Saturday, November 26, 2011

Judith Shklar and Snobbery

Judith Shklar has a chapter in Ordinary Vices that is rather near and dear to my interests. It’s on snobbery and is titled, of course, “What is wrong with snobbery?”

 Shklar identifies snobbery as adaptable. It can be a symptom of class, something one is born into or works their way to achieve. It is a sign of pedigree, but is also criticized because it can make manifest sins like pride and selfishness.

In the United States, Shklar identifies what she calls “Secondary Snobbery,” which is seen as anti-democratic. She writes, “Somewhere, there had to be a line that marked off legitimate differences of wealth and talent from unacceptably undemocratic and unrepublican political manners and activities (101)."

She notes new breeds of snobbery in the United States, including the importance of people who work and make things with their hands, those who aspire to European class, and those in academia who have their own snobbery.

Of course, where I get most interested in Shklar’s writing is when she discusses snobbery in academia. Shklar remarks, “But in spite of appearances, snobbery is not built into academic work, and certainly not into learning. It just attached itself to them. The real university snob cares more about his society than about his knowledge. (127).”

In other words, if you’re an academic nerd and just love reading books, you’re not a snob, but if you’re all, “Oooooh, I go to Hah-vahd,” you’re a snob.

She continues later to describes why we shouldn’t be so hard on academics:

Academics must always become an excluding group, and even if they should never stoop to personal snobbery, they would still appear snobbish to suspicious outsiders. An actively self-humiliating stance of anti-elitism would hardly serve; it can only disrupt the inner life of learning without really altering the actual situation of the university, which is always visibly apart (132).

Shklar concludes her essay with an interesting point, which is that we should have many different groups so that everyone has an opportunity for inclusion and exclusion. What’s more, snobbery and the groups in which you can think (or make things) offer a certain type of freedom within them that is valuable to democracy (136).

So, to break it down: snobbery can be undemocratic because it excludes, but sometimes that exclusion can be beneficial because it allows a certain space to create handy dandy things.

Here’s where I agree with Shklar: having a group where you can share specific things and be separate so you can focus on your work is incredibly important. That is what working outside of academia has taught me. Working a full time job without having people to bounce ideas off of makes doing this work very difficult. And you also face a crap-ton of criticism about being, oh, well, a snob!

And of course, this blog’s name enters here. I’ve said before that I called it “The Most Pretentious Blog You Will Ever Read” in part to counter such criticism. Yes, I know most people don’t think this way. Yes, I know most people don’t read Shklar for fun, but I also know that the work that is done here (and in academia) is fucking important.

For example, I’ve been researching Joan Tronto recently because Minnesota would be one of those schools I might possibly want to put on my list if I possibly maybe someday decide to finish my PhD. One of the things that Tronto does that is important is to look at the concept of care and how if we rethink it, we come up with a more democratic society. It’s great work, and you only have the time and space for it from within academia (as far as I know, blogging about philosophy does not pay the bills, academia, however, does).

That said, I disagree with Shklar to a degree because there are so many barriers to academia, particularly political science, from being more usefully democratic. I think within certain disciplines, the good snobbery that Shklar advocates (as opposed to being a snob about, say, Harvard), is really detrimental. I‘ve often felt that if you are doing something like political science, which is so united with things like democracy and republican ideals, you ought to make it fairly accessible to people making political decisions.

There is a difference between the snobbish group that allows the freedom to think through important problems and the snobbery that creates an absolute division between those who are privileged to think about things and the people who make decisions. This is connected to what I have identified as No B.S. Discourse: which is talking clearly and not being prohibitively expensive. In other words, you can think from within the snobbish confines of academia, but you’d better be willing to make it expansive enough to include everyone else.

I agree with what Shklar is saying, but a caveat emptor should be attached because if you are writing within a discipline like political science that so affects others, you must think a bit more about how you can be less snobbish and more democratic. Or as Flavia Dzoden puts it (and I really must have this cross-stitched somewhere) my academic, snobbish, pretentious writing must be intersectional or it will be bullshit! But I’d like more space to think about all of this, and maybe it’ll be in academia.

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