Friday, December 29, 2017

The Danger of Elitism

In a way, this post is a follow-up to this one that I wrote last year.  My previous post talked about how the cult mentality affects learning and can chill communication and even motivation for people new to the "cult."

Since then, I've been thinking a lot about how negative some of the stuff on Facebook is, but I think it goes beyond that.  I just couldn't put my finger on exactly what it was that seemed to cross disciplines and topics and demographics.  It wasn't only the cult mentality; there was something else too.

Well, today I think I may have had an epiphany about what the problem is.  Elitism.  (Please humor me if you already came to that conclusion and wondered why it took me so long or even if you disagree...)  It's a word that means, among other things, "consciousness of being or belonging to an elite."  Except that maybe people think they belong to something that is elite, when it really isn't.  For example, supporting a particular political party and the platform for which it stands is not being elite.  There are only two major ones and based on some very close elections, about half of the people who vote belong to one and half to the other.  There is nothing specific about either party that indicates it is better than the other.  (I'm very sorry if that offends you, but if it makes you feel better, I tend to be critical of both parties, less because of the beliefs many members have and more because of the way they go about trying to accomplish an agenda.)

Here's another example.  When I was in high school, there was no doubt in any of my teachers' minds that I was a special, smart student.  I mostly paid attention in class and when I didn't, they knew it was because I was bored out of my mind, and usually gave me a pass.  (Except in Geometry and that one time in German class...but I digress.)  I knew I was smart.  I hung out with a few other kids who were smart.  And we fancied ourselves as quite a bit above the masses because we were smart.  And not just smart, but we were "going places" (i.e. anywhere that wasn't North Dakota).  We didn't drink.  We didn't do drugs.  We didn't have indiscriminate sex.  We didn't go around breaking the law or cruising main street because we were too good to do those things.  We played games (not involving drinking) and read high level books and watched deep movies.  We were in Speech Team and Student Congress and we thought we were cooler for it.  

Looking back on those days, I cringe sometimes because of what an obnoxious know-it-all I must have been (Hermione Granger, anyone?).  Simply put, I thought I was better than everyone else except my closest friends.  Thankfully, life has thrown more than a few challenges my way, and I think I'm slowly getting over how awesome I thought I was (although I do still amaze myself sometimes with my brilliance, but then I put my keys in the fridge or my cell phone in the linen closet and reality strikes).

Or how about this?  Today I was lurking in one of the horse-related Facebook forums that I belong to, and I could not believe how many times I saw someone call a person who did not have the same level of commitment or knowledge stupid or dumb.  I chimed in to the conversation in what I hoped was a gentle way to redirect some of the negative comments, but it didn't work.  And I am so revolted.

I am revolted when anyone who doesn't believe the same thing (whether it is about the Hot Topics like abortion, gun control, racism, immigration, etc. or dressage, endurance, or horse care) is basically attacked because they ask a question or express an opinion that opposes someone else.  I've seen my friends write the most horrible things about Trump voters on Facebook and seen equally horrible things about Clinton supporters.  I've seen posts on keeping betta fish degenerate into name calling of the poor soul who dared ask if it was OK to keep the fish in a one-gallon bowl (it isn't, but that doesn't mean you go after the person with a verbal knife - you provide educational information and then walk away to let the person make their own decision because Facebook isn't a dictatorship).

At first all this polarization of issues and lack of consideration for other view points seemed like it was a product of poorly educated people.  Or maybe people who were just chronically sleep-deprived or over-worked or worried about whether they would have a job next year.  But today as I watched the conversation on the Facebook horse forum, I realized it was about elitism.  It is this idea that if you believe something, you are part of an elite group in society (even if half the country believes the same thing).  People who don't believe as you do are automatically and easily dismissed as stupid or intolerant or racist or bigoted, or whatever other name you can call someone because they don't belong to your group.  While I will acknowledge that there are some beliefs that are pretty horrible no matter how you look at them, the majority of beliefs are not.  Seriously.  This world would be a much better place if we could start with the assumption that the other person is not stupid and believes what they believe for a legitimate reason. 

But I don't think this sense of elitism stops with beliefs about political, religious, or social issues.  It has permeated our lives to the point where we believe if we keep our horses barefoot or ride in a hackamore (or a double bridle) or use a treeless saddle (or a treed saddle) or practice dressage or complete endurance rides or jump cross country that we are somehow better than other people who don't do those things or even people who do do those things but dare to ask a question that allows us to conclude they don't know as much as we do (regardless of our actual experience level).

I'm sure that I've been guilty of an elitist attitude more than just when I was in high school.  But now that I think I have a better understanding of what is going on, I am making a commitment to not only recognize it and work to eliminate it from my own communication but to try to gently bring awareness when I see it happening with someone else.  (I'm probably the last person who should be attempting diplomacy, so be prepared for a swath of offended people...possibly starting with this post...)

Because when I see the elitist attitude taking over a conversation (or comment thread), I see the chill it has on creative thought.  Some of the very things that are so entrenched in America today are things that were revolutionary and even scary at the time they originated.  I mean, we are a country founded by people who committed treason.  (According to a friend of mine who is actually a legitimate legal scholar, that is why a lot of things that you think might be treason really are not - it was a pretty sensitive issue at the time the Constitution was written!)

But elitism doesn't just chill creative thought.  It shuts down any kind of communication unless it is with people who purport to share your beliefs and ideas.  Because if I know all you are going to do is mock me or say bad things to or about me, I will never express my real thoughts around you.  And then you never get exposed to anything else.  And if you never have to question what you believe or thoughtfully defend your position, how can you be certain that your belief is really what you should be believing?  And maybe even worse, is it so critical for your own sense of self-worth that you must put someone else down because they haven't reached the same conclusion that you have?

Through this blog, I try to explore subjects that are difficult for me.  Over the time I have owned horses, I've had some pretty concrete beliefs about what was best for my horse.  As it turns out, I probably didn't know what I was thinking.  But if I still hold the belief today (e.g. horses should spend most of their time turned out and have constant access to hay or grass), then it is because I've spent some time questioning it and researching it before deciding to keep it.  And that belief and everything else is still on the table.  It has to be or I will not grow as a horse person.

Obviously, it is too much to ask that a person constantly questions everything all the time.  We'd all be lunatics if we couldn't form our belief system.  But I am advocating the idea that if you post something on Facebook or (God forbid!) have a live conversation with someone and that person asks you a question about what you are saying that leads you to believe they don't agree with you or know less than you do, imagine that as an opportunity to learn more about why you believe the way you do and why the other person might believe differently.  Even on issues like abortion and gun control (or blanketing and shoeing), there is room in the middle.  Not every issue must be black and white.  And not every question has an answer that is most certainly right or most certainly wrong.

When I look back on what I've been doing with Nimo since I started this blog, I can see that nothing happened the way I thought it would (I mean, if I can just have a 45 minute ride in the arena without a surprise, it's a miracle!).  But what I don't see are "right" and "wrong" choices.  They are just choices.  Sometimes I made a mistake, but even the mistakes aren't really wrong.  Mistakes happen because we aren't omniscient.  Making them doesn't mean we are stupid (nor does it give us the right to lecture everyone else because we "know" something is true).

And all of those choices and all of those mistakes are slowly leading me to the conclusion that the more I learn about horses, the less I really know.  There was a time when I think I actually did write that I would never put another bit in Nimo's mouth.  Now I put two of them in there as an experiment.  There was a time that I said I would never use a treeless saddle.  And now I ride in one exclusively (although I haven't sold my treed saddles because I might want to use them again).  If I had taken the bitless or the treeless step and then only hung out with or communicated with people who supported bitless or treeless riding, where would I be if I had an issue?  I would have frozen out my other options because of a belief that to-date does not have the scientific support needed to shut down riding with bits or treed saddles.  And while I don't think you have to have scientific proof obtained through a double-blind study and published in a peer-reviewed journal in order to believe something is true or even the best choice, I think that we need to be cautious about our conclusions when there isn't science available.  And we need to be cautious even when there is science available, because how many times has science overturned a previously-held conclusion?

But most importantly, we need to allow reasonably unconstrained debate and questions and disagreement on all sorts of issues.  We need to practice the way we disagree with someone and defend our view point so that we can better educate ourselves or maybe, just maybe, realize that we aren't that right after all.

And so it will be my continued goal to continue to question and debate and think and write about all sorts of horse-related issues here on my blog - and I may occasionally poke the bear on Facebook when it comes to other sorts of things:)


  1. Beautifully written! And oh so true.

  2. As always, live your thoughtful commentary on all things. And agree wholeheartedly. I saw something the other day...wish I had written it down. It went roughly along the lines of "no one has every made themselves great by making someone else feel small..."

    1. That's a great quote, Jo! Definitely something to live by:)

  3. This is so on point. And I love your philosophy of discussing things online. You give information and that's all you can really do... Calling someone stupid or dumb is certainly not going to convince them!