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.