Openness as Moral Justification: Revisiting the Paradox of Elite Distinction

Abstract: Until recently, elites appeared to distinguish themselves by cultivating “highbrow” cultural goods and institutions inaccessible to most of society. Beginning in the early 1990s, however, scholars proposed that such highbrow “snobbery” was being replaced by “omnivorousness,” an openness to difference that appears to extend beyond consumption to include social relations as well. If so, how do elites distinguish themselves while maintaining the appearance of openness? To address this apparent paradox, I propose a return to considering the moral dimension of distinction—namely the way elites justify privilege by reference to their virtuous orientation to culture. In contrast to theories linking distinction solely to habitual enculturation, I argue that the discourse of openness itself facilitates distinction by enabling boundary making—proponents position themselves as morally superior to those they construct as “closed off.” At the same time, elite institutional settings that cultivate the rhetoric of openness depend on minorities to enact social, cultural, or intellectual “difference” for the benefit of dominant groups, thereby militating against the former’s full incorporation. Drawing on institutionalized discourse at an elite university and observations and interviews in the Muslim community there, I show how the university constructs openness to intellectual and sociocultural difference as a core institutional mission and the mark of the educated person and qualified leader. This discourse enables Muslims to claim moral superiority relative to three negative archetypes—the coldhearted elite, the Muslim “blind believer,” and the Islamophobe—yet it’s focus on difference simultaneously reinforces their isolation from dominant social groups on campus.