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Blog // Thoughts
November 7, 2007

Populist Elitism or De Haut En Bas

This is a follow-up to some recent comments about misguided populism in Christian writing – cobbled together from various emails and online discussions over the last six months. On a number of occasions I’ve heard (or read) Christian writers, speakers or educators advocating a populist approach to communication, by which I think they mean we […]

This is a follow-up to some recent comments about misguided populism in Christian writing – cobbled together from various emails and online discussions over the last six months.

On a number of occasions I’ve heard (or read) Christian writers, speakers or educators advocating a populist approach to communication, by which I think they mean we should make our language as plain and accessible as possible. The idea (or perhaps assumption), is that in doing so we remove potential barriers to being understood by ‚”ordinary people.”

I’ve long felt uncomfortable with phrases like “ordinary people,” “man on the street,” “regular guy/bloke” and so on. Michael Bywater described the phrase, “ordinary people,” as “…another term of contempt, masquerading as egalitarianism, deployed by television people and politicians.”

Whilst clarity and concision are virtues to which every communicator should aspire, the reality is that all concepts have a limit to how far they can be simplified. Beyond a point, stripping out complexity starts to rob ideas of their power, their background and most importantly their content.

Let’s take a step back and consider the implied logic of the populist. They look at the world and assume their speech must be made less complex – why? Because they also assume most people they meet are not equipped to understand them, not just on arcane matters like theology, but also on more general issues of life and morality.

Doesn’t that smack of the worst kind of elitism? Assuming one is better educated, better informed and better in touch with reality than everyone else? Faced with such an overarching sense of superiority, the populist has no choice but to speak down to everyone they meet.

It’s such a delicious irony!

This is part of why I’ve systematically rejected populism in my public speech and writing – I’m not comfortable with assuming this rarified position of superiority. In fact, my experience of pastoral ministry and chaplaincy has taught me that whilst I might know a bit about some small niches in the world of theology, I know very little about many important areas where faith intersects work and life.

In fact the odds are that at any dinner party I go to, if I get into a conversation about politics, poverty, consumerism, climate change and other such ethical issues, there will be at least one other person who knows more the topic than I do. In fact, there is a good chance that on many topics I’ll be the least informed person around the table.

So, if anything, I’m an anti-populist. Whilst I do agree with the goal of making myself clearly and plainly understood, I’m not partial to the attitude of superiority that comes with assuming everyone I meet is my intellectual inferior.

Or, to put it another way, I’m an anti-populist because I’d rather treat people the way I’d like to be treated.

[tags] Populism, Style [/tags]

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