Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Snobbery is easier to recognise than to define, Theodore Dalrymple says:

The definition of a snob in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is inadequate. The Penguin English Dictionary does much better. It defines a snob as ‘Someone who tends to patronize or avoid those regarded as social inferiors; someone who blatantly attempts to cultivate or imitate those admired as social superiors; someone who has an air of smug superiority in matters of knowledge or taste.’ The same dictionary defines ‘inverted snob’ as one ‘who sneers indiscriminately at people and things associated with wealth and high society.’ One possible derivation of the word snob is from the Latin sine nobilitate, without nobility.

I doubt whether there is anyone in a modern society who is entirely free of snobbery of some sort, straight or inverted. After all, everyone needs someone to look down on, and the psychological need is the more urgent the more meritocratic a society becomes. This is because, in a meritocracy, a person’s failure is his own, whether of ability, character or effort. In a society in which roles are ascribed at birth and are more or less unchangeable, failure to rise by one’s own achievement is nothing to be ashamed of. To remain at, or worse still to sink down to, the bottom of the pile is humiliating only where a man can go from log cabin to White House. Of course, no society is a pure meritocracy and none allows of absolutely no means of social ascent either; thus my typology is a very rough one, and is not meant to suggest that there is ever a society in which the socially subordinate are perfectly happy with their lot or are universally discontented with it. But it does help to explain why justice, of the kind according which everyone receives his deserts, might not necessarily conduce to perfect contentment. It is obviously more gratifying to ascribe one’s failure to injustice than to oneself, and so there is an inherent tendency in a meritocracy for men to perceive injustice where none has been done.

It is not altogether surprising, then, that small slights are often felt far more grievously, and burn for longer in the mind, than large or gross injustices. A burglary is more easily forgotten than a disdainful remark or gesture, especially one made in public; one might consider this foolish, but it is irreducibly so.

That is why snobbery, when openly expressed, is so hurtful and dangerous. Even quite mild people become furiously angry, sometimes to the point of violence, when too clearly disdained. To let people know that you look down on them, ex officio as it were, is the surest way to provoke their antagonism. By contrast, exploitation (within quite wide but not infinite boundaries) is relatively easy to tolerate.

The antagonism that European colonialism evoked in Africa, for example, was caused more by the evident disdain of many colonialists for the local population than by grosser exploitation. Of course, in some instances the exploitation was so gross as to provoke rebellion; but by the end of colonial rule, when antagonism to it was at its most popular and widespread, the grosser forms of exploitation had been eliminated. Moreover, antagonism to colonial rule was as great in countries which clearly benefited from it economically as in those which it did not. Even economic retrogression in the post-colonial era did not result in calls for a return to the palmy days of colonialism: for no one likes to be an inferior in his own country merely by virtue of having been born in it. Colonialism was experienced as snobbery incarnate, institutionalised disdain, and therefore disliked intensely by those who experienced it.

Knowing the dangers of snobbery, however, is not quite the same as eliminating it from one’s own heart and mind.

Dalrymple admits to being a fearful snob. Writing last month, he admits to looking down on anyone taking the World Cup too seriously.

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