“That’s odd,” the fella says to his wife as he turns away from his computer, “My Facebook friends who were constitutional scholars just a month ago are now infectious disease experts…” Perhaps you, too, have stumbled across friends whose sudden expertise in __________ came as a bit of a surprise. Who knew that that dark, multiply-overlaid expertise section in the Venn diagram of people we know was so crowded? Since the start of 2020, social media have provided platforms and spotlights for a whole range of sudden experts — people who feel on par with Dr. Fauci because of that year of biology in high school, whose constitutional scholarship is rooted in a deep commitment to Law & Order: SVU or a lifelong crush on Sam Seaborn, whose authority on climate change is bolstered because of that one ecotour to Costa Rica in 2008, who understand systemic injustice better than the Black Lives Matter movement because they have that one Black friend and couldn’t possibly be racist.
It’s a mistake to think this is a new trend or exclusively (or even uniquely) attached to the events of the recent past. Like so much of our lives that we’d hoped to remain hidden or to dissipate with the power of wishful thinking, 2020 magnified the phenomenon of sudden expertise. Facing a series of cosmological, theological, philosophical, sociological…let’s just say ‘existential’ as a catch-all…challenges, we’ve all responded with our bests and our worsts, but our lack of collective discipline on, ethics while engaging, and understanding of the impact of social media left our still-mostly-uncharted virtual world vulnerable to a quick-spreading cancer aimed at debilitating humility and reason and leaving its victims ravaged. It diminishes the capacity to resist that most dangerous, disruptive, and distracting of the voices rattling inside our minds, the little voice that tells us, despite all observable and measurable points of comparison indicating otherwise, that we don’t need each other after all, prodding us to recognize that we know better than anyone else.
Considering the extent of this phenomenon today, I regret laughing at earlier, what-I-deemed-frivolous manifestations. Ridiculous, laughable, silly. A waste of time to address, to admonish, to redirect. Parents who were math minors in college and who don’t think the teacher will get their darling into calculus by 10th grade. Fans who eviscerate elite athletes for having a bad day or making a mistake. People of one faith (usually but not exclusively, in my experience, Christians) telling people of other faiths what they believe or what their practice really means. Descendents of immigrants who expect current residents of their ancestors’ hometowns to remain frozen in an idealized fantasy of the world left behind. Homeowners who reject the services of designers or architects because their devotion to HGTV prepared them better than any lifetime of honing relevant skills could, you know, the skills to shape the spaces that shape people and shape our interactions with each other. I even laughed off the far-too-frequent and very-grating interactions with people who, after learning that my major in college was religious studies or that I worked as a campus minister, decided to tell me what was wrong with all religion, or with the Catholic church, or, in a few particularly cutting interactions, me. Once, on a date, after I described (with a fair amount of idealistic enthusiasm) my world religions courses and the retreat I was planning, the guy told me, “I don’t know, I just can’t respect anyone who talks about having any kind of faith.” Sure, it made for an uncomfortable date, but it also made for an illustrative anecdote about the tribulations of dating after divinity school.
I regret laughing these moments off not just because such an attitude is flatly insulting, especially to relevant experts. I regret it because I actually worry for the people who believe they know better. That delusion leaves them vulnerable. Look at interior design: glossy magazines don’t project what homes or offices or social spaces could look like; they show readers what those spaces should look like — not based on the particular and distinctive needs of folx inhabiting them but on what advertisers and players in the industry have already produced. Instead of helping people shape their spaces around themselves, they trick people into shaping themselves according to the molds the industry prefers. I also worry that the DIY craze is one more buttress to the cathedral of achievement, the irrational expectation that we should master every skill and reach the highest level of every activity we engage. Why do it if you’re not going to do it best? Why play if you’re not going to win? Why exert if you’re not going to come out on top?
There’s an aggressive competition baked into these instincts that reveals the real problem: trust. It’s not that we don’t trust others’ expertise — the fact that so many sudden-experts parrot the technical and rhetorical language of expertise tells me that expertise is desirable and authoritative. Instead, every rejection of expertise points to a lack of confidence that others might and do act in our best interest, and this is where I feel most stuck. To paraphrase Lauren Morrill, I don’t know how to explain to you why you should trust other people. Is this naive? Perhaps, but, ever the optimist, I look to the root of the word. Naive commonly takes on a moral judgment of innocence or foolishness, but its root is the same as ‘native,’ pointing to a natural state, lacking artifice. Is it naive to trust others? In the common sense, no. In the sense of its root, yes. Trust is the most natural of instincts we could muster to rally others of our species to identify and share resources, to grow socially, cognitively, and philosophically, and to warn and dream together. When it comes to navigating this world, do you really want to do it yourself?