Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Elitism, Individualism

Elitism has negative connotations in this supposedly individualistic society because the meaning of the word has changed to mean “people who exhibit privileges, wealth, and position they did not personally earn.” They started with a better hand than most—be that through family, genes, energy, smarts, whatever. The word’s origins are in selection, choice (the Latin eligere). Someone has chosen, elected, or picked out these people—presumably because of their emergent qualities. Using the original sense, all those who win elective office are members of an elite—but such is the onus of this word, candidates make utter fools of themselves trying to show that they’re just Average Joes.

Individualism, of course, derives from the concept of something that cannot be further divided; in practice it means that you can’t saw a person apart to make two. We might as well say human. But we enlarge and distort such words. We have humanism, for example, which asserts that the focus is on humans—rather than the cosmic arrangements of God. Therefore individualism means a focus on the individual rather than powerful collectives able to influence all kinds of human outcomes.

For this focus to work ideally—which it can only do in an impossible world—every baby born would have to be kept to an average achievement, intelligence, beauty, talent, etc. Kurt Vonnegut made fun of this in his wonderful story, “Harrison Bergeron”; it features a Handicapper General.

Elite or elites are the modern terms for aristocracy. That word for me has always had an un-erasable ambiguity. If by “rule” of the “best” we mean the genuinely best, it is laudable. If we means a controlling ruling class that maintains itself by privilege, force, and manipulation, it is problematical. The notion that people should be judged by what they achieve using whatever fortune dealt them is a bit too complicated for use in the Age of the Sound Byte. 

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