This last weekend, I was at a convention for the company I’m interning at. The company? Just Food. Just Food is about providing urban populations with local food, primarily fruits and vegetables, with an emphasis on helping underserved communities. As you can guess, the convention was comprised of hippies (one teaching assistant poured me some water into a compostable bowl from a pitcher with the cut of a plant in it, and said, “we’re drinking to celebrate the passion and creation within all of us”) to upper middle class, older progressives.
The crowd, especially the latter group, reminded me of the stereotypical Californian, and a story I had heard but don’t really remember; apparently, my brother was ostracized as a child because he had been born and lived for four years in Los Angeles. See, in Montana, Californians are considered elitists — really, Californian elitists are a pretty commonly accepted group nationwide, but in Montana and the Midwest they are especially well known and despised, to the extent that a politician who drives a Prius (a “California car”) is at a disadvantage.
If Californians are considered elitist, than the people at this conference must surely be elitists, too; everyone there was concerned with waste reduction, fuel efficiency, renewable energy, etc. You know, the same things that Californians are.
In America, we hate the idea of the elite, to the extent that it came to be one of the main talking points in the 2000 election, with Al Gore being that elitist who harped on climate change and George Bush being the champion of guys you’d really like to go have beer with. And the idea of elitism is clearly not even directly linked to money, as Obama was smeared as an elitist even when facing off against McCain, who owned seven homes, 13 cars, and had access to a private jet.
What this spells out is simple: somehow, if you want to help those around you you are an “elitist.” Caring about people who aren’t your family, aren’t directly in your neighborhood, or aren’t a member of your church makes you a member of the elite. After all, why would you want to help those you don’t interact with?
I’m here to say something I am sure I will have to say many, many times in the future: empathy is not elitist. Wanting to protect the environment so that future generations don’t have massive, avoidable flooding, fires, and droughts is not something I should be stigmatized for. Thinking that all people should have access to nutritious food, potable water, and adequate shelter, no matter what part of the world they live in or how economically productive they are, is not something I should feel apologetic for. Thinking everyone should receive a basic education and be free to pursue a higher education if they so choose for free is not something that should earn me ridicule.
These things don’t make me elitist: they make me the exact opposite.
The fact that I think no one should suffer — especially not because of my actions — is not due to some noblesse oblige (the idea that people with power/wealth should take care of lower class people because they’re obligated to). It’s this little thing called I care about other humans. Ignoring people outside your community, your race, your social class, your sexuality — ignoring people at all for any of those reasons — that’s elitist. Thinking others should be fine on their own because you were fine on your own (assuming you actually were ever on your own) doesn’t make you a pragmatic fan of tough love; it makes you an apathetic jerk.
I want to help the poor and the uneducated so one day they are neither poor nor uneducated. I want a safety net that works better and social security that is constantly improving. I want an environment that continues to support both humans and the other species that exist on this planet. You think that makes me an elitist? Then you don’t know what it means to truly care about things that don’t directly benefit you, and that makes you among the most brazenly elitist people I’ve ever met.