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Vive la différence!

Why did "condescension" become a pejorative term?

March 1st, 2014

BY TERRY ROSS

The poor word has had a hard time of it. Once a proud descriptor, whether as noun, adjective, or verb, it has dwindled to a mere gibe. What had previously signified a praiseworthy act now means a rude, even a detestable, one.

The Oxford English Dictionary locates the derivation of “concescend” in the Latin roots meaning to “go down with.” As a verb, it lists two principal meanings: “to stoop voluntarily and graciously,” and “to depart from the privileges of superiority by a voluntary submission; to sink willingly to equal terms with inferiours.” As a noun, we have the delightfully worded “voluntary abnegation for the nonce of the privileges of a superior; affability to one’s inferiors, with courteous disregard of rank or position.”

This is the denotation; the connotation is quite different. In Roget, “condescend” is listed under “878. Pride.” “Condescendence” and “condescension” are grouped with “self-esteem,” “self-respect,” “self-importance,” “vanity,” and “haughtiness.” Nothing very “gracious” or “affable” here. As a verb it is listed alongside “act proudly,” “deign,” “stoop,” “look down one’s nose,” “strut,” “swagger,” and “show off.” As an adjective, with “dignified,” “noble,” “imposing,” and “stilted.” Like its cousin “patronizing,” “condescending” has taken on an almost entirely negative flavor.

The terms that annoy some well-meaning people in the OED’s definitions are “superior,” “inferiour,” “rank,” and “position,” precisely the words that denote differences among us. Our post-Sixties posture of “political correctness” [sic] discourages us from thinking in hierarchies. The intellectually deficient individual is no longer “disabled,” merely “differently abled.” Whole ranges of people are labled “special,” requiring “special education,” rather than more specifically categorized. Merely to hint that some people may in fact be stupid, thick, or not playing with a full deck is to risk being ostracized or, at best, accused of being “mean.” The bell curve is out, out, out! Even simple categories of human characteristics, along with hierarchies, are impermissible. No more fatsos (they have weight-related diseases), loudmouths (they’re bipolar and forgot their meds), string beans (bulemia), or goofballs (ADHD).

Blame it on democracy. Once you endow everyone with equal rights, you are more than halfway obliged to imagine that all people have equal abilities, simply by virtue of being human beings. So the mentally retarded person gets to vote and to run his own life as if he were capable of these things. The deranged person is permitted to remain at large despite his danger to himself and others. All people are deemed equally responsible in handling firearms.

But we cannot wish away human differences — inherent differences, hard-wired, as they say, in our bodies and minds — by pretending that they can be entirely effaced by hard work or proper training. In our schools, this airy-fairy attitude takes the form of good grades for all, graduation for all, and, rather than education, self-esteem in every academic setting. This is disingenuous in the highest degree and sinks to outright hypocrisy once the poor youngsters are thrust into the so-called “real” world, a world without misguided, well-meaning “teachers” to hold their little hands.

Because the “real” world can’t get along without hierarchies. It never has and it never will. Smarter people are always going to get noticed; people with talent are not impossible to distinguish from those who haven’t any. The bright, the eager, and the able will, on the whole, wind up better off than the dull, vague, and talentless, in just about every field of endeavor imaginable. School kids, no matter what twaddle they’re told, recognize their talented peers and their afflicted ones. Why won’t the teachers? It’s no service to shield a youngster from the fact that it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there; when the realization dawns, it will be all the more debilitating in its suddenness.

Ignoring differences among people and refusing to put them into any kind of order by ability is not only unrealistic, it’s contrary to human nature. Mammals create hierarchies; put people on a desert island and they will establish complicated ranking systems, even if there are only two of them. Surely acceding to this natural tendency in forming our complicated modern societies is correct.

Not that we have to condone cruelty or unwarranted discrimination, or put our trust in categories based on specious values, such as mere wealth or beauty. But we’ve got to be willing to acknowledge the relative value of things and people; we’re born with the ability to discriminate; it’s practically all that separates us from cabbages.

This means taking a clear look at such institutions as charity, in all forms, and admitting that charity is clearly consdescension, but in its old, good sense. To feed the poor or to inoculate bush Africans against malaria is to “stoop” from our station as self-sufficient and capable of looking after ourselves to the level of those who are not, and who, for all we know, may never be. In the act of charity lies the ranking of ourselves above those we are helping.

Not all acts that we call charity fit this formulation; giving to the symphony, helping a neighbor rebuild his barn after a fire, volunteering at the library, and many other activities involve no condescension. But feeding and housing the homeless does. So do welfare programs and unemployment insurance, whether we like it or not.

The stigma attached to condescension prevents us from facing reality. There’s nothing wrong with condescension! In fact, we need it if we are to confront the world squarely. Or rather, we need our ability to distinguish differences and assign ranking that lies behind it. All people are most certainly not the same, and it doesn’t help us to pretend they are. We don’t have to hate the people lower on the list than we; we don’t hate our pet cats and dogs. But we, and they, need to acknowledge the ranking, for us as a cautionary tale and for them as a spur to improving. Otherwise we might as well be a bland, featureless mass like the drugged populace in Huxley’s Brave New World.

We can start by rehabilitating “condescension.” •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Ross | Link to this Entry

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