On Elitism and Validity

For a long time, when people have come to me sharing their viewpoints or criticisms on various things, I’ve responded by first saying, “that’s valid.” I believed that it showed I was listening and recognizing the message they were sending me, even if I did not agree with them. However, after a string of bad incidents being on the other side of this phrase, I no longer believe that validity is something to be hoped for or given. I’m now strongly considering removing the phrase from my vocabulary entirely.

The tipping point came in one of my graduate classes. We discussed a section of Shakespeare’s Henry V, in which Henry “wins” Catherine, the daughter of the King of France. In the class discussion, my professor (‘Dr. A’ from here) made it a point to note that Catherine had no say in this arrangement… she did not consent to sex with Henry. However, Dr. A then went on to say that in the popular movie version of Henry V, the scene in which Catherine is “won” is “played really charming and sexy, by Laurence Olivier” and that that’s “probably how Shakespeare meant it to be portrayed.” This was all said matter-of-factly.

Dr. A then went on to describe a version of the play which they saw off-Broadway — a reimagined version where all the characters were “hillbillies”. Dr. A said they “love these kinds of plays, made by people who serve coffee and can’t get a real job” because they “have a different perspective.” And in this version, the scene in which Catherine is “won” portrays Henry as “a creepy rapist,” which Dr. A says is “a valid interpretation.” This was all said with a completely non-malicious tone; even the jabs at theatre actors were said while chuckling, lightheartedly.

I don’t write any of this to come down on my professor — this isn’t about them. This is about the subtle, but dangerous elitism of their language. It’s a pattern I’ve seen a lot recently: some person in a lowly position will say something that goes against the grain, then someone in a position of power or prestige will respond to that by subtly reinforcing their relative power and prestige, and then “your point is valid” will be said but things will just go back to the established way they were before. The truth is that Henry rapes Catherine. But because this is being said by people who “can’t get a real job” this truth is demeaned, and the elitist view that someone with a “real job” understands the scene best is reinforced. And then the scene is described as a “valid” alternate to “the way it was meant to be”. This validation is worth very little, if anything at all. I’m sure that the makers of this version of the play did not want it to be “valid” and end there. Surely they set out to change perceptions on the conventional play and what it says to its audience, rather than for the truth to be seen as an acceptable alternate. I’ve realized that this validation that was given, and that I had a habit of giving, is not really about the merit of the thing being validated — but about an elitist trying to hold their views and still appear open-minded. The pattern reminded me of several other incidents this month, in the poetry community, and in my job.

Most notably, last week, my department decided that I had to lead my students to write an essay about whether or not athletes should be allowed to sit through the national anthem. My supervisor came through my class and spent about 20 minutes hearing from students who were eager to share how knowledgeable they were about the anthem, US history, and current events — most of them stating that they felt people had a right not to stand. Though my supervisor reacted to all of this in a welcoming, validating way, when the pledge came on over the P.A., they still forced all the students to stand.

I don’t write this to come down on my supervisor — this isn’t about them, either. It’s about the language they use which validates in one breath and ignores in the next. And yet, although I say that this isn’t about my supervisor, or my professor, it’s still going to end up being about them. About how they didn’t mean to say this or that, and how they have a reputation to uphold that I’m getting in the way of by talking about the situation. It’s incredibly difficult to find ways to talk about this because elitism causes validation to do little more than center the validator. Just as how, as I’ve seen time and time again in the poetry community, when poets use elitist language to counter criticism (“these critics haven’t experienced life, they should go do real work, they don’t understand metaphors, they don’t have my degrees and years of experience”), then even when they go on to validate (“I see your point though, you can feel that way, that’s valid”) the conversation always stops being about the criticism itself. Instead, it centers the subject of the criticism, and ends with things going back to the way they were, again and again.

The reason that this is a big problem to me is because these discussions are always happening around important topics, like sexual assault or police brutality. They’re topics where criticism happens because change is needed… what’s not needed is a platform to entertain the argument for change without it actually happening. As a teacher, myself — a person in a position of power and prestige, to my students — I’m realizing that I’ve done this before, and it’s probably impacted students’ grades. Students have told me their concerns about my teaching because they wanted me to change something, and I’ve told them that their criticism was “valid.” But I must not have received many of the messages they were trying to send me because I kept doing things the same way. If I had received them, I would have said, “that’s accurate; that’s important; that changes the way I look at things; here’s what’s going to happen differently from here.” Or, in the rare cases where it applies, I would have said “that’s inaccurate; that’s irrelevant; here’s why we’re going to keep doing the same thing.” I don’t say this to say that a validation shouldn’t happen, or that people shouldn’t seek it if they want it. However, it misses the point. A lot of Americans, especially those in some position that allows elitism, pride themselves on being able to “get along” with people with different points of views, recognizing the validity in everything. This is what the public school system, the college, and — to a large degree — the poetry community encourages. But a shift in focus needs to happen, from recognizing things as valid to recognizing them as necessary.

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