Expertise

“…what concerns me here is that the coming together of the liberal political category of the autonomous individual and the techniques of decision-making, has forged a seemingly iron cage around the minds of ordinary people: they believe that their freedom lies in transforming common-sense and practical reason into a technical act whose components are only too willingly sold to them by the experts of old.”

Samuel Sajay 2002

An expert writing on the faults of expertise!  That’s a bit unfair, but it does highlight a difficulty we face.  As I began to say in the, The Scheme, we are in a conundrum in which we conspire with those who would exert power over us through the authority they claim by their expertise while our individual and collective need to share ideas and reach an understanding of how our world works leaves us struggling to find useful avenues for action.

This piece by Sajay, who is not an “expert of old” by any means, lays out an evolution of habituation that has brought us from the Federalist Papers to that Beck guy crying on tv.  Sajay makes powerful points on the meaning of tyranny and the connection between a vibrantly defined sense of its meaning: the abrogation of power into limited hands without effective political limits – and our condition today. He does this without claiming allegiance to any particular ideology.  Here is his concluding statement:

“The end of the age of experts does not necessarily usher in the age of freedom. It may well bring forth masked experts and bureaucrats. The citizens of old now wear the mask of experts or executives who manage themselves.”

This is an intriguing point!  It adds nuance to a condition I’ve found at the heart of so many of our present difficulties.  Terms like Stockholm Syndrome and Intellectual Capture, allude to it, but this explains how it is that we’ve internalized the process of maintaining the status quo.  It’s so easy to infer conspiracy everywhere, when so often what we are seeing is a manifestation of a successful “infection.”  Just as with a biological virus, cultural hegemonies are successful because of the way they insinuate themselves into their hosts.  In-and-of-itself, this does not imply a value judgment.  Just as many viruses end up as useful parts of their hosts own DNA, potent and useful cultural dynamics use the same process to become “part of us.”

In this case, even as we see the collapse of specialized, narrow-view expertise in every part of our public life, we have taken in the assumptions on which their “authority” was based, and strive to act the same way when we make our own decisions.  This is a detail within the wider success of the modern world-view. It has been able to dominate without generating an elevated concern amongst its victims that it is coercing them into accepting its premises.  Where earlier “tyrannies”  wore their coercive powers”on their sleeves,” the current system has internalized them within its individual members.

* * *

It has always been fairly easy to make a case for a limited “pacifism.” A total rejection of coercion has never made it past the wishful thinking stage. What I’m finding though is that in a thought-out form of pragmatism there is no other answer to how best to deal with one’s self and with others. There is a great liberating power in letting go of coercion. Internally it breaks the bonds of fear that lead to the kind of mechanism described above. By refusing to argue, even with one’s self, we learn to create a space free of short-circuited leaps at solutions. We learn to drop the need to be defensive, to self-censor our thoughts to only include what we are confident we can defend. We gain comfort in a state of unknowing and from that stand we can engage in reality with a light touch. Until it begins to loose its grip on us we have no idea how strong this shackle is. The assumption that polemic is the only way forward and the fevered pitch that keeps us in are robust and resilient at our own expense.

Jumping from the suggestion that we drop self-coercion directly to the question of physical security is a short-circuit, precisely the kind of derailment that has kept us from following through. Opening up that space between where our internal intuitive reflective guidance leads us without expecting all of our fears to be relieved immediately gives us the kind of exercise, of spirit and mental discipline, to begin along a path towards a deeper understanding. Only by following this path can we learn to abandon the failed concepts of external or internal arbiters of expertise. This is key. This mechanism is at the heart of our breakdown. This process is at the heart of a way forward that doesn’t continually short-circuit into putting wish-fulfillment ahead of all other human values.

There is a deep connection between the practices and aims of art and this ability to sidestep coercion. Creative practice which is the only way we ever escape the win/lose dichotomy is both guide and mechanism behind this action.

I’ve just begun reading Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Bright-Sided. Another example of a book falling to hand at the right moment. This is also, and at this point, even more surprising to me as a rather mainstream writer really getting down to the point by making a fundamental critique of a modern shibboleth. I’ve been working on the questions around our misuse of the term Hope and the default assumption that there are only two emotional stances available to us, optimism or pessimism. She gets into these questions in detail, I eagerly await the bulk of her thesis as I proceed.

There is a connection to be made between our impulse to short-circuit and accept coercion/tyranny whether external or internal and this default emotional state we insist on. I will be elaborating on this as we go forward.

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