Sunday, January 02, 2011

Overcoming Elitism

In politics, while the term elite has no negative connotations, the term elitism does. As the criticism of being elitist is a growing powerful attack against politicians, they should be weary of its distinction.

The difference between elite and elitism is relatively simple. Whereas elite merely designates a high status, possibly in regards to a top business person or professional for example, elitism uses that status as proof or evidence of a person or group being right. Being elite does not make one an elitist, it’s using that elite-ness as a justification that does.

From the United States' tea party movement to a more general, yet ubiquitous conservative feeling in Canada, there is a growing opposition to what can only be referred to as elitism. This is not an opposition to professionals in highly specialized fields, the extremely successful, or the wealthy; this is an opposition to those who use their membership in select groups as some proof, as some almost divine right that they are superior or simply that their views are.

Though some would suggest elitism is a matter of perception, it is actually a matter of values. When someone is of a high class, a successful academic for example, and they argue for a policy while assuming they are right because of their job or title, they would be justly called an elitist. One does not necessarily avoid the charge of elitism even if a well-reasoned argument is presented, because more often than not, that argument will rest on values that are limited or are only commonly held within that select group.

Environmentalism is often cited as an elitist movement and this is not because Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, famed environmentalist David Suzuki, or others suggest that Canadians should believe them because they are well educated or because they know better. Environmentalism receives the elitist critique even when it is enrobed in reason because that movement often consists and revolves around values not commonly held by the greater majority of Canadians.

While many, if not all, Canadians care about the environment, the value they place on it in relation to other issues does not come close to the importance placed on it by green activists. Thus when environmentalists speak to Canadians about why we must sacrifice other things of value to save the world, they do so based on values not commonly held and as such are often referred to as elitists.

In this situation and in all situations, for anyone who does not wish to have the pejorative term elitist levelled against them, they must then argue not from the minority's values but from the majority's. This is not suggesting one should never change and adopt the less commonly held view, because that is often needed, but what this does suggest is that for that view to be promulgated, it must be put in terms that are based upon popular values. This means for environmentalists to be successful their issues must be argued with appeals to an average Canadian's values and perhaps more importantly the same goes for any political party seeking electoral success.

If any political party or leader wants to convince any person of a desired vision or course of action, they must do so based on ordinary, commonly held values, or for certain they will rightly suffer the perils of elitism and the subsequent election defeat.

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