Monday, November 12, 2012

Ethics for Elitists: Part One of Two

This summer I was talking to a friend of mine when a friend of his happened to walk by. Like me, this new friend was an editor in Christian publishing. I edit books; he edits a magazine. "You two should really know each other," our mutual friend told us. "You're both elites."

We were both deeply offended, actually--I, because I've made a rather unelitist habit of drawing books out of previously unpublished and relatively underground writers; my new friend, because his magazine is a bastion of Christian anarchy, and you may well imagine how anarchists feel about elitists. So we blustered and bristled, at which point our mutual friend decided to reassure us. "Don't worry. You're elitists, yeah, but you're elitists in Christian publishing."

In other words, we are the upper crust of what is essentially a crustless sandwich.

The publishing industry depends on elitism, I will begrudgingly admit: if we were to throw the doors open to any old writer, the business model would collapse on itself. Publishing thrives on celebrity and scarcity; the books that perform best are few and their authors are famous. The problem with publishing unknown authors is that they're unknown, and most readers buy books by authors they know--or who are known by people they know. Demonstrate to a publisher that a benchmark number of people are buying what you have to say, no matter how oddball or unorthodox it is, and that publisher will be inclined to make some money off you. Being the arbiter of elitism is an asset, and what good is an asset if you don't exploit it?

Not exactly inspiring, is it? Still, plenty of unknown authors get published, which we might think of as the more trailblazing side of the business. Even that side, however, is vulnerable to ethical lapse. We can bestow credibility and authority on writers simply by granting them a publishing contract, sure; but we require that they contort themselves to make their book our book. More insidiously, we can whittle away at an author's credibility or subvert their authority by refusing to offer them a contract. The power of a publisher, like any power, is godlike, and godlike power is something mere mortals should always handle with care.

Publishers aren't the only elitist enterprise out there, I hasten to add. It's the one I know most intimately, but there are plenty of others, each wrestling with its own ethical dilemmas, its own little god complexes and petty jealousies that intrude upon its decision making. What we elitists need, I think, is an ethic.

As elitist as I am, I like things simple. Fortunately for me, so does Jesus, who sums up all the Law of Israel and all the commandments of God in two ideas: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength; and, love your neighbor as yourself.

Here I'll focus briefly on loving God as elitist ethic; in another post I'll spend a little time on what it looks like for an elitist like me to love his neighbor as himself.

There's actually not much to say about the God part. Loving God comes immediately into conflict with the god complex that so many elitists suffer from. We find it harder to appreciate the unique contribution God makes to life when we see ourselves as Godlike: God holds life and death in his hands? Well, so do doctors. God has the final word on the execution of justice? Well, so do lawyers and judges. God claims responsibility for souls as they move about the earth? Well, so do airplane pilots.

(When I was a kid, my mom and dad wanted my brother, my sister and me to pick our careers from a list of three: a doctor, so they'd get free medical advice; a lawyer, so they'd get free legal advice; and an airplane pilot, so they'd get free plane tickets. My parents, God love them, are stinking elitists.)

Once you've allowed yourself the conceit that you have sovereign control over some facet of your existence, not only do you feel a little more godlike, but God looks a little less godlike. It is much easier to objectify God--to make God the it to your I--if you've managed to displace even a little bit of your awe of him. God becomes at best your physician's assistant, your legal aide, your copilot. You can very easily dispense with God and get yourself another.

Elitism is a form of idolatry because of this two-part process. We objectify God while idolizing ourselves, or our work. Everyone suffers as a result. I once heard a speaker (itself an elitist enterprise) suggest from the stage that all idolatry ends ultimately in child sacrifice. Such sacrifice can take many forms, but even at its most benign--the paternalistic condescension of the elitist to the mere mortals around him or her--such sacrifice is tragic, the kind of thing that inspires lament.

So the first ethic for elitists is to undo the objectification of God that so easily, surreptitiously inserts itself into elitist enterprises. It is to stop thinking of God as a neighbor you're supposed to love, a peer you can identify with, and start thinking of God as the author of your existence.

It is to recognize that those lesser beings around you are still made in the image of God, and while you can do a lot of really unique, powerful things, you can't make someone in your own image. Only God can do that.

It is to acknowledge that while you often objectify God, God never objectifies you. God created you and is for you, wishing you well and acting for your good.

It is to humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and to trust that humility is not defeat but a proper calibration of our attitude. And it is to trust that this God you have humbled yourself before will in turn lift you up, like a good neighbor might.

Coming soon: part two, in which we consider how elitists might love their neighbors.

3 comments:

David Zimmerman said...

I should very quickly mention that I think my employer negotiates these elitist challenges very ethically, thank you very much. I'm only identifying some of the temptations, not accusing anyone in particular of any of them.

Mr Steve said...

Interesting that you chose the phrase "author of your existence." Why chose a metaphor so strongly associated with your career. Is that elitist of you to link your career so closely with God? Why not pilot of your life, physician of your life? Or is that your metaphor because that is the filter you see the world - which is not elitist but rather shows your limitations.

David Zimmerman said...

Probably a little of both.