On Intellectual Snobbery

I am a recovering intellectual snob.

I used to be the kind of person who sneered at others who liked pop music, or reality TV, or never read books unless it was Twilight or some other equally wretched, mass-marketed product. I was proud, protective even, of my perceived status as a proper clever person. I could talk and think with the best of them. After all, I had come from a pretty humble, working-class background. I earned my intellectual abilities by suffering through special programs that pitted me against bright kids from the upper classes of society. I had earned this, I had clawed my way up the class ladder and that made me a fundamentally better person than those who hadn’t.

I thought like that for a long time.

What changed my mind, I think, is reading more about issues of class and privilege where they intersected with my interests in gender and race equality issues. I saw that the demonization and belittling of people with pedestrian, non-intellectual interests was just a specialised type of classism. A whole host of behaviours: mocking people with bad grammar and spelling, laughing at “dumb jocks”, sneering at people who read tabloid magazines– all boiled down to an assumption that lack of education–and the higher thinking skills that are generally only acquired through formal schooling–are a symptom of being intrinsically less civilized, less human, somehow. When a lot of it is due to circumstance, and opportunity.

(And even if you actually are more clever than people, so what? So what? What does that mean?)

I read the opening chapters of a book over the weekend: Chavs, The Demonisation of The Working Class, by Owen Jones. It touched on similar issues– exploring how the  emergence of a large and stable middle class, a phenomenon that really only came about in the second half of the twentieth century, had led to the perception that those who still remained in the working class were there because they were simply incapable of social mobility. That they were bestial, uncivilised louts who were too thick to string together a proper sentence. “We are all middle class,” or so the saying goes. Except for those trashy people at the bottom, too dumb and lazy to upgrade themselves. They deserve all our scorn.

It is, as my friend Jud so eloquently said on twitter, “privilege masquerading as meritocracy”.

I came to a conclusion. Judging the worth of a person based on intellect or education was just another way of saying lives of people who aren’t as privileged or smart as you are worth less than yours. That, I realised, struck me as fundamentally wrong.

It was the exact same thing that made me so miserable as a child, being amongst upper-middle and upper-class children who, in the frank and cruel way of children, looked down their noses at me. The loud and uncouth HDB dweller who spoke with a Singlish accent, who wasn’t good enough to play with them, who quote unquote was a pain in the neck (actual word-for-word phrase that went, in writing, into a group project I had been assigned to). I had become the kind of person that I’d hated.

Deep inside I know that I myself have been exceedingly lucky in order to get the way I am. Not everyone gets the chance to attend specialised classes or go to top girls’ schools and get a fancy-schmancy sort of education that allows them the choices that I have been offered. It doesn’t, on a fundamental basis, make me any better than other people.

So  I grew up a little. I got over myself. I kicked myself in the head and said that I would no longer judge people on whether I thought they fell into some pigeonholed definition of “stupid” or “smart”.

I know I still have a long way to go. Such deep prejudice, worked into the psyche, is hard to undo. But I’ll try. Damn, but I’ll try.

Top image: New York Public Library, by flickr user Thomas Hawk, reproduced under a Creative Commons license.


One thought on “On Intellectual Snobbery

  1. Pingback: an old post on intellectual snobbery + rgs in response to an ST column | jud

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