What is a ‘snob’?

Snobs establish their moral superiority by denigrating the habits of those whom they deem ‘inferior’. No-one wants to be called a snob, no-one thinks that they are a snob, but snobbery is rife.

Where did it all come from?

In 1846 the UK’s Punch magazine serialised William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs. The word ‘snob’ caught the imagination of British Victorians at a time when the middle class and the merchants were challenging the established aristocracy. Engineers, merchants and inventors were shaping the country. Wealth created from producing products was replacing wealth from the land. New classes were vying for power.

The aristocracy considered their inheritance to be the natural order. It was being turned upside down by upstarts. Behavioural rules were used to exert moral superiority and to intimidate those who were rapidly increasing their influence. As political and economic superiority was contested, the battle for cultural superiority became increasingly important. The snob was born.

Beverley Skeggs, Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, summed it up nicely.
“In each historical period we see different version of snobbishness, depending on which groups are vying for power” (‘A Guide to the Modern Snob’, Radio 4)

Historically different classes vied for economic and political power. However, in the modern western world all classes are wracked by insecurity. The lack of purpose which besets each class has intensified the struggle to dominate culture instead. Snobbery is increasingly expressed through language, behaviour, dress, manners and consumption.

Snobbery is rife

The modern middle class do not challenge the rich, but they define their identity by differentiating themselves against the lower orders.

Middle class snobbery is everywhere.

Food and Drink

The middle class snob expresses their feeling of superiority by conspicuous consumption. They buy ‘organic’ and ‘whole’ food’, they eat raw vegetables and artisan bread. They drink ‘craft’ beer brewed locally.

They look down on the inferior classes who simply like food and drink that is tasty and cheap.

Money

Middle class snobs talk down their relative wealth. They conspicuously consume products which convey moral worth. They self-consciously dress down to show that they are not susceptible to the advertising of brands. They buy clothes based on the materials used (organic cotton) or where they were made (not in factories in the developing world).

They look down on the inferior class who prefer fashionable clothes and brands. The provenance of a T-shirt is unimportant to them.

Brexit voting

Middle class snobs voted for the EU and considered any other decision to be stupid and racist. They look down on the inferior class who largely voted Brexit. They believe that the little people are simply unable to decide what is in their own interests and were brain-washed by the lies of clever manipulators.

People who voted for Brexit simply think that we should control our own future.

Liberal pretensions

Middle class snobs are careful about who they they denigrate and how. They wish to appear as liberal and open-minded by celebrating other cultures. However, they feel comfortable and emboldened  when picking on an easy victim: the white working class. Especially white working class men. By using code words like ‘Scousers’, ‘Brexit voters’ or ‘chavs’ they can convey their contempt for the lower orders with subtlety. Their invective is wrapped carefully.

Tolerance

Middle class snobs talk loudly about being intolerant of what they deem to be intolerance. They justify their intolerance of alternative viewpoints on subjects like gay marriage and climate change, because they believe in their moral superiority. Despite a claim for ‘open-mindedness’, some subjects are out-of-bounds at dinner parties.

The inferior class do not talk about tolerance, they just live it.

Awareness

Middle class snobs are ‘aware’. They demonstrate this through their conspicuous ‘appreciation’ of other cultures. The snobs go on ‘eco tours’, they go ‘travelling’. They spend their time demonstrating their moral worth to each other by ‘discovering’.

They look down on the inferior class, who are ‘tourists’ and go on ‘holidays’ in the sun because it is fun and relaxing.

Language

Middle class snobs use language to create dogma. Terms are invented to undermine alternative viewpoints without challenging them. They talk of ‘sustainability’ to imply that alternative viewpoints to the greens could not ‘be sustained’; ‘mansplaining’ to imply that men’s opinions are in their very nature patronising and wrong.

They look down on the working class because they are not ‘aware’ of the codes of language.

Conclusion

Throughout the ages snobs have found new ways to assert their belief in their own superiority. In each age they can be recognised, but their fear of being found out makes them careful. Every now and again, they stand naked and exposed as shallow, vindictive and dull. The Brexit vote was one such moment.

Perhaps we should update Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs for the modern age.

Do you know anyone would appear in it?

© Andy Shaw, 25th July 2016

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