I just finished reading a post on skepchick.org about IQ elitism within the skeptic community. I think carr2d2 did a great job of highlighting the problem, so I thought I’d elaborate a little on elitism and how it affects us, because I run into elitism in many ways, including ways in which it relates to my work and my attempts at activism (in all my favorite topics). This is a topic that relates to everything I do, not just in the sex industry and not just in my small involvement with the skeptic community and my advocacy of science. I see this problem everywhere, in all of those categories. Thus, no matter which group you come from, I hope you will read this, because this pertains to you.
Elitism is a specific kind of prejudice that is specific to people who feel their qualities are better than those of others based on traits that are less innate and are considered more acquired characteristics that they feel gives them a better standing to provide information, make decisions or otherwise hold a position of better social standing. The following are some short descriptions of examples:
It is, perhaps, not well known that Madame Curie was in love once before she would meet her dear Pierre Curie. Her first love was a more youthful kind and happened at a time when she was known as Marya Sklodovska. At the age of 19, Marya, known as “Manya” to her family, was working as a governess, aiding in the education of the three younger children of a family in Szczuki who had an older brother named Casimir. Casimir wanted to marry young Marya and told his parents who made it known that Marya’s position as a governess made her completely unsuitable for marriage, despite her extreme intellect and good family. Marya’s shattered dream disallowed her to experience that kind of romance again for years.
The story of Pygmalion, while not being a specific, real example, is a story that revolves around the problem of elitism. The character of Eliza Doolittle was a theme for her time that highlighted the different views that society had of the lower class and under-educated in comparison to the upper class and articulate people like the character Henry Higgins.
As a final example, I’m going to use myself, because I’m narcissistic like that. I have the most pleasant opportunity these days to communicate with people from social groups that I never would have dreamed of just a few years ago. Just by nature of being myself, I’ve been able to make friends (and acquaintances) with people in science and skepticism, some of them are prominent and some are not. Of those, I have found that interesting experiences happen just because of my work. Some of this is due to elitism and some of it is due to them not wanting to get into trouble with their peers. I’m aware enough of context to have the ability to tell which is which so I don’t mind the latter so much as I do the former. My work and my personality are things that people have a tough time not building stereotypes around and people naturally shove me down onto another social rung as a result. To illustrate how just being me does this, let me highlight something that was in another carr2d2 skepchick post that carr2d2 linked to in her post, which quoted another blog:
Just as an example, one woman (I would guess her age at about 20yo) wore a dressy black blouse with extremely tight cut-off denim short-shorts, thigh-high fishnet stockings, and 2-inch patent leather strappy spike heals which were at least 2 sizes too small. No kidding.
I strongly suspect that this woman was describing me. Though I’m 31 and what I was wearing wasn’t fishnet stockings, they were criss-cross designed tights (easily confused with fishnet, a subject which was mentioned in a conversation I had with a friend of Heidi Anderson’s as we waited outside a restaurant for a table to open so we could have a nice, Thai dinner on one of the evenings of TAM), my shorts were not cut-offs (I may dress like a slut, but I admit to being picky about my clothes) and my leather shoes fit just fine (I have to dance in them and were they too small, I couldn’t do that), the description is a pretty good match to some of the clothes I wore at TAM7, even a specific outfit I wore. That’s the style I dress in most of the time. I don’t recall seeing anyone else at TAM dressed similarly and while I could have missed seeing it, I know that if I had seen someone dressed similar to me, I would have noticed and remembered. So while it is possible that there was some fashion clone of mine at TAM, the odds seem pretty fair, to me, that this woman was discriminating against my clothes (although exaggerating or misremembering minor details of them). That being said, what is important to note is the fact that she highlighted the clothes in order to separate me (or my fashion clone) from the types of women she expects to see at a conference.
I run into another form of elitism when I interact with other people in the sex industry who are trying to do activist work. There is a clear division between the under-educated sex workers and those who are well educated and many of them are trying to educate. I’ve seen a few people who do their best to try to bridge this gap and I’ve seen them struggle with it. Tara Birl is the first person who comes to mind (I admire her, I really do, anybody in any part of the sex industry should be casting her a red rose full of gratitude). Even I have been mildly guilty of the aforementioned bigotry, not in the sense that I want to belittle or be cruel to people based on their intellect, but in the sense that I am keenly aware of when someone’s educational background is so different than mine that I have to intentionally steer myself to react to them in the most productive, friendly way that I can so that we can both gain from the experience instead of suffering at the hands of my own biases.
Elitism is prejudice. It is a form of bigotry that stems from in-group/out-group behavior that set our ancestors against each other from the beginnings of our known history and probably even farther back than that. As far as evolutionary history is concerned, this kind of thinking unifies a group, deeming the out-group as less valuable, and so, less worthy of assistance in survival as the members of the in-group. This kind of thinking is one of the key players in most forms of bigotry, making room for classism, racism and most other forms of prejudice. It is this kind of behavior that allows us to shove others out of our own circles and which we use to justify any form of malicious treatment of them.
For those of us who want to change people’s minds for the better, this can be a particularly large problem. If we, either accidentally or on purpose, set ourselves apart from some of our peers by classifying them differently, we risk making them feel like they’re so much of an outsider that they don’t belong. This problem can easily be reinforced by our peers and theirs, people who might reinforce the same stereotypes, shutting down those that we need the most in our efforts to simply make the world a better place.
So how do we solve this problem? Well, to the same tune that I always sing, education. Carr2d2′s post does a good job of highlighting the problem for people, but people really need to make an effort to find signs that this is going on. We have to try to look for the signs that we might be reinforcing this behavior in others or that we might be displaying it ourselves. Instead of noticing, first, our differences with others, we need to search for similarities that we can acknowledge with those differences and then decide if the differences really matter or if we need to build some sort of sensitivity to those differences; we can then build relationships from there. I may be a sex worker and someone reading this may be a scientist, but we both have an interest in educating others and when I step into a conversation about quackery, the facts about my job are irrelevant. Likewise, my job as a phone sex worker should not be seen as important in a discussion with my peers about their work as prostitutes unless it is applicable to the discussion at hand (which happens sometimes, but rarely). Noticing these faults of ours can take a lot of work, we have to actively ask ourselves if we’re reacting to someone appropriately and if we’re expressing ourselves in such a manner that we’re not driving a wedge between ourselves and our peers.