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Won’t Vision Be Elitist?

cDoesn’t having a vision and advocating it imply you know more than other people, and isn’t it therefore elitist? And aren’t visions always visions on behalf of someone, new elities? I don’ want to be elitist so shouldn’t I avoid vision?

Vision can be elitist in two senses.

First, it can be elitist in the way it is created and handled. The aim of this type of elitist vision can be to show off the vocabulary or intelligence of its creator or advocate.  Such vision will be formulated in needlessly complex and obscure language. With these attributes the vision will be held by a relatively small number of people. This group will constitute an “elite.”  It will not have advanced intelligence.  It will not have advanced morals. It will simply have a monopoly on an obscure linguistic creation, arguably a kind of dementia or at least antisociality.

A second sense of elitism in a vision exists if the vision aims to serve a small group rather than a large group. The vision can serve the interests of a narrow elite. Both these types of elitism consign a vision to irrelevance or worse for aiding in creating a worthy society.

What is the solution? Again, as with other problems that can arise from vision, we have to rule out simply not having vision because not having vision is suicidal for serious social change. But more needs to be said. Let’s be a little clear about elitism, first, however. It is not elitist that a few people see something first, or do something first, or advocate others seeing or doing something. It is elitist to undertake such activity in a way that precludes others becoming involved, playing their rightful role. What is elitist is monopolizing leadership. What is anti elitist is having the qualities of leadership, and spreading them.

Consider two somewhat surprising quotes. Emma Goldman wrote:

“the living, vital truth of social and economic well-being will become a reality only through the zeal, courage, the non-compromising determination of intelligent minorities, and not through the mass.”

I think it is misspoken, but it is clearly trying to get at the point made above. And her is Fannie Lou Hamer – another excemplary anti-elitist:

“With the people, for the people, by the people. I crack up when I hear it; I say, with the handful, for the handful, by the handful, `cause that’s what really happens.”.

Again, I think the quote misstates some, but again, it is trying to get at the point. Good ideas and actions do not simultaneously arise all over, at once, but first appear among a few. What happens next is the issue for those worried about elitism, unless we want to have no good actions, no good ideas, at all.

Some people think, to clarify, in an odd manner about this issue. They say to themselves, rightly, that any vision that anyone will hold has to have come from somewhere. It may have lots of antecedents, it may borrow widely, but ultimately, at some point, if it is a shared vision, if it is made public, it must be intoned and written. This last observation they find worrisome. The people who think this, then say to themselves, wait, the people who intone vision or write it are a narrow elite, and the vision is therefore elitist. More, being elitist, the vision will yield horrible outcomes. What can we do?

They come up with a notion: We can have vision, but it must come into existence in a kind of massive outpouring, with no discernable, source. Vision should be written or even intoned, lest those who do that become a narrow elite. Vision must just emerge, in the course of practical activity, taking shape via people’s actions, and not those of a few but of many coming along together.

This again identifies a possible problem, a vision’s early advocates becoming an elite, but opts for a suicidal solution. A vision should have no early advocates, only, amazingly, masses of advocates at once. It is arguably a nice picture, though I even doubt that – think of how homogenous this view makes us all – but it is a fictional picture in any case. It isn’t how new ideas are born, become visible, become refined, and gain adherents. Witness Goldman and Hamer. The actual solution to a vision’s authors or earliest advocates becoming an elite resides partially in their hopefully having an anti sectarian and inclusive approach. But much more so it has to reside not in other people who care about participation shying away out of fear that advocacy is elitist, but in other people paying close attention, becoming advocates in ever wider circles of involvement, and acting flexibly with a premium on innovation and not dogma. The antidote to elitism is involvement.

Other people go in the opposite direction – you can intimate it even in the words of Hamer and Goldman, much less if we were to look, as we will later in this q/a facility, at the words of Leninists – taking the realization that there is unequal development of ideas, actions, values to the wrongful elitist notion that some small group should make decisions for everyone. Obviously we reject that, but it is worth noting.

So a vision could be elitist, but it doesn’t have to be. If we create vision, and we use obscure terminology, it will be elitist. People who do that are either confused or seeking centrality for themselves, not participatory change for society. New vision, however much it borrows from the past, however much it incorporates diverse strands of thought, will still initially have only a few writers, speakers, advocates. If this is a step toward vastly wider involvement, it is not a problem, only a temporary condition. But if this is a final condition, if vision remains over time a possession of a few people, enshrined as a gospel, it will be elitist. If we conceive a vision to serve narrow interests of a few, it will be elitist. But if we create vision using accessible language, if we share it publicly and fully, and if we orient vision to the interests of many, then it need not be elitist. In fact, the ironic truth is that those who avoid vision out of fear of elitism are, in fact, ultimately making an elitist visionary process possible. The only solution to elitism is not rejection of involvement, but energetic and continually enlarging involvement.

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