Snobbery vs Connoisseurship

Someone in the Classic Literature Book Club on Facebook made a thought-provoking post about the “discernment of quality” and mentioned Ulysses, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, To the Lighthouse, coffee, and a pair of very fine horses in The Count of Monte Cristo.

He said we should resist the tendency “to believe that distinctions others make and we don’t see are just imaginary, used as part of a code for in group inclusion.

I agree. It’s interesting that he chose coffee as the non-literary example. I immediately thought of wine.

Wine connoisseurs claim to notice differences that don’t exist for me. But I believe those differences do exist, I just haven’t learned what they are. Actually, I’d rather not know, because then I’d only enjoy drinking expensive wine. (Not that any wine is cheap in Singapore, lol.)

It’s weird to find myself saying anything that boils down to “ignorance is bliss”. I hate that stance. I’m sure that the pleasure of a good wine is real, even if I don’t quite know what I’m missing.

But actually, as OP mentioned as well, we simply can’t be experts about everything. Thanks to the inherent scarcity of time, there is such a thing as “rational ignorance”, even outside the realms of politics and economics. Rational ignorance means it’s totally legit that I find it personally convenient not to have to turn up my nose at cheap wine.

Still. I shouldn’t turn up my nose at people who turn up their noses at cheap wine. That just makes me a snob too—probably a worse kind!

The way I see it, there are at least four different kinds of snob…

Coffee & Wine, Art & Literature

I think we make two kinds of quality judgments. One is more objective and one is more subjective. Connoisseurs can have different responses to the same fine coffee or wine: This brew has a great mouthfeel, but it’s too full-bodied for my taste; This wine has a great aroma, but it’s too fruity for me personally.

The first judgment requires some relevant contextual knowledge. The second is like a personal opinion in that it only requires self knowledge, which doesn’t even have to be fully conscious. Naturally, people who don’t have the relevant contextual knowledge think that connoisseurs are just exaggerating the importance of their opinions.

When judging art, we can ask ourselves two things: One is, Has the artist done a good job of what the artist is trying to do? The other is, Do I value what the artist is trying to do?

If I’m confronted by, say, a bold abstract canvas of an angry red splatter, I might respond: I see that the artist is participating in an artistic movement in which realistic representation is not required (or reacting to a movement in which it is), and is responding creatively and sensitively to similar but distinct contemporary pieces. But it’s not for me; I think technical skill in painting things that look like things in the world should be involved. Well done, thanks, I hate it.

(Lookin’ at you, Joyce.)

But if objective quality distinctions are real, then… does snobbery even exist, or is it all just underappreciated connoisseurship?

Four Kinds of Snobbery

Oh, snobbery definitely exists. I don’t think we should (snobbishly) assume that every snob is a pretentious gatekeeper, but I also don’t think we should conclude that every snob is just a misunderstood connoisseur who has some mysterious knowledge that we don’t. There are different kinds of snobbery.

There’s the reverse snobbery of people who turn up their noses at people who turn up their noses at cheap wine. “If I don’t see what’s so great about fine wine, there must not be anything great about it, therefore you’re full of crap and I can look down on you—while secretly feeling intimidated because you’re actually probably a lot more knowledgeable than I am.”

There’s the nervous snobbery of people who want to be seen as knowledgeable about fine wine even though they know they aren’t. “Yes, this wine that I’m told is great must be great, even if I can’t explain why, and if you don’t agree then you’re as ignorant as I secretly am myself, so I can (hypocritically) look down on you—until my actual level of knowledge is exposed, which I’m terrified is something that will happen eventually.”

There’s the manipulative snobbery of people who want to be seen as knowledgeable so as to scam you. “You should buy this wine, it’s totally worth a premium price, I promise! How could you be disappointed when the font on the label is so swirly and shiny? Trust me, it’s a sure sign of the best possible grapes and whatnot, as you would know if you knew anything about wine—which you obviously don’t, you stupid sucker.”

There’s the frustrated snobbery of the true connoisseur who is constantly told that the things he values highly are indistinguishable from the things he doesn’t. “Look, our prices are utterly reasonable, but we don’t carry any bottles for less than $200 because this is not a supermarket. Get out of my shop, you absolute ignoramus!”

I feel pity for the reverse snob for looking as haplessly foolish as he does; I feel contempt for the nervous snob for maneuvering himself into an obviously untenable position; I feel abhorrence for the manipulative snob because exploiting ignorance is evil; and I feel compassion for the frustrated snob, the discerning man who, thanks to the Dunning-Kruger effect, is constantly surrounded by clamoring idiots.

What to do?

The solution to the problem of the reverse snob is: He can go and learn more about wine. If he doesn’t, it’s his own fault and he suffers the consequences as much as anybody.

The solution to the problem of the nervous snob is the same: He can go and learn more about wine. If he doesn’t, it’s his own fault and he suffers the consequences as much as anybody.

The solution to the problem of the manipulative snob is: You can go and learn more about wine (from someone who has less to gain from cheating you) to avoid becoming one of those who suffer the consequences.

The solution to the problem of the frustrated snob is, he can… try to teach others about wine. They may or may not be willing to learn. The wine connoisseur is forever stuck with the unenviable task of leading horses to something they may or may not choose to drink. Still, if he doesn’t teach people to enjoy good wine (and who else can do so?), he suffers the consequences as much as anybody. The more people know how to enjoy wine, the better for everyone, including (or perhaps especially!) the wine connoisseur himself. Aggressive gatekeepers are more likely to be nervous snobs than frustrated ones. If you enjoy something, you want others to enjoy it too—even if you’re not running a wine shop.

So if you encounter snobbery, it would seem that the solution is always education. The question is, whose? The presumed snob’s? Or your own?

(Okay, look, I gave Joyce a trytwice! Check back in 20 years; I reserve the right to change my opinion.)