I wanted to establish all of that as the backdrop for an interesting moment that arose a while back. A friend of mine (I’ll refer to him as Terry) was producing and starring in a show and he asked whether I might help out by designing and printing various printed materials connected to the production, since that’s pretty much what I do at my day job. I knew that his production, though it was being done professionally, had little money to throw around, so I volunteered my services. He and I go way back; we’ve been in a lot of shows together and I consider him to be one of the most dedicated actors I’ve ever known, so I was happy to help any way I could.
Most of the other cast and crew members were utter strangers to me, particularly as they were mostly Chicagoans, whereas the bulk of my theatrical work was done in Detroit. It was a musical, and the leading lady (I’ll refer to her as Kate) was a professional classical singer of considerable accomplishment who was actually a little out of her element doing a conventional, decidedly non-classical book musical. Still, she had a magnificent voice and all of us were mighty glad she was on board.
In the course of collecting P.R. materials, I showed up at several rehearsals to get photos, resumés, etc. from the cast. They knew me solely as the printed material/P.R. guy. At one point during a break, I spoke to Kate for a minute to get some information from her. She was perfunctory and a little brusque in her dealing with me, though I took no offense since I knew that she rightly saw me as someone with whom she had no invested relationship, nor were we likely to get to know one another very well within the bounds of this production. In fact, her attitude towards me was similar to the way most of the group related to me, and I knew full well that it was probably the way I myself had regarded P.R. people on myriad past occasions, so I was fine with it.
As soon as I’d walked away from Kate, Terry approached her and I overheard him telling her this: “Chuck’s an actor. I’ve worked with him a lot.” And after a slight pause, he added, “He’s one of us.” – with the accent on the word “us.”
Well! That changed everything! At the next break, Kate came over to me, smiling broadly, and engaged me in an animated conversation about my career, her career, and everything in between. I suppose that was fun and all, but something wasn’t sitting well with me about it, and it wasn’t until I was riding homeward that I began to sort it out.
I realized that both Kate and Terry were engaging in a subtle form of snobbery. To make matters worse, I could feel part of that blade poking right back at me because I could remember times when I’d indulged in that very same game. On the surface, it seemed innocent enough – Terry was simply establishing that Kate and I had something in common; perhaps a little hook upon which to hang to beginnings of a relationship. The subtext, however, was far darker. The buried message was more like this: “He’s one of us – one of those who can appreciate what we do from an artist’s perspective. Someone who might actually be worth knowing, unlike the dull masses who gaze at us from the other side of the glass who can never appreciate the artistic world we inhabit.”
It may seem as if I’ve taken a few innocuous words and run very far with them, but this interpretation is based on a good deal more than merely the events of that evening. Though I had a great regard for Terry as an artist, I’d always been aware that he had that snobbish side to his personality. This moment at the rehearsal was merely the 10% of the iceberg showing above the surface.
For that matter, this is a much larger and more common issue than merely the theater world. There are many lines of work, hobbies, and other pastimes that have their own set of intense adherents – from scientific disciplines such as biology or sociology, to professions such as law or farming, to hobbies such as role playing games or contract bridge. There’s a tricky distinction to be made here. On the one hand, it’s a fine thing to find people with similar interests to socialize with and make friends. But what occasionally happens in any of these pursuits is that individuals invest their self-esteem in the notion that there is something elite about their field; that people who are not into it and cannot “speak their language” are somehow lesser creatures not able to appreciate the secrets and insights imparted by their specialized field of endeavor. Such people are, I hope, in the distinct minority, though they tend to blend in and become invisible within their interest group. The line between pride and snobbery can be a blurry one.
The truth of the matter, as I see it, is that every one of these fields imparts its own secrets and insights. Also, there are many roads to enlightenment. One may find it in a chemistry lab just as another may find it on a crowded dance floor, just as another may find it while washing the windows of a skyscraper, just as another may find it in the spotlight. But one may also find ignorance and darkness there, no matter how loud the music, how tall the building, or how bright the spotlight.
The final point I want to make concerns my own snobbery. I feel well qualified to write this post because I began life as a snob and have toiled long to either overcome it or come to terms with it. As a child, I perceived that I could think and say and do many things that most of my peers could not. For that matter, I quickly concluded that I had no peers. This sort of thinking was common within my immediate family, so we tended to be a rather inwardly-focused group. Thankfully, there were some pointed lessons in store for me.
In young adulthood, I became close friends with a particular woman. We enjoyed one another’s company – we had fun, we laughed together, we both had a love of language and the ability to turn a phrase to the other’s amusement. She was (and is) smart, funny, generous, and wise, among her many assets. At some point, we were talking about our scholastic careers and she mentioned that she had been a lousy student – Cs and Ds, behavioral problems, hung with the bad kids, simply hated school, learning, and teachers. It brought me up short for a moment. As a student, I wouldn’t have considered spending a moment with such a kid; I would have pre-judged them, put them in a box, and stuck that box onto a pre-forgotten shelf. Now, one of those very kids was one of my best friends, and I thought she was a wonderful person! It forced me to take a hard, critical look at my own prejudices and snobbery. I’ve never specifically thanked her for this lesson because I don’t know how I would say it to her, but we remain friends to this day.
Even now, I am no stranger to accusations of snobbery, nerdiness, and arrogance. I’ll cop to the second one – nerdiness – without complaint. As for the rest, I’ve become much more accepting of myself. What some may see as flaws in my character, I may see as assets that they have misinterpreted. I may even count them among the strongest positive traits in my personality. Oh, I have plenty of genuine character flaws, but we’re not talking about those right now!