This conversation took place in the spring of 2015. We would like to thank KC for making this transcript.
Greg Johnson: We also got into the question of pretentiousness when we were walking around Hyde Park. I think pretentiousness always has a negative connotation, but I think that one can actually say that there is a positive connotation of pretense in this sense: if one is trying to, say, improve one’s tastes or improve one’s knowledge.
Now, let’s just talk about taste. Vanity has everything to do with the beautification of yourself and maybe your things. Your car is an extension of yourself, your clothes, whatever. Taste is your susceptibility to the beauty that’s out there in the world. Taste is the faculty of being receptive to beauty and able to enjoy beauty. And it’s a faculty that can be developed. And because it can be developed, and because it requires effort, sometimes you are stretching beyond yourself. You’re trying to transcend your level of taste at any given time so you can appreciate greater beauty or deeper beauty. And when you’re doing that, there’s an element of what you can call pretentiousness to that.
Let’s talk about the opera or classical music. That is of one of the classic examples of something people think is pretentious. Why do people think it’s pretentious? Well, on some level what they’re saying is that if they went to the opera or to a classical concert, they would be pretentious because it’s “not them.” It’s not the kind of thing they enjoy. They’d feel like they were acting or putting on a show.
However, I would argue that no one ever becomes better without, in a sense, pretentiousness. Because there’s real beauty, there’s real value in classical music or opera. And if you’re going to appreciate that, you’re going to have to stretch yourself. You’re going to have to go there; you’re going to have to sit there; you’re going to have to listen to it. You’re going to have to try. And yes, there’s a whole stretch of time where you might feel like a fraud sitting there and clapping. “I don’t know what’s going on. I lost track of what is going on, but I’ll clap anyway because everyone else is clapping.” That kind of thing. You feel like a fraud, but if you do that long enough, and you expose yourself to these thing of real value, you’re not going to be a fraud anymore, because you’re going to actually come to see real beauty that exists out there, and you’re going to have expanded your taste. So, pretentiousness in that sense can be defined as a kind of ambition to improve one’s tastes, just like vanity can be the ambition to improve one’s appearance. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
Now the question is: “What’s the bad form of pretentiousness?” Well, I think it’s probably analogous to the bad form of vanity. A bad kind of pretentiousness would be somebody merely pretending all the way through and never actually growing. They’re just engaged in a kind of fraud, and why would they be engaged in this kind of fraud? Well, maybe they’re gratifying their need for social approval. They’re pretending to be a connoisseur of something because they’re trying to impress other people.
A friend of mine married a very prominent author. I won’t name any names. Anyway, he was a big gourmand. He had a lot of money coming in, and he wanted to improve himself, and so he became very pretentious. He went around attending operas and symphonies and eating in fine restaurants and things like that. And one day someone fed him some cat food as paté, just to see whether he would spit it out in disgust or whether he would pretend like it was delicious. I won’t even tell what happened. But if he pretended it was delicious, that would be a sign of pretentiousness in the bad sense: if somebody is just pretending to enjoy certain things because they want to fit in with a social set or be thought of as highfalutin, superior, and sophisticated.
Hugh MacDonald: Sounds like Leftists.
GJ: Well yeah, a lot of these people are that way, and that’s one of the things that’s so disappointing about the Left, because there used to be Leftists who were really principled people, formidable people. They had arguments, they had ideas, they had commitment. And I don’t see many people like that anymore. But I see a lot of really hollow people who are just pretending to believe certain things as a way of gaining status within a thoroughly corrupt system.
But back to pretentiousness. What’s really objectionable about bad pretentiousness is not that it’s an attempt to become better than one actually is, it’s actually faking it and not really trying to become better. So, the objectionableness of bad pretentiousness is really the fakery, not the ambition of becoming better.
HM: Sounds like Leftists, eh? I guess part of the rejection of pretentiousness is because there’s this element of trying to say, “I’m better than you. I’m above you.” To be pretentious is almost a form of oppression. It’s a way of saying, “I’m above you, and you’re beneath me.” Just like a Leftist urban elf who gets upset if you say, “Oh, that’s so gay,” and they get very excited about it, and they say, “Oh, you’re not supposed to say that. I’m very offended that you say that.” The way a Leftist pretends to be offended by things. That’s pretentiousness. And why are they doing it? They’re doing it because it gives them social status. It puts them in a position of power where they can look down on you and talk down to you.
GJ: Right, but is what’s offensive about that the fact that they think that they’re better — or the fact that they’re fake? I reject egalitarianism. I really do think that some people are better than others. So, I don’t have any objection to snobbery. Snobbery is another concept we talked about, and it fits in with this very well. People think that being a snob is a terrible thing. They look down their noses at snobs, which is a kind of snobbery in itself. Being a snob is looking down on people, thinking you’re better than others, thinking certain things are better than others. But if we are anti-egalitarians, then we have to defend snobbery in some sense, because snobbery is just anti-egalitarianism in practice.
If you are an anti-egalitarian, there are certain things that you won’t do; there are certain things you won’t eat; there are certain places you won’t be; there are certain people you will not associate with; and to do so is to lower yourself, because these things are beneath you. I think that if there are real hierarchies of value, then snobbery is an absolutely important thing, because it is a manifestation of seeing those real hierarchies in value.
And again, the objectionable sense of snobbery for me is not that people are making distinctions of quality, but that they’re making distinctions of quality based on false criteria. So, if a person thinks that he’s better than somebody else just because he makes more money, or because he’s got the latest iPhone or “her shoes are so 2013,” that kind of stuff: I look down on that. That’s false snobbery. That’s fake snobbery or merely conventional snobbery. There are all kinds of distinctions of quality that people make in the world based on being up-to-date and being fashionable that don’t necessarily track real distinctions of quality in the world, and if people get their sense of worth caught up in false criteria of quality, then they are snobs in the bad sense. But again, what’s objectionable is not making distinctions of quality. The objectionable thing is making distinctions of quality based on false criteria.
So, I think there is a danger on the Right, when we look at liberals and we look at Leftists and we see how pretentious they are, how snobbish they are, how elitist they are, to think, “Oh well, we’re populists; we’re against pretentiousness and snobbery and elitism. We’re just all a bunch of slovenly bozos here.” And we shouldn’t do that, because what’s really objectionable is not aspirations to be beautiful or aspirations to have better tastes or aspirations to make real distinctions of quality. What’s objectionable is making those on false criteria, false premises. What’s objectionable about the Left is not that there are elitists but that their elitism is based on false criteria, and it’s also sort of false to itself, because they claim that they’re anti-elitists and that they are egalitarian. So, there’s a kind of bad faith there. There’s a hypocrisy there.
HM: Yeah, I guess elitism is the positive way of saying pretentiousness. If you’re a Rightist, elitism is a positive quality.
I first started realizing that I was an elitist when I would wake up at 5:30 in the morning to go to the university swimming pool, and I’d always feel better than people when I was the first person at the pool, because it made me feel like I’m tougher and I’m stronger and I’m more disciplined. And as people would slowly trickle into the pool, I’d look down on them, and I’d think, you know, I’m better than you. I’m more disciplined than you. I woke up earlier than you. I took the harder path than you did. And that’s what it means to be better.
And then some days I’d accidentally sleep in. The worst thing, the really bad thing is when you choose to sleep in. And then I’d arrive at the pool a little later, and people were already there, and I’d hate myself for it. I’d feel like “Aw, I’m not as disciplined today. There are people who are better than me today.” And that’s when I first started reading about elitism and then realized, “Oh yeah, I guess I’m an elitist.”
If you can think that you’re better than people, or realize that people are better than you, and look down on people for their weaknesses, that’s elitism. And I think it’s interesting being an elitist. It’s kind of like it reinforces itself. You become better by being an elitist. You come to value strengths more and you look down on weaknesses more. The reason why I’d look down on those people who came in late to the pool is because I see in them the weakness that I see in myself.
GJ: Exactly. The core of elitism, the thing that makes it justified, is that the true elitist is really hardest on himself. When you despise your own weakness, you despise your own laziness, you despise your own lack of knowledge, you are a tough critic of your own performance, and things like that, you feel licensed to be critical of others, too.
HM: Right, and on an outward level, it can appear like it’s hatred of that external individual. But on a deeper level it’s not really hatred of that individual, it’s a hatred of the weaknesses in that individual. And on an even deeper level, it’s just a hatred of your own weaknesses. I can see that if you see this other guy, who woke up late that morning, and you look at him, and you think, “Ugh, that’s disgusting. I hate the weakness that I see in you,” it’s because really you are aware of that weakness in yourself. It sounds like a Buddhist expression — maybe it is — that the world we perceive is a reflection of ourselves.
GJ: Right, right.
HM: Elitism makes you better because it makes you strive to be strong, and you hate weakness in yourself, and you hate weakness around you. And so that’s not pretentiousness because it’s not fake.
GJ: Yeah, or you could say that it is pretentiousness in the good sense. Pretense has a sense of acting. But there is a sense in which self-improvement involves acting, for instance, when you are learning how to play the piano, or you’re learning to have certain virtues. Aristotle talks about it this way. Actually, the best example comes from Aristotle. The way to acquire virtues is to act virtuous, to do the sort of things that virtuous men do. But one is not yet virtuous, one is just imitating virtuous people. One’s being pretentious, in other words.
But there comes a point where if you practice long enough, it doesn’t just become a kind of mechanical imitation of some exemplar, it becomes second nature. It becomes you. It sinks in and dyes the very fabric of your soul. It becomes deeply habituated rather than something that’s just superficial, that you’re going through the motions of. And, that’s true with playing the piano or learning any other kind of skill. At first, there’s a kind of mechanicalness to it, where you’re just going through the motions. You’re imitating others. And then, at a certain point, when it becomes fully internalized, suddenly the performance is coming from within you, rather than coming from you watching somebody else and following along with what they’re doing. And at that point, you have become the person that you were pretending to be.
And I think that kind of pretentiousness is just a normal part of moral education, or practical education, including one’s tastes very broadly speaking, and what’s bad about pretentiousness is that a person might never go beyond that. They might always just be acting or always just be imitating; it’s never become fully internalized; it’s never really become them; it’s just a kind of inauthentic copying or mimicking or performance, perhaps because it doesn’t matter to them to be real. And this, I think, gets into a whole dimension of psychology that’s really interesting and kind of perilous, too, which is the concept of narcissism. [To be continued]