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Can Anything Curb our Snobbish Tendencies

and the Instinctive Drive for Superiority?

My life has been spent in greater or less communion with five centres of higher learning, as that term, often loosely, is used... In all five universities, as they now are, I suffered from a problem in personal relations that I never quite overcame. This was not so much from being more versatile, more diligent or perhaps more able than my colleagues. Such can be tolerated. The damage arose from my fear, which I earlier indicated and which I never quite suppressed, that my superiority would not be recognized.

John Kenneth Galbraith

“We Germans are the most industrious, the most earnest, the best-educated race in Europe,” one German intellectual proclaimed to an American journalist in 1914. “Russia stands for reaction, England for selfishness and perfidy, France for decadence, Germany for progress.” While that was special pleading to a neutral at the outbreak of war, the belief it expressed was broadly shared and married to the deep desire to see Germany’s glory acknowledged by the world at large.

Thomas Levenson (from Einstein in Berlin, 2003)

The upper-class English are not, like their American equivalents, overtly anti-semitic, but they create a milieu in which Jews seem outlandish, and therefore feel alien and ill-at-ease. The worst thing we do to well-off Jews in England is to make them as stupid, snobbish and philistine as the well-off natives. This is our version of Dachau.

Malcolm Muggeridge

Cambridge University was a sobering experience for a young man [in this case Marshall McLuhan] who with good reason thought of himself as the brightest person in any given classroom... It was also a new social universe. Years later McLuhan remembered the occasion when the famous novelist and poet Charles Williams appeared before some Cambridge students: Williams nearly fell at the feet of his audience in shame over his lack of a public school accent. McLuhan was astounded that such a man should be so embarrassed in front of students who were not fit to change his typewriter ribbon. His own Canadian accent was a lesser liability than, say that of a grocer’s son from Leeds. Nevertheless, he felt soon enough that he was a hick. Other undergraduates treated this outsider with gracious and affable condescension, but the more McLuhan attempted to impress his opinions on them, the more their affability was tried. Nevertheless, they were always polite to him... Perhaps in self-defense, McLuhan soon satisfied himself that most of the students were basically mediocre; what he termed his “firm conviction of my superiority” remained unshaken. That conviction did not entirely cancel out the unpleasant sensation of being considered an outsider, however. It was a sensation he always remembered. In later life, “yokel” was a term of abuse he employed with the relish of a man who knows how badly it can hurt.

Philip Marchand (biographer)

[Based on a diary he kept while at Harrow from 1902 to 1906, Arnold Lunn wrote a very accurate and very critical description of life at England’s second most prestigious public school. Entitled The Harrovians, it was the first public criticism of England’s elite schools and it attracted a lot of hostile attention. In the following excerpt the author makes it clear just how good Harrow was at inculcating class consciousness.]

The captain of the house Eleven had invited me to attend his leaving supper. A compliment, for only those who moved in the upper ranks of house society were invited to such functions. I blushed and murmured my thanks. “Take that grin off,” said my courteous host. “There is no reason either to grin or to swank. I have asked you because you are a funny little madder, and you’ve got to make a speech, and, my Lord, if you don’t make us laugh you’re for it!”

This was not mere badinage. If my speech had been a failure I should have been lucky to escape a summary beating.

I slunk into supper feeling unhappy, for I knew that my presence lowered the social tone of the party and provoked the resentment of those who had only just scraped an invitation, the value of which was clearly discounted by the fact that I was included among the guests. I sat at the end of a long bench. My nearest neighbour edged away from me and ostentatiously addressed his remarks to his other neighbour. Nobody addressed a word to me throughout this cheerful function. I was left to my thoughts, and these were by no means reassuring. I had never spoken in public, and I had no reason to suppose that I would speak well. And if I did not earn my dinner by making my host laugh there would be trouble—grave trouble. Seldom can a maiden speech have been delivered under more trying circumstances.

“Now then, Sally,” said my host genially, “get on with it, and remember what I told you.”

I did remember what he told me only too clearly. Fortunately my first joke, a pretty poor one, was a success. From that moment public speaking had no terrors for me.

[Wilfrid Sheed, whose parents Frank Sheed (a lower-middle-class Australian) and Maisie Ward (from the English upper crust) founded the Catholic publishing house Sheed & Ward, mentions Arnold Lunn in his parental memoir, Frank & Maisie.]

Bernard Shaw maintained that you have to keep telling the English how great you are until it finally sinks in. Frank leaned if anything in the other direction, toward self-deprecating irony. Maisie, the real snob in the family—and she fought it all her days, as she fought her slight overweight—liked to tell of an exchange between him and Sir Arnold Lunn (father of the slalom and a big noise in the Catholic raj), which concluded with Frank saying, “You see, perhaps I’m just provincial after all,” and Lunn nodding, “Perhaps that’s it.” Maisie thought it hugely funny that anyone should consider Frank provincial, but I find the story a sad little thing. Maisie thought Frank’s gifts were self-evident and blinding. But to the Lunns and Waughs he may have been just a bouncy fellow from the Outback, surprisingly clever, who published one’s books, as he might make one’s boots.

It is, perhaps, regrettable that man is a hierarchical animal, with an invincible tendency to create distinctions, but the realist starts from facts, and does not plan for the future on the assumption that a classeless society is realisable in this geological period. The only result of abolishing an aristocracy of birth is to substitute an aristocracy of money, or, as in Russia, of quasi-hereditary bureaucrats.

Arnold Lunn (from Come What May, 1941)

When everybody is somebody, nobody is anybody.

A [school] prefect called Blugg or Glubb or some such name stood opposite me, belching in my face, giving me some order. The belching was not intended as an insult. You can’t “insult” a fag [i.e. a new boy that was required to act as a servant to the school athlete-aristocrats, or “bloods” as they were called] any more than an animal. If Blugg had thought of my reactions at all, he would have expected me to find his eructations funny. What pushed me over the edge into pure priggery was his face—the puffy bloated cheeks, the thick, moist, sagging lower lip, the yokel blend of drowsiness and cunning. “The lout!” I thought. “The clod! The dull, crass clown! For all his powers and privileges, I would not be he.” I had become a prig, a High-Brow.

C. S. Lewis




Thoughts about Snobbishness & Superiority

A simple rule in dealing with those who are hard to get along with is to remember that this person is striving to assert his superiority; and you must deal with him from that point of view.

Alfred Adler

[George Bernard] Shaw’s main impulse towards other human beings was to establish a dominant relationship over them.

Michael Holroyd (biographer)

An attitude of superiority often conceals a feeling of inferiority.

Exaggerated sensitiveness is an expression of the feeling of inferiority.

Alfred Adler

Four powers govern man, avarice, lust, fear and snobbishness.

The true snob never rests; there is always a higher goal to attain, and there are, by the same token, always more and more people to look down upon.

J. Russell Lynes

It is easier to make a saint out of a libertine than out of a prig.

George Santayana

A teenage vegetarian who thinks he’s morally superior to his classmates who dine at Burger King is flirting with a spiritual pride that is more disastrous than any amount of meateating could ever be.

Philip Marchand

It is not true that people are naturally equal for no two people can be together for even a half an hour without one acquiring an evident superiority over the other.

Samuel Johnston

[When he was at Oxford, Northrop Frye, who had been ordained in Canada as a minister of the United Church, was tracked down by an Anglican minister who assumed that they could “talk over the heads of the unregenerate.” Frye bristled.]

It’s curious that a snobbery which I take for granted when it’s intellectual or artistic I resent when it’s moral.

Northrop Frye

We all agree that pessimism is a mark of superior intellect.

John Kenneth Galbraith

Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

Eleanor Roosevelt

We are all apt to believe what the world believes about us.

George Eliot

Obviously no one can afford to believe in the intrinsic superiority of one people over another.

Peter Ustinov

Few things rile human nature like a claim to superiority, especially moral or spiritual superiority.

Perhaps no sin so easily besets us as a sense of self-satisfied superiority to others.

William Osler

Intolerance is the most socially acceptable form of egotism, for it permits us to assume superiority without personal boasting.

Sydney J. Harris

Racism is the snobbery of the poor.

Raymond Aron

The Art Snob can be recognized in the home by the quick look he gives the pictures on your walls, quick but penetrating, as though he were undressing them. This is followed either by complete and pained silence or a comment such as “That’s really a very pleasant little water color you have there.”

The true definition of a snob is one who craves for what separates men rather than for what unites them.

John Buchan

The general assumption of deference to one’s social superiors, an assumption common among all classes a hundred years ago, has almost entirely disappeared.

What men value in this world is not rights, but privileges.

H. L. Mencken

What makes equality such a difficult business is that we only want it with our superiors.

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