The Virtue of Being Snobbish
We had been discussing the movie for its entire ninety minute run time. As the credits rolled, we all sat back for a moment and collected our thoughts. For some of us, the process didn’t take long at all. In the wake of a chorus of, “What the hell did I just watch?” and “That’s time I’m never getting back.” I finally spoke.
“It wasn’t that bad.”
Heads swiveled. I was suddenly the center of attention, and not the sort of attention I relish either. Of course, with opinions like mine, being in the center of a group of people who think I’ve lost my mind is sadly an all too common occurrence, and in this case, I can’t say that the initial impression of my friends was totally unjustified.
The movie was called “Hentai Kamen”. (The ‘masked pervert’ for those who, like me speak little to no Japanese.) When westerners see the word hentai, there is a very specific image that gets conjured. Hentai is almost always synonymous with porn and more specifically animated porn. People familiar with the word expect to see things like carefully hand drawn (Or digitally blurred for reasons that only make sense to the Japanese.) pieces of anatomy locked in some variety of coitus for reasons often both well-established and totally spurious. “Hentai Kamen” was different. It was rated at the Japanese equivalent of PG13, and it lived up to the rating. It was a parody of Sam Raimi’s 2002 “Spider-Man” and while Hentai Kamen didn’t swing around the city as much as Tobey McGuire’s Peter Parker, but he was as apparently an analogue of the web-slinging wall-crawler as a guy wearing panties on his head could be.
Maybe it’s because I’m constitutionally incapable of resisting getting into an argument when I don’t agree with someone, but I realized that my friends who were calling the movie “stupid” and “pointless” were missing the point themselves. So, in a move that is all-too familiar to the people who know me, I leapt to the movie’s defense. After arguing the merits of “Hentai Kamen” in relation to movies like the “Naked Gun” Series for the better part of an hour, my friend Ben asked, “John, why do you care about this movie enough to argue over it?”
The rejoinder, blurted out with no thought whatsoever caught me totally by surprise. “Because I’m a snob.”
The truth is that I am a snob when it comes to the media I consume. I don’t make value judgments about the fan-ish habits of others for the most part and I can respect the tastes of others even without comprehending the merits of a particular show, band, game or whatever; however, I am still a snob and I think that’s a good thing despite the social stigma attached to the word.
I believe that there is a sort of nobility to snobbery. Unlike other behaviors that center on the discernment of quality, I feel that the snob not only knows what constitutes “good” in their minds, but can usually articulate their viewpoint in a way that leaves little to no grey area. If you spend even a little time around a snob, you should know what they like and have a fairly good idea of why they like it. And that’s the essential point, the snob has a framework of what constitutes quality to them and the framework described by that idea matters.
I argued that the mere fact that the movie’s title had the word pervert in it didn’t mean it was actually perverted. There was a lot of penis-centric humor, but a lot of juvenile comedies have the same sort of jokes. In the grand scheme I posited, most of the objections to the movie centered on cultural mores that American audiences and Japanese audiences just don’t share. People like Ben, an inveterate nerd with an obsession for robots of almost any type, might think that the movie went too far with the theme of being a pervert. While he couldn’t deny the quality of the dialogue, acting or special effects he nonetheless found the subject matter off-putting. He watches as much or more foreign media than I do, mostly Anime and sci-fi action films. However, I don’t view media with the same sort of cultural filters.
What would Ben and people like him think of other foreign films? Would he ever really understand something like “The City of Lost Children” Or “Pan’s Labyrinth”? Would his notions of cultural normalcy force him to hate those films as well, while I might see the ideas depicted as part of a larger framework that I just wasn’t raised to necessarily agree with? Was I the actual problem here?
Am I the problem? Honestly, this question still nags at me.
When it comes to the definition of the word snob, Miriam Webster disagrees with me. They define a snob as “a person who has an offensive air of superiority and tends to ignore or disdain anyone regarded as inferior”. They synonymize snob with words like “Snot” or “Snoot”. The OED has the same verdict on the word; however, Urbandictionary.com, whom I wouldn’t even treat as a source normally, seems to understand the word in its more vulgar form in a way that the formal dictionaries just don’t. “A snob is someone who thinks they’ve got better taste than others in most things; especially in music, film and books.” While I still don’t quite agree with the definition, I find this view, complete with the lack of class stratification definitions more palatable. “Snobs of this kind, frown upon bestsellers, blockbusters, and pop music. They regard themselves intellectuals and think of people who follow the crowd as philistines.”
Here’s the rub. I absolutely disdain bestsellers, pop music (Especially modern pop) and most blockbusters, which absolutely makes me a snob by the standards set by that definition; however I don’t dislike them for no, or worse yet spurious reasons. I have reasons for disliking these products, and few if any of those reasons have to do with the fact that I’m smarter than anyone. It is my long held belief that snobs are often maligned, mostly because people don’t understand what real snobbery is.
Snobs care. And because of that caring, snobs will do their due diligence. Everyone has a favorite soda, however that does not make them a soda snob. The snob will typically have tried many of the common and even some of the more rarefied brands and can usually explain their relative merits. They may not be able to create a magnum opus on Coke Black or whatever else particularly tickles their fancy, but, their opinion will typically be more nuanced than a mere, “It’s so good!” or “That sucks, you liking it makes you less of a person!” The fact that this behavior gets labeled as snobbery frequently makes me reconsider labeling myself as such. Perhaps calling myself a connoisseur would be more accurate, however in the common parlance, calling myself a connoisseur would probably get me labeled as a snob anyway, since the word is so frequently considered a code word for snob. So, I am at a bit of an impasse.
When I consider the definition of snob that I am working with, my mind goes to other fellow snobs. In one of his spoken word performances, Henry Rollins talked about buying a couch. He described a long, almost painful process of trial and error going to several furniture stores before settling on the couch that, at that time sat in the living room of his house. In the process, he tried what sounded like dozens of candidates having issues with each one at which point his assistant called him a snob. He seemed to wear this badge proudly. Rollins has never struck me as a person that holds to hard and fast classist superiority, and yet he calls himself a snob unabashedly.
Similarly, Alton Brown is widely considered to be one of the kings of food snobbery. He talks passionately about food in a variety of formats, from the web to books and television. His research and commentary on food spans the gamut from the love letter to heat that was his book, “I’m Just Here for the Food” to, “Good Eats” his show about cooking and food science. While he makes his distaste for certain foods and more specifically the sources for certain foods clearly and unequivocally known, he never seems to take an elitist tone about people who do like those foods. His objections usually tend to stem from the nutritional value of foods or the specific difficulties in working with what he feels to be inferior product. It seems like there’s nothing unjustified, mean or unfair about Brown’s snobbery and yet, he is labeled as a snob.
There are other issues I have with people being judgmental with snobbishness, like the fact that I usually argue that snobbishness is sort of genetic. I know that my mom still occasionally tells the story of when I was about four years old and in an effort to teach myself to read, I asked her what a sign on the side of the road meant. She claims that she told me that it said that the bridge we were about to cross may be icy. To which I said that wasn’t possible since it was summer and perhaps they should mount the signs on pneumatic lifts so that the signs would appear only when the roads might actually be icy. She finds the story amusing, and I see why she would. When I heard the story again, I saw the underpinnings of pedantry that would end up with me considering myself snobbish.
Maybe that’s what snobbery is to me, pedantry coupled with a keen interest in the way things work. Most of the snobs I know tend to deep-dive into their favorite subjects, much like Alton Brown; finding the good and bad in things, complaining about the bad, ostensibly in the hopes that those flaws can be somehow corrected. As far as I can tell, these tendencies are labeled as snobbery and, far from being lauded as having concern for quality, get railed upon for being pretentiously over critical of a product’s flaws. Personally, I feel that once again, nuance is lacking here, not only in defining the criticism as snobbish but in questioning the critic’s motives.
This is an issue that almost never fails to get my goat, the lack of nuance in the English language. Calling myself a snob or even a connoisseur lumps me in with the oft-wrong-headed rage-balls in society that have some arbitrary bone to pick with whatever’s popular at the moment, and I think that does a disservice to discerning palates everywhere; however, there is no real word for a person with discerning tastes that doesn’t end up being synonymous with the term snob, and thus, the cycle of finding the discerning to be terrible people continues. Is it possible to clearly define snob in the colloquial sense and distance it from the traditional definition? Can we just do the world a solid favor and re-define terms here? I’d like to think so. I even have a suggestion. Perhaps we should call the more thoughtlessly critical amongst us what they really are…
I think that there are many attitudes that get painted with the oft-too-broad brush of snobbery. However there is usually no question about what a jerk is. The word is a sort-of visceral thing. It’s simple and incredibly evocative. It’s not a word with connotations that could ever really be thought to have redeeming value. That specificity matters to me. Of course it might not merely be the specificity that I find appealing. While it may not be terribly erudite, being rude is cathartic. When we are at our most frustrated (And who wouldn’t be frustrated by people being mindlessly critical of things you like?) few things can make you feel better than merely being rude to the person that is frustrating you.
I called myself a snob. I said it loudly, clearly and maybe even with a bit of pride. My friends were stunned into silence for an instant and then, from the group came a flood of “Yes, and?” and even more sarcastic “No!” My friends could have reacted poorly to that declaration, they didn’t. They took my snobbishness in stride, much like every other controversial position that defines the person I am. I am a snob and, people accept and maybe even like me for it. To my friends, snob isn’t necessarily a dirty word, so why should it be treated as such by the rest of society? Believe it or not, there is virtue in being snobbish and I think more people being able to see that virtue is valuable.