This week’s journal topic: Elitism
“Elitism” is a term that gets used a lot in news media as an accusation towards academics, politicians, and wealthy entrepreneurs. It is also sometimes used by social activists who believe that a privileged group is out of touch with the lifestyles, desires, values, and struggles of a disadvantaged group.
There are various genres of elitism, but they all have on thing in common. Elitism is the view that a select group of people have the authority to dictate what is valuable, important, or worthwhile. This select group is known as the “elite”. They hold authority because they have a special quality: class, intelligence, skills, wealth, or experience. Other people don’t have this special quality, and therefore are deemed unworthy to dictate what is valuable, important, and worthwhile.
But wait – isn’t everyone equal? Doesn’t equality mean that everyone’s opinions count equally? On the other hand, aren’t some people actually more qualified than others? Is elitism a good or bad thing? This week’s topic is Pleasure Elitism.
Higher Pleasures vs. Lower Pleasures
John Stuart Mill, 19th Century British Philosopher, is famous for saying:
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.
A pig is a creature that is driven by the “four F” physical pleasures: fighting, feeding, fornicating & foraging (acquiring things). Mill classifies these pleasures as “lower pleasures.” For a pig, life is the movement from one lower to the next. In contrast, a human being is a creature that can choose to pursue intellectual pleasures which require thoughtfulness, knowledge, planning, and patience.
A fool is someone who lives like the pig – constantly satisfying physical pleasures. Socrates (the thoughtful type of human) lives the human life – seeking intellectual pleasures. Physical pleasures are relatively easy to satisfy and yield an intense rush of pleasure. You want some chocolate and it’s relatively cheap, so you get a $20 box at Purdy’s and eat until your taste buds tell you it’s time for some salty potato chips (you’ve got to have balance, you know?). One physical pleasure always leads to another, but it’s possible to satisfy them as they arise.
Intellectual pleasures, which Mill classifies as “higher pleasures”, are more difficult to satisfy and fail to yield an intense pleasure rush. Intellectual pleasures such as reading or listening to classical music are best enjoyed in solitude and quietude. The pleasure of knowledge is unsatisfiable – the Mafia is wrong; no one can EVER know too much!
Early Modern Elitism
It’s not difficult to understand Mill’s sentiment in the first sentence of the quote. His attitude is this: The higher pleasures are superior to the lower pleasures. The higher pleasures are the ones that humans should value; the lower pleasures are animalistic. What Mill goes on to say in the second sentence, however, is where the accusation of “elitism” comes in:
“And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.”
What would Mill reply if someone disagreed with him and said she prefers the lower pleasures – dancing, wine, and meeting hot guys? Mill might say something like,
“Sure, disagree with me, but that just shows your ignorance. It’s only because you really don’t understand the higher pleasures. Go back to school or study something. If you tried the intellectual high I’m on, you wouldn’t go back to lower pleasures.”
That’s the elitist attitude. In other words, the attitude is one of “Trust me (the authority): the higher pleasures are better; I’ve tried them.” Mill’s claim to authority is backed only by his own experiences and preferences.
On Whose Authority?
Remember how annoyed you were when mom shouted at you to turn off the game system and read a book? She just didn’t understand how much you wanted to level-up, or how much fun gaming is. And she wants you to read a book instead? No, thanks. Reading takes too much effort and besides, you’re happy gaming. Am I right?
Then remember when she asked you nicely to try reading and bought you some books? “They’re great,” she said. “Just read for an hour and you’ll see how fun reading is!” She just doesn’t get it. You don’t want to read and you have no interest in learning new stuff. You like gaming. Mom’s being an elitist – claiming authority based on her opinions and experience, telling you she knows what’s best.
This is what the accusation of “elitism” is all about. The “elite” group claiming authority is acting like your mom. The elites have your interests in mind, but they are out of touch with your priorities, opinions, desires, values, and challenges. If “elites” deep down respected you as a true equal, they wouldn’t try to force their opinions on you – even if it’s for your own good.
Of course, in your mom’s case, she does have some natural authority over you and she probably does know better than you what’s good for you. But what about in the case of free, independent, reasonable adults? Should one adult be able to tell another adult how to live her life, or tell her what she should value, desire, and pursue?
Now it’s time to decide whether you think there is a justification for elitism!
- Describe your favorite “lower pleasures”?
- Do you have any favorite “higher pleasures”?
- Look at your lists. Would a life of exclusively higher pleasures be more enjoyable than a life of exclusively lower pleasures?
- Have you ever said, “I know that _____ is good for me, but I still prefer to ______.”? Describe. (e.g. classical music & rap, water & cola, documentaries & horror films)
- Do your answers support Mill’s view that higher pleasures should always be preferred to lower pleasures?
- Imagine you went to a restaurant and every meal was already paired with a type of wine, meaning that, for example, the Napa Valley Pinot Noir with fish is not optional. At the bottom of the menu is written, You will enjoy our pairings. Would you feel annoyed, even knowing that a qualified sommelier (wine expert) made the pairings?
- Should one group have the authority to decide what’s best for everyone else? What gives the group authority: education, skills, success, wealth, something else?
How to Get the most out of Know Thyself 2019:
By the way, the questions for my Know Thyself 2019 project are designed to help you define your thought patterns and opinions. Doing all 365 questions will help you learn to ask yourself questions.
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