By Elias Baez

Volume XXXVII, Issue 1, February 21, 2014

Drawing of a person drinking out of a tea cup with a fancy mustache decorating it, while holding their pinky in the airI have a big problem with the word “pretentious.” I think it is overused, under-examined, and much more of an issue at a place like Amherst than it’s commonly considered to be.

One really can’t begin to fathom the breadth or depth of the passions that Amherst students entertain—at least, it’s totally beyond me. In building friendships, however, one is granted access to some of these interests. After allowing someone to express their passions (by proving, somehow, that one would care), it feels as though a friendship has deepened—passions are personal, after all, and they’re seated somewhere beyond the superficial world of early acquaintanceship. I would never label a friend of mine “pretentious” after a conversation where he/she exposes his/her real interests to me with the hope that they would be understood. I can’t imagine that anyone would do that. This is where my problem arises: In cases where I’ve been told that someone is “pretentious,” it is always because they have expressed passion and knowledge about a certain (usually esoteric and/or academic) field. I have a hard time differentiating between these expressed interests and those interests shared with me by my friends. Maybe I’m naive or dense or something, but I find it hard to doubt these strangers’ intentions so easily. Because of this, and because the term has such a diminishing effect on its subject’s words, I think that “pretentious” is rarely deployed judiciously.

To claim that someone is “pretentious” is to say that the person is putting on airs—that this person’s expressed interests have a note of insincerity, and that the speaker’s primary goal in speaking is to impress the listener. I am not going to argue that this never happens. What I do believe, however, is that this happens far less frequently than is believed. If one fully examines the inclination to label someone as “pretentious” and concludes that it’s justified, that’s one thing, but I doubt that such examination usually takes place.

It is typically in a classroom setting that one is bothered by someone’s behavior enough to conclude that the person is pretentious. Everybody has seen (or been) that person nodding too vigorously when the professor lectures, elevating their language unnaturally when they speak, interjecting with unnecessary comments, or asking questions that relay some knowledge well beyond the scope of the classroom. These situations are annoying and I’ve been bothered loads of times by someone’s apparent pretension.

But when I really think about it, it’s strange to assume that these people are, in fact, making any attempt to show off. In doing so I’ve assumed authority on someone’s intentions. There are often so many faulty judgments jumbled up in that. I’ve assumed that this person cares about what my classmates and I think about him/her. By my lights, someone acting so unselfconsciously in public would imply the opposite. Additionally, the exhibition of technical knowledge about something unfamiliar to me makes someone’s commitment to a field immediately apparent—a person can’t speak well about something they haven’t taken the time to understand themselves. Isn’t that alone evidence of an interest well beyond what I know of the person? How, then, can I so easily claim knowledge of their intentions? If a good friend of mine were to behave similarly, I would unquestioningly trust that my friend is sincerely interested in the discussion at hand and doesn’t have some strange ulterior motive: I have observed knowledge of his engagement with whatever’s being discussed. This strange distinction is what jams me up. It strikes me as fundamentally unfair to mete out such a heavy judgment with so much bias.

It really boils down to the question of whether or not the listener likes the speaker. Atop that, there are the pitfalls of a listener’s own associations with the topic, past experiences with the speaker, intellectual insecurities—the whole gamut of complications inherent to interpretation. Again, all this is not to say that a person can never conclude that someone is being pretentious when they are speaking. That definitely happens sometimes. But with all of these things in mind, it’s much harder to prove to myself that another person is being pretentious with enough certitude to express that judgment.

This is such a problem at Amherst because most people here have passions and interests in which they are well-versed, and a fundamental facet of college is the public and private conversation around these varied interests. Educating one another about what matters most to us is an unquestionably valuable act. The fear of being labeled pretentious is intellectually stifling, but that’s not even my primary problem with the whole thing. What bothers me is that the label (like most labels) obscures the complex thoughts and feelings of the person being labeled. It’s easy to attribute pretension to someone with minimal consideration, totally ignoring the depth of the mind of that person. In thinking about people that I have judged as “pretentious” in the past, I’ve come to realize that I simply have no idea what background they have and no knowledge of exactly why they’re so passionate about their interests. I have no access to the private worlds inside them—ones as rich and textured as my own.

I want more people to think about that. It’s never a bad thing to try to understand another person’s humanity. A label obscures that penetrating vision. For some reason, “pretentious” strikes me as a particularly insidious label—one that we as thinkers and critics are quick to reach for but slow to consider. And here at Amherst, I can think of few things more important than getting past such superficial limitations and coming to actually understand one another. Everyone has so much to say. Listen!