Experts and Political Life
I was listening to the DoubleX podcast this morning because I promised awhile ago to blog my reflections on it more often. They were talking about the “tampon tax” and how there’s a new “period feminism” about owning your period, and wow, isn’t it weird how menstruation seems to somehow capture men’s fears about women? I was annoyed. And I realized, I was annoyed for the same reasons from the last time I blogged about this podcast–they aren’t experts on a subject that does in fact have experts. There are people (like my new fave, Helen King) who work in gender theory who talk about how menstruation going back to the ancient Greeks captures something of the male anxiety about women’s reproductive capacities and death–you know, the whole shedding of blood bit.
I haven’t been blogging much this month because I haven’t felt like I was an expert on the various issues and ideas that I’ve considered in the last month or so (though, I gotta tell you, once I thought about how I really should blog, all of a sudden, I could think of four different posts I had to write, so I think thinking-towards-the-blog is itself productive of thinking). The political moment we live in seems to be one of a general disparagement of those who claim to be experts, and mocking the experts is something of an American pastime (consider the glee directed at Nate Silver’s fails). I might be chagrined that Trump has benefited from the decline of respect for expert knowledge, but I share this skepticism of the rising class of technocrats. When economists say we are the experts, we can fix the economy, and only we can figure it out because it is so complicated, I start to worry. Whenever anyone says, this is just a matter of the right knowledge, and the one with the right knowledge, that is the person who gets to rule, their claim is more of a political one than an epistemological one.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates says the philosopher is the one who should rule because the philosopher alone has the knowledge of the good. But the philosopher still has to come down into the cave to convince those in the cave that the philosopher is the one who has that knowledge. The currency of the cave, though, isn’t knowledge, but doxa or opinion. Everyone has their own view of what is best. Not having knowledge, they decide through sharing opinions. Hannah Arendt argues that Plato depicts political life as the life in the cave, where we truck in opinions and no one has any real knowledge. In Arendt’s view, Plato is critical of this situation, which he sees lead to the death of Socrates since no one can recognize that he is the one who knows and should lead. Arendt argues that Plato depicts the polis as the place unable to see the philosopher so the philosopher must leave the cave to become the one who can rule from knowledge. But the thing about expert knowledge is that you have to already be an expert in order to recognize whether the expert has the knowledge the expert claims to have. If you already are an expert, you don’t need an expert. So even if you are an expert, you cannot get out of having to enter into the world of doxa to appeal to those who do not know to get them to agree to your view, based on knowledge as it is, but to those who cannot confirm whether or not it is based on knowledge. Aristotle seems to confirm the worthiness of the multitude in making political decisions when he says the many together can be virtuous when each brings their own view, like diners at a potluck bringing their best meal to share. The judgment of the Good is subject to debate, which is not to say with the positivists that it is irrational or mere opinion, but that it is subject to the dispute at the heart of political well, a dispute that cannot be addressed through better algorithms and better statistics, but only through continued and sustained efforts to persuade, to account for oneself and the community, to continually re-evaluate whether the ends achieved are the ones we want and whether the ends are in fact being achieved.
On this account, we have to recognize that what it means to be a part of this shared world is to have some knowledge based on our experience regarding what the problems are and what solutions work. There is no expert knowledge on how to be a citizen. Or rather, perhaps we should say, every citizen is an expert. Think of the first rule of community organizing–communities know best what they need. I have been thinking that the problem is that people are not asked what their sense of their needs are, they are told, whether by Fox News or their Twitter feed. Rousseau says that we can figure out the general will when no one speaks to anyone else but just makes their judgments regarding what they would take to be in the general interest. I tend to find that problematic, because I think dialogue is productive of better insight, but talking heads are not interested in dialogue. In an age when people’s own understanding of their needs and struggles is ignored, they are more susceptible to accepting those they think have their interests in mind without considering whether or not they do. Instead of an electorate gathering their knowledge and understanding to bring to bear on the problems as they understand them, we have the confrontation of talking points widely distributed.
In Claudia Rankine’s poem in The New Yorker this week, “Sound and Fury” (read the whole thing)” Rankine considers the plight of the working class white people in America who are not benefitting from white supremacy. In the last stanza, she writes:
If people could just come clean about their pain,
the being at a loss when just being white
is not working. Who said there is no hierarchy
inside white walls? Who implied white owns
everything even as it owns nothing? But white
can’t strike its own structure. White can’t oust
its own system. All the loss is nothing
next to any other who can be thrown out.
In daylight this right to righteous rage doubles
down the supremacy of white in this way.
When news outlets tell working class poor white men to double down on white supremacy instead of listening to what they think they need, white supremacy appears to be the only solution. When the experts–from pundits to economists–rule the roost, the knowledge from those who are struggling of their actual needs and concerns that could create coalitions between white and black workers is denied. Denied, this knowledge is ignored even by those who have it, and at our peril.