Quite a few discussion of elitism and snobbery have been leveled in recent months in these forums -- mostly in restaurant reviews and, less seriously, in discussions of some international food-oriented nonprofits, but also in topics as diverse as human rights in Iowa, city vs. suburb, and national politics.
What's really striking about this fact, to me, is that the American definition of "middle class" is so expansive that it's practically useless: according to a recent NORC survey, 50% of families earning between $20,000 and $40,000 a year and 17% of families earning over $110,000 a year considered themselves to be "middle class" or "working class." In such a society, one would think that elites would be hard to come by, yet charges of elitism and snobbery seem to be leveled without much hesitation.
This came to mind recently when I ran across an entry on The Accidental Hedonist, written by Kate Hopkins, that is worth quoting in its entirety:
I've been thinking about what it means to be a snob, trying to come up with an adequate definition. People often joke about being a snob, but the truth is that most people are not.
Part of the problem is that people mistake being particular for being snobby. Being particular means being hard to please, mostly because whomever is being particular has some standards that they wish to be met. It doesn't matter if these standards on any personal preference (No margarine for me thanks") or some moral code (No meat for me thanks!), these are not actions of one being a snob, but one based in reason.
Snobbery is disguised as reason, but works with an additional set of rules. Not only is there a choice based on some set of standards, but being a snob also comes with a sense of superiority based off of those standards. This superiority allows them to look upon those who don't share their beliefs as "less". Whether it's "less intelligent", "less cultured", "less moral", it doesn't matter. A snob is one who uses their standards to place themselves as being better than others.
The food world is rife with these sorts of folks, and often thrives because of them.
So, if this is an acceptable definition, who would be a food snob? From my own perspective, I endeavor never to denigrate individual choices, but I have no problem in criticizing institutions. However, I can see where people would think that this would be a snob-like behavior, especially if they are emotionally invested in whatever institution that I'm writing about.
Would you consider yourself a snob? Or do you think that my definition needs some work?
This resonates with me, though my own sense is that snobbery (with regard to food) can involve not just looking down on other people for liking certain food but looking down on that food itself in a particularly arrogant manner.
An example will clarify. Let's say that I don't like, I don't know, White Castle hamburgers (don't worry, Roland, it's just an example). To my way of thinking, there's nothing wrong with saying "I'll pass on those, thanks -- they're not really my thing." There's everything wrong with saying, "People who like White Castle hamburgers will never understand good food." (It's idiotic, for one thing, but it's also snobbish.) The third category of behavior -- which I would call snobbish but Kate, I gather, wouldn't --, involves arguing, even implicitly, that one's own tastes are in fact the tastes to which all right-thinking people should subscribe. In this view White Castle hamburgers are objectively disgusting and no one in his or her right mind could disagree (a tough claim to make as long as you subscribe to the premise that tastes are subjective).
My sense is that what people mean by "elitism" is far more divorced from what dictionaries say it should be (e.g., from Wikipedia: "the belief or attitude that those individuals who are considered members of the elite â€” a select group of people with outstanding personal abilities, intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes â€” are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight; whose views and/or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern.") By contrast, in politics elitism tends (imo) to be used as a way to mobilize people who are thought to be culturally sensitive to the notion that other people (coastal types, well-educated types, etc.) see themselves as "better" in some way; and in food it seems that the definition of an elitist is someone whose six-pack of beer costs at least $1 more than your own.
I wouldn't be as curious about these terms or their use in everyday discourse if it weren't for the fact that 21st century Americans seem to be extraordinarily sensitive to them and go out of their way to avoid being accused of either -- while all the while, lobbing the terms at others with reckless abandon. I have to wonder whether a little conceptual clarity might be useful.