Thursday, September 25, 2008

Elitism: a feature, not a bug

We had a fellow write in to the TV show address tonight, with a charge one tends to hear a lot these days leveled at those uppity folks who can't just go with the mainstream flow: that we're all snooty "elitists." Troy writes:

My question is: What makes you feel that your cause is a noble one, especially considering the lack of open-mindedness, and often outright confrontation that your audience often brings? If your show was purely for advancing the benefits of an atheist point of view, I'd say more power to you. But, I tend to agree with my girlfriend that I often see what looks to me like elitism - you're content with your intellectual superiority to the bulk of your audience, and often seem to gloat over their vain attempts to justify their faith. In my opinion, they shouldn't have to - it's their business, and I wouldn't be surprised if many called in to the show simply as a reflex to feeling attacked by your show's attitude.

Allow me to be the first (well, second, after Sam Harris) to declare that elitism is a feature, not a bug. I see elitism as nothing more than a dirty word people have attached to something that ought to be considered a noble goal: the pursuit of excellence rather than mediocrity in all walks of life, whether personal, professional, intellectual, artistic, or otherwise. After all, what can you be, if not an elitist, other than an advocate of mediocrity? Frankly I think there's far too much mediocrity in the world.

I think that Troy and his girlfriend have allowed themselves to be sold the negative definition of elitism, which is that it's a bad thing practiced only by snobs who think they're better than you. Mediocrities want you to accept that definition of elitism, because it gives them a name with which to dismiss people who are simply more informed or better capable of defending their ideas in the court of public opinion (or anywhere) than they are.

Don't be fooled. Elitism is a good thing. Everybody alive ought to be elitist. Having high standards is to be admired, not disdained.

As for any of us having a smug, snooty, smarter-than-thou attitude, okay, I'll cop that that's a risk when A) you are someone who considers elitism a feature, not a bug, and B) you are willing to argue your views not only articulately but with conviction. Many people mistake conviction for elitist arrogance, especially when, once again, they're not as good at expressing and defending their own views. If we come off as arrogant on the TV show sometimes, I see that as just being a by-product of conviction. We don't claim to be infallible intellectuals, but at the same time we aren't going to dumb down our presentation so as not to offend touchy viewers.

Finally, as to why we bother defending atheism? Come now, do we even have to ask that question? You'd be surprised, but ideas do change. I can tell you, from my own experience as past host and present co-host since the turn of the century: I have seen the show evolve from a rinky-dink little local access show to a program with fans all over the world via the internet, that has inspired numerous other like minded-groups to undertake their own efforts. Certainly the calcified fundamentalist mind will not change, but more people than you would think are open to hearing what we have to say. Seriously, if the civil rights leaders or the early suffragettes had thrown up their hands and said "Screw it, nothing's going to change?" where would they be today? Our very next president may well be African American. Something to consider.


  1. I'm with you, elitism is something to aspire to. It's something we explicitly reject when displayed in others, but implicitly validate in ourselves and where it matters. Striving for excellence should not be a taboo, rather it should be the ideal.

    What I think that gets a lot of people is the lack of humility when it comes to expressing elitism. Maybe that is something to work on, and something that can improve the image of elitism to beyond snubbery. There's nothing wrong in aiming for the best, there is something wrong with putting others offside in doing so.

  2. There is a difference between Elitism and a snobbish attitude though, and it's a line that one must be aware of, lest one cross over into the realm of a zealot, which I feel that at some times you step into.

    I personally agree with your position, but when I was describing the show to my roommate I explained it as being a show of intelligent individuals who make many great points, but at times act like jerks to some of their callers.

    As someone that understands the desire to expand the horizens of others and encourages people to question their own beliefs and not just be a 'sheeple' I love the points you make, and can definitely understand your response to certain individuals/concepts (I am particularly sympathetic to your response to those that bring up Pascal's Wager) but as someone attempting to also spread a message you should be careful that your message is not purposefully designed to enrage your target audience (more than just being an atheist already does).

  3. Thank you for so easily showing a pattern of harassment as well as showing that you hide behind goons who do your dirty work at your command. Thank you for also showing that some manipulate their email addresses and engage in IP spoofing, just as you did in June, such as zb.... with his .ca address, somehow coming from an ISP in Chicago. We greatly look forward to our countersuit.

  4. Actually, Yomin, I think HIS suit is the counter-suit. The one you seem to be threatening here would be a counter-counter suit. IANAL, though.

  5. YP,
    You're a fucktard.
    Consider yourself harrassed by me too.
    I look forward to the lawsuit.

  6. I think "elitism" is one of those terms that isn't clearly defined for people, and that's why stuff like this always erupts when it's used. People just throw it around as an insult to mean what they want it to mean.

    I could pull up a definition of what elistism really "means", in fact a quick lookup on gives me at least 3 or 4 different "definitions". Unfortunately we don't all agree on the meanings of words. Just think of the term "atheism" itself. For some it's just a lack of belief in god...yet other's are CONVINCED that it means you automatically hate religious people and worship the devil, etc etc etc.

    I'm not trying to give some kind of relativist argument about how we should accept any definition anyone gives, but the sad thing is people use the word to mean what they WANT it to mean...and in the lexicon of the guy who emailed you, "elitism" clearly just means the same thing as snobbery. Which is fine I suppose, but he's wrong of course. You guys are no snobbier than anyone with a religious TV or radio show, or any show expressing any kind of viewpoint for that matter. You know what your conclusions about the world are when it comes to religion and atheism, and you're not afraid to talk about it and back it up with reasoned arguments. And I'm sorry, but his claim that you're rude to callers is nonsense. I've seen you treat a lot of ignorant, rude, brash callers with respect and dignity. The fact that you have to cut them off sometimes doesn't make you a snob.

  7. If one defines elite as being the best or at least the upper tier of a profession, then clearly it is something to aspire to. When elitism is used in the pejorative sense, then it is used to describe people who consider themselves to be a member of an elite without any kind of objective criteria.

    When I think of elites, I think of top flight surgeons, skilled pilots, athletes who dominate their respective arenas of competition, and so forth. Their perfomance can be measured against their peers.

    The thing is, we all can't be elites. Most of us don't do anything in our lives to justify it. Is there such a thing as an elite sanitation worker, an elite telemarketer, or an elite store clerk, for example? I work as a trademark paralegal, but I don't consider myself to be an elite one, merely an experienced one. Most of us can't be elites (otherwise the term would lose its meaning anyway), but we can strive to be better than what we are.

    As for atheism versus Christianity, I don't consider myself to be an elite by virtue of my atheism. In this matter, I would argue that it is the Christians who consider themselves to be the elitists. After all, they believe they are "saved" and will spend an eternity in the afterlife in paradise, whereas the rest of us deserve to suffer for an eternity in the afterlife for not believing the same things they do. So, yeah, I can think that a Christian who believes the Earth is only some 6,000 years old and that Noah's Ark happened is stupid to believe such things, but I certainly don't believe they deserve to suffer for being misguided, even though they do not extend the same courtesy to me.

  8. Ironic quote from the email that sparked this:

    "What makes you feel that your cause is a noble one, especially considering the lack of open-mindedness, and often outright confrontation that your audience often brings?"

    What I think is very ironic is that this is exactly, almost word-for-word the same question I would ask just about any religious person, especially one who has an evangelical TV or radio show.

  9. My friend and I had this same conversation a few months back about elitism. We both decided that we are elitists and proud of it. Being a blockhead can have its advantages I suppose, but an elitist perspective means you don't have to settle for less and to me that's a good thing.


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