On Preference, Briefly
~by Sam Wilkinson
I found plenty of reasons to disagree with Charles Murray’s “How Thick Is Your Bubble?” quiz. I made my arguments in two ongoing threads discussing the quiz, its meaning, its construction, its shortcomings, its implications, its very existence. However, one objection that did not feature as prominently was the one that I hold closest to my heart: we often stupidly confuse preferences for facts.
When I say we, I mean almost all of us. We do this not because we are bad people, but rather because it is a cultural shorthand for individuals that we might be further interested in, sexually, socially, personally, whatever. Relying on preferences, at least in the outset, can be a good way to figure which people we are and aren’t interested in. It is, perhaps, as much a defense mechanism as a classification mechanism.
However, this reliance upon classification can, and often does, go horribly awry, because we either come to believe that our own preferences are based on factual superiorities or because we come to believe that another person’s preferences are indicative of their lesser worth. A thousand different examples come to mind, but perhaps it makes the most sense to borrow from Murray himself:
During the last year, have you ever purchased domestic mass-market beer to stock your own fridge?
His book is about an alleged disconnect that he says exists between upper and lower class White America. However fraught you think that topic might be, that is not the point of this; rather, I’d like to examine his explanation for asking this particular question, and at least some of its implications. Murray writes, by way of explaining this question:
The leading qualifying beers are Budweiser, Coors, Miller, or Busch, light or regular. The disdain of the new upper class for domestic mass-market beer is nearly as intense as its disdain for people who smoke cigarettes
We all know people do what Murray has done above, although not necessarily with quite the bombast that he has; hell, we’ve each probably done the same thing ourselves. Still, to see someone translate an individual’s preference for particular beers – and although I no longer drink, I remember enough to know that Budweiser, Coors, Miller, and Busch (either light/lite or regular) do not exactly cover the liquid spectrum – into “disdain” for those that do is at best a misunderstanding of preferences and at worst an attempt to stack the deck against those who deviate from whatever norm Murray is interested in.
In my life, I’ve done a fair amount of raging against the people that Murray seems to be describing. We call them snobs in my necks of the woods. These people assume that their own preferences are somehow literally superior, as opposed to simply being different. It is possible to run into these people regardless of the thing in question: snobs about cigarettes, snobs about beers, snobs about art, snobs about movies, snobs about food, snobs about clothing. This attitude is everywhere.
But Murray seems to be making two assumptions, both of which I’d argue are mistaken: that it only functions in a top-down manner, and that it automatically accounts for all preferences. This is fool-hardly at best.
The Top Down Assumption
Because the snob presumes that other preferences are of a lesser value than their own, snobbery is often assumed to come only from those in a superior position. But wade into almost any debate between almost any two people about the relative value of a thing – including any of the topics I mentioned above and the thousands I didn’t – and you’ll find people dismissing each other’s preferences. The arguments are literally structured in the following way, “The thing you prefer is less than the thing I prefer because of the following reasons.” Those reasons will further reveal the preferences of the individual making the argument but are not necessarily based on what might be considered facts. In fact, they’re often preferences for particular data within larger realities. Most importantly, these preferences are not always bound up by class considerations. Listen sometime to people debating Fords and Chevys; the form of those arguments is the same as the one between two people debating Fords and Bentleys. “My thing is better than your thing for these reasons.” The Fords and Bentleys arguments might offend us more because of the class differences that potentially exist between the two participants, but that doesn’t make it a fundamentally different conversation than the one between the people arguing Fords and Chevys.
All Preferences Are Snobbery
It is possible, although you wouldn’t know it from Murray’s loaded quiz, to simply enjoy one thing more than another. Think of a person who enjoys soccer more than baseball. Does that person enjoy soccer more than baseball because they are a snob? It is surely possible; they might literally go to bed every night and wake up every morning seething at baseball’s very existence when so much grander a game is available to participate in. But it is just as likely that they grew up liking soccer, or they grew up with parents who liked soccer, or that the kids who played baseball in their hometown were pricks and the kids who played soccer weren’t, or a thousand other explanations that account for the preference for one over the other. In Murray’s world, such explanations simply do not exist; if you prefer A to B, it must be because you simultaneously assume the superiority of A to B and the inferiority of not only B to A, but of the person preferring B to A.
This is madness. Things in the world, whatever they are, are just things. They have no inherent value beyond the rubrics of valuation that we bring to them. Some people emphasize value; some people emphasize durability; some people emphasize expense; some people emphasize branding; some people emphasize satisfaction; some people emphasize loyalty. None of them are wrong. They’re simply making decisions about acquisitions based upon however it is that they make such decisions. And while those decisions can be evidence of an individual’s rank snobbery, they can just as easily be evidence of preferences that do not overlap with Murray’s analytical model.
Here is one final example pertaining to beer. What does Murray make of the members of the new lower class who do not consume the domestic mass-market beers that he emphasizes? What of the drinkers who stay away from Budweiser, Coors, Miller, or Busch and instead choose offerings from Pabst (http://www.pabstbrewingco.com/) or Genesee (http://www.geneseebeer.com/) or Iron City (http://www.pittsburghbrewing.com/age-verification)? Are those drinkers assumed to be snobs because they eschew the giants of the domestic mass-market beer for their own regional varieties? And what if they consider those regional varieties to be superior in every imaginable way to anything produced by Budweiser, Coors, Miller, or Busch? What if they consider those regional varieties to be superior in every imaginable way to anything produced by these top 20 micro-brewers: (http://matadornetwork.com/trips/the-top-20-microbreweries-in-america/)
The problem with Murray’s formulation (and it isn’t just in this one particular question, but throughout his quiz) is that he takes the complexity of humanity and boils it down to a question of wealth and what comes with it, all because that underpins the argument that he wants to make about a schism between the new upper and the new lower class. Whether or not that is a conversation worth having doesn’t necessitate assuming that all preference is built upon a disdain for the other, whatever the other is.