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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 01-Oct-17


Sunday 01-October-17

Elitism, literature and identity: how we all like to feel special

Elitism is a common cry these days as we point collective fingers at the super-rich fat-cats. That 1%, or maybe 0.001%, are ruining the world with their ostentatious greed, we say. They have so much, why don't they give it away? But hang on -- many of the pointers are themselves so much better off than millions, perhaps billions, of others. Who should be casting the first stone here?

The root cause here is not money, nor envy, though these have a part to play. Digging deeper, a key way we construct our sense of identity and self-respect is by comparing ourselves with others. We like to be better, somehow, and though money is a handy metric, it is not the only way.

In fact if we narrow our scope enough, most of us can find something where we are better than others. This is a reason why we take pride in our jobs, so even a plumber can feel good as they point out how they are paid to know just where to tap the pipe (which, by inference, their hapless customers do not know). Even though plumbers may jostle for superiority amongst themselves, they all know that any one of them is better than any householder.

Like plumbers and bankers, we associate with named groups so we can borrow their status and collective power

All this came out of a conversation with my wife about literature, and whether authors like Terry Pratchett's and J K Rowling will be considered great authors in the future. This question depends on those who decide on greatness, which is not necessarily connected to book sales. This group of academics and critics, who hand out prizes, teach students and write reviews, form a literary elite, whose views are respected by the media and who enjoy the power this gives them, even as on-the-ground English teachers like my wife consider them arrogant idiots. Her identity is bound up in teaching expertise and I'm careful not to gainsay her on matters of literature (like she does for me on matters of psychology and science).

In changing minds, this offers a useful approach. When you want people to feel good and like you, flatter them by praising their ability in some subject that seems important to them, but which is not significant for the matter at hand. Then claim your own superiority in a small but critical point. Basking in the warmth of your elevating them to elitehood, they may more easily cede the point and so let you convince them.

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