Magazine article The Spectator

Moral Snobbery and Higher Education Make Uncomfortable Bedfellows

Magazine article The Spectator

Moral Snobbery and Higher Education Make Uncomfortable Bedfellows

Article excerpt

There is social snobbery, intellectual snobbery and moral snobbery. The last is the worst, and it is becoming increasingly common. We had an example of it last week when the showbiz personality Alan Bennett announced he had turned down an honorary degree from Oxford on the grounds that the university had accepted money from Rupert Murdoch to endow a chair. The essence of moral snobbery is that you feel impelled to distance yourself from something for fear of becoming defiled, by association or contact. It is an ancient form of snobbery, perhaps the oldest. It lies right at the root of the caste system in India, which goes back 10,000 years or more, and is still all-pervasive. The British did their best to abolish it but failed, and it has grown stronger since independence, with over 100 million human beings regarded as untouchable by their moral superiors. Forms of moral snobbery were also found among the ancient Hebrews, and Jesus Christ did his best to challenge them hence his conversation with the outcast woman at the well and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Similar forms of self-righteousness, with a political context, have been rife in England for at least two centuries. In the 1790s, Coleridge and Wordsworth refused to put sugar in their tea or coffee, using honey instead, because sugar was morally contaminated by the slave trade. Oddly enough, in due course, Wordsworth became a victim of moral snobbery himself. The celebrated poem, `The Lost Leader', was penned against him by Robert -Browning, a moral prig, on the grounds that Wordsworth had accepted a sinecure from a Tory government, though as anyone who has studied Wordsworth's life knows, his job as Collector of Stamps for Westmorland involved a lot of hard work, something Browning spent his life avoiding. Moral boycotting, however, survived Wordsworth's conversion to Toryism. This principle was applied, until a few years ago, to South African oranges, though those who refused to buy them under apartheid happily suck them today, despite the fact that violence and injustice in South Africa are far worse. And one does not hear much from the anti-orange snobs about imported Chinese products, most of which have a slave-labour content supplied by the regime's 20 million political prisoners. It is characteristic of moral snobbery that it makes racial distinctions; somehow, cruelty practised by black or yellow men is morally more acceptable than when the sinner is white.

Moral snobbery thus usually has an ideological element, which explains why it is so common among intellectuals - not least among showbiz folk who have cerebral claims - and, above all, among academics. Dons are more inclined nowadays to be moral snobs than intellectual snobs, since the latter are condemned as elitist by the code of political correctness. However, poor Murdoch gets it both ways: he is the target not only of the moral snobs but of the intellectual snobs too for dumbing down the Times and the Sunday Times. Indeed, to crown it all, he is the victim of social snobbery as well, since he is sneeringly caricatured as an oafish Aussie, though anyone who has met him, let alone his delightful mother, Dame Elizabeth, will know that the jibe is wide of the mark.

Moral snobbery in academia takes many forms. There is the inverted racial form, for instance. Not long ago, the trustees of Yale University rejected a donation of $20 million to endow a course on Western civilisation. …

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