are not partaking in some particular activity that the general population is involved in.  it particularly bothered me when martyn bradbury wrote on facebook about consumerism, and how it would be nice if people went with as much enthusiasm to our parks, beaches and natural spaces as they did to the shopping malls over the summer break.  not a bad sentiment in itself, and one i largely agree with.

but the comments that resulted poured a whole heap of judgement on the people who went to the malls, as if they (the commenters) were so much smarter, so above the whole consumerism thing, so enlightened.  it smacked of elitism in a way i found really smug and arrogant.  as with the fat shaming stuff, there are people who are in the malls for any number of reasons, and to judge them all is really unfair.

more than that, we're in a society where the sales are constantly in your face, through tv, radio, print media, billboards, screeds of advertising material in letterboxes.  it's everywhere.  and we live in a society where success is judged by one's possessions.  the way to change that isn't to heap scorn on the people who are acting in rational ways given the culture they are immersed in, but to work to change that culture.  and you won't achieve that by feeling superior to them.  just because you shun the malls and have the ability to enjoy the natural environment doesn't mean that you have more value than the person who doesn't.  i could give plenty of examples why, but the point is: why this need for superiority?

i saw it again with people who weren't going to be bothered to see the new year in, what's the point, it's just another day.  i can understand that for some people, it might be difficult, they may have bad memories associated with new year's or can't stay up, or just don't feel it's that important to them.  i'm ok with that.  but then there are those who go further and express sentiments that make it seem they are so much better than all the multitudes who are having new year's parties, and that's when i get annoyed.  is it seriously a crime to be with friends to celebrate an occasion that is based on a shared cultural understanding?  sure, make a point about excess consumption of alcohol because that really is a problem in our society, but just to look down on people for celebrating the new year?  ugh.

i don't think we'll ever solve the essential problem - this need to feel better than others.  but at least we can highlight it when we see it, and be aware when we feel ourselves doing it, and try to correct ourselves.  as i say, i know i do it too and i have to keep reminding myself to let go of arrogance.  the sad thing is that i need so many constant reminders, it's a lesson that never really sinks in well enough.