I had a conversation with a friend of mine yesterday, and it was one of those conversations that seem to dovetail with a bunch of others, to the point where it shines a light of clarity on some of the darker corners of your mind. Without getting into detail on the specific conversation, what it really brought out for me was a cold look at my own sense of elitism, one that has two main sources: my past and my present. (Yes, that's pretty vague, but I'm going somewhere with this. Bear with.)
The past aspect involves my upbringing. I come from a rural community and my feelings towards growing up there are really ambiguous: I'm proud to have come from there, but at the same time, a part of me, sometimes a large part, feels pretty alienated from it. Every now and then, something happens that really draws the latter to my mind. Most recently, it was this blog:
It's a blog about a well-traveled woman who opens a restaurant in a small town--and then proceeds to eviscerate that town in every sense of the word. It's essentially a case of small town mentality clashing with her personal world view, and the result isn't pretty. The woman, Wendy, is actually downright offensive at times, and the sheer vitriol of her writing makes it, at times, extremely distasteful. It could be argued that it is entirely a satiric piece, but there's far, far too many details specific for "Humbug" for that to be the case. She goes way too far--I'd support exposing the hypocrisy of the extreme homophobia that goes on in rural Saskatchewan, but when you're outing an area's local priests for no purpose than showing how "backwards" the people there are, then you've really gone about things in the wrong way.
(Two quick sidenotes here: first, some readers not knowing my personal background may think that it's my own hometown she's describing. It's not. My town's nearby, but "Humbug" is not it. Second: where was this woman when I was looking for a paper topic for my autobiography/blogging course? Considering the identity she constructs for herself and the ideologies she claims to be present in the "Humbuggers" (her, frankly, offensive term, not mine), there's a rhetorical goldmine here.)
Like I said, Wendy's attitude is less than even-handed, and fairly off-putting. The word "fuck" appears 72 times in her post (usually, interestingly, in her recollection of her own speech) and the word "hick" 16 times (alienating one's customer base may not be a sound business decision). But at the same time, as much as I disliked her tone, I never doubted what she said about the townfolk, even at their supposed worst. And until I talked with my brother about it, I didn't even realize I believed it. "Come on," he told me. "We know some of these people. Don't you think they deserve the benefit of a doubt?" I didn't extend to people I'd known for years the same courtesy I'd extend to complete strangers; I wanted to believe the worst about them. For me, it came down first to a small town vs. big city issue and I immediately picked my side. I've demonized some of these people in my mind, and they deserve better. I'm not sure why, but I feel the need to distance myself from those roots, to feel like bringing myself to out of province university somehow entitles me to look down on them. And realizing that I sometimes feel that way consequently makes me realize what an entitled and false world view that really is.
And that brings us neatly from the past into the present. I'm a doctoral candidate (and there's a self-aggrandizing position description for you) in a G13 Ontario university, studying in a field broadly categorizeable as the liberal arts. At this level, there is a lot of ego and abstraction involved, and you have to be aware that some elitist thinking can creep into your world view. I haven't been very aware, and the recent reality shock is part of the price I'm paying for that. I think the symptoms of late have included some somewhat racist behavior (that we are NOT going to get into, and may possibly stem more the rural upbringing), an aggrandizement of my work's importance, and a disdain towards my TA responsibilities.
Now, what follows holds true for me personally; your own mileage may vary. In the arts especially, there's occasionally a sense of entitlement that we enrich the community in a way that other, more impersonal departments, like mathematics or engineering, do not, that our grass roots extend further. For some people, this is actually true, and they work damn hard to keep it true. But just as often, this sort of reasoning is a liberal self-congratulatory excuse to stay within the confines of an insular institution. I'm a pretty insular person by nature, but some times, I need a reminder that there is more out there, and as a member of society, I have a responsibility towards all of it.
And a big part of that responsibility, currently, is the one I have towards my students. I don't want to give the wrong impression here; I teach my tutorials, and I mark my papers, and my students get what help I can give on both. But due to the nature of the course I'm TAing for this term, and my looming comp exams, if something is left to slide, it's usually going to be the tutorial prep time. More than once this term, I've been called out on making fun of a grammar mistake or sentence construction rather than trying to see the paper from the student's point of view.
There's a streak of narcissism at work there, and it's something that may be impossible to entirely eliminate because it's so deeply embedded in what I do. During the school years, high academics was how I distinguished myself, so it's largely a part of my identity. While it was far from my only motive, part of the reason I did a double degree in Math and English in university was because I wanted to make myself stand out again. Even this post topic comes from a conversation with a friend that I'm bending to my own ends. Hell, writing a blog is undeniably one of the greatest narcissistic acts--look at me, I'm so important that people should spend time reading about me! I don't know what I can do about some of that--I think some narcissism is embedded in the idea of personal identity. But there must be something I can change.
And that's the first part of the next step, I guess: what to change. Ideally, what I'd like to do is find something that I find socially appealing and enjoy, but it's not going to be easy. I don't think the answer, for the moment, at least, is a change of careers; I truly enjoy what I'm doing, and though it's not really that socially relevant, I kind of believe that making a positive difference means that you have to start from doing work that you like, and move outwards from there. I suppose I could go further in the direction of dedicating myself to teaching, but... both my parents were teachers. I know the level of dedication and commitment necessary to truly be a great teacher, and I don't have that, not right now.
I know friends who find a lot of what they need through volunteer work, but that doesn't quite feel right for me either. I'm a little too uncomfortable around strangers for that, and it tends to just make me feel more distant. I've talked about political activism before, and it's not the ticket any more than religious activism is, largely for the same reason: I believe that if you pursue a cause like that, it should be because you truly believe in it, not because you're looking to make up for some gap in yourself.
I guess the answer for me personally, for the moment (there's that phrase again), is to just keep my eyes open, see my actions for what they are, and look for opportunities to change.
This has been a pretty reflective post. Expect a return next time to a description of my time at an international arts conference. So yeah, back to the elitism.