Elites and Elitism – the latest “row”
Earlier this month (7 April 2012) the papers reported “Shock and Oar” as a protester interrupted the (Oxbridge) Boat Race by swimming into the path of the boats.
The person concerned, Trenton Oldfield, has a rambling blog explaining (I think) that he was protesting against the Elitism typified by the Boat Race and claiming that “Elitism leads to Tyranny”.
Leaving aside that the boat race competitors were about as far away from the stereotypical Oxbridge student as is possible – often being specifically recruited athletes (many from America), there is an issue to tease out and examine about Elites, Elitism and being Elitist.
There are benefits arising from the existence of elites. For instance: The Industrial Revolution, The founding of Trade Unions, The Battle of Britain, The discovery of DNA, The 1966 World Cup, The Sergent Pepper Album – all involved the clustering of a group of people who could be said to be “the best” at what they did, whose collective work (probably) benefitted society and who might (if they wanted to) have claimed to be an elite whether they were industrialists, pilots, footballers etc.. So what’s wrong?
The behaviour of elites is I think key. This is possibly where the more contentious words “elitism” and “elitist” come into play. Leaving aside the strict dictionary definition of the words “elitism” and “elitist”, they seems to have acquired negative connotations often associated with an undeserved exclusivity – that possibly threaten our tolerance of elites such as the ones mentioned above.
Some so-called elites like to give the impression that they are “select” and superior to the rest of us – they may well be, but we don’t like to have that fact rammed down our throat. This sort of attitude – snobbery if you like – is often labelled elitist (in the negative sense of the word). I think that is one of the problems with Cameron’s “Chums” – to be “one of us”, it is necessary to have been to the right school, to the right university, entered an appropriate profession and to clubably support others of the same background. (Contrast this with the famous Grocer’s daughter: when she asked “is he one of us?” she was referring to the individual in question’s politics and not to his background.)
I think it is here that our swimmer is trying to “stick his oar in”. If you are a member of a select group – possibly like Cameron’s Chums – who are all drawn from a narrow background – do you have the range of experiences necessary to understand the impact of your actions on the wider public? If you do not, there is a danger of your actions appearing “tyrannical”. For instance, the present government seems blind to (or worse – unconcerned about) the impact of the changes in the rules for the Working Tax Credit – which requires people to find “extra hours of work” in order to continue to receive the credit. In areas of high unemployment this is just not possible and people suffering as a result will feel that the government is at least oppressive – if not tyrannical.
I think to say as a result that “elitism leads to tyranny” is probably over-doing it – at the very minimum a “can” needs to be inserted in the phrase. I wonder, however, whether some of these “elitist elites” that enrage us are really elites in anyone’s eyes but their own. I would like to think that British cabinets are elite groups of politicians – even if I disagree with their politics. However, given the current cabinet’s at times shambolic handling of some issues (and not just cross-coalition issues), I struggle to see them as an elite group. And a non-elite behaving as if they are an elite is hard to tolerate.
Any group drawn from a narrow range of backgrounds is potentially going to suffer from an element of xeno-blindness and group-think, and I would be surprised if many of them were truly “elite” in the modern sense of the word (a group that is collectively “the best”, rather than a traditional “highest class” based group).
See also: Cameron and Osborne ‘arrogant posh boys’ (Ref: Nadine Dorries on BBC2 Daily Politics – reported on BBC News Website – Ms Dorries is, at least currently, a Conservative MP)
There is a very tight narrow clique of a certain group of people and what they do is they act as a barrier and prevent Cameron and Osborne and others from actually really understanding or knowing what is happening in the rest of the country. …
Unfortunately I think that not only are Cameron and Osborne two posh boys who do not know the price of milk*, but they are two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition and no passion to want to understand the lives of others and that is their real crime.
* Duchy Originals organic full cream milk from Ayrshire cows (750ml) is currently 89 p (£1.19 per litre – 68p per pint) at Waitrose. Cameron claims to buy at “just under 50p a pint” (ref: BBC News Website 23 April 2012).