Every day we abstain from considering and making decisions that are rightly ours to consider and make. We defer that engagement with our world to people considered more ‘expert’ in the apparently germane disciplines, but to the exclusion of all others. And so we build the world around us as it is, with all the grandeur and the despair in it, as a deferred potential and responsibility. Nevertheless, we build it in our own images, because we ourselves become a perpetually stalled potential when we choose this as a reflexive response to all contemplation and decisions about matters more complex than immediate self-gratification.
What is it that we really do when we abdicate our own authority and wisdom? Do we actually comprehend what the consequences are, for ourselves and others, even when we think we don’t care enough to want to have a say?
Is talking about delayed potential misleading? Should we not be concerned that some options, when delayed or forestalled, cease to be options in future? In other words, it is possible that by deferring a judgement we actually surrender the right or liberty to ever exercise it again. This is might be the means of constraining political choice and making of liberal democracy something not quite so democratic right under our noses, and without any objection from us.
Burke’s misquoted axiom
This problem is not new, and has been encapsulated more than once by renowned thinkers and writers. In its most dramatic form it might be most recognisable today when Edmund Burke is misquoted to say: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’
There is no record of him ever having spoken or written those words, but he did write:
When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.
– Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of Present Discontents, 1770.
It was a courageous statement of opposition to the increasingly tyrannical politics at the court of King George III, with its principals seeking to reverse parliamentary oversight of royal prerogatives, and possibly inspiring the royal intransigence that lost Britain its American colonies. Today an equivalent statement would be a British MP, or an American Congressional representative, denouncing the overwhelmingly disproportionate influence of transnational corporations, lobbyists, and other unelected manipulators of the legislative and executive branches of government.
The call to action Burke spoke about, however, carries a relevance to us today about a contemporary culture of indolence, apathy, and ignorance in which isolated individuals nevertheless comprising a majority of people are increasingly distanced from direct engagement with politics and all other means of influencing the control and purposes of societies. Instead they uncritically absorb mass media messages and regurgitate them without reflection, oblivious to their uncertain veracity and relevance. Originality or dissent is banished by the flood of banality and irrelevance issuing from especially news media, making it easy for any interests backed by enough money to seek and attain an unquestioned respectability they may not deserve, and the complicity in their designs of notionally free people who do nothing to prevent even the most horrendous outcomes of the agendas advanced by such interests.
Problems today are said to be so complex that all debate resembles a deafening shouting match, often focusing on irrelevances sometimes as trifling as where punctuation should be placed in already ineffective, disingenuous statements and documents. These are the routine ‘achievements’ of ‘experts’ and sage commentators: to disagree on the most microscopic minutiae of propositions with questionable relevance or efficacy.
In that cacophony, what is lost almost immediately is the substance of what is being debated. The purpose and consequences of new laws are seen as secondary to processes that fuel and maintain existing partisan disagreements as ends in themselves. The debate, such as it is, subverts all rational analysis by focusing only on a ritualised slanging match between contestants in what appears to be a zero sum game, albeit one that often turns out to deliver no outcome, victory, or resolution at all.
What is lost immediately after rationality in such ‘debates’, or perhaps because of its loss, are the voices of ‘non-expert’ people who are precisely the ones to suffer the consequences of whatever decisions are eventually made. Unfortunately this often occurs willingly, because we have been taught, and we obey the demand, to consider ourselves too ignorant, too inexperienced, and too insignificant to have the power of forming a view that might be as magisterial, as penetrating, as relevant, and as useful as a perspective formulated by an ‘expert’.
What makes experts so much more insightful? What is the quality of expertise we lack? Is it more than an intangible attribute lionised by other experts? Is it more than a product of an elite circle of credentialed, entitled panjandrums acknowledging only each others’ right to be heard, authority to speak, and merit to be obeyed?
Does wealth make someone an expert on its acquisition, or just on its appropriation, whether by theft, or thrift, or industry? Does a university chair make someone an expert on public benefit or the political will of citizens? Does age, or maturity, or public office make some heads innately wiser than younger ones with a fresh approach and unknown reputation?
I would argue not. Most problems today aren’t really complex at all. They are quite simple to understand and resolve. What is complex is untangling the vested interests in maintaining a status quo that works for progressively fewer people.
Leaving aside the problems of apathy and absorption in the exigencies of life, we seem to recuse ourselves from critical thinking, or formulating and voicing opinions, because a narrow elite demands it, and manipulates us effectively into ignoring the lessons of the Enlightenment that tell us to trust our own definitive experiences, and our reason, above the imposed authoritarianism of received and beholden ‘wisdom’.
The Mediaeval paradigm
There is a disturbing parallel between uncritical mass media consumption today, and Mediaeval feudal serfs gathering in their parish churches for indoctrination by their local priests. Clerics who acted as authority figures in all matters, except perhaps the interventions of the feudal lords. Like those serfs, most people today seem willing to surrender to others their own judgements about a core of issues critical to the way they live their lives. It is a process of accepting others almost as contemporary analogues of feudal overlords or intellectual betters because they manage to pass themselves off as authority figures, or are presented to us as such by media companies, which rarely disclose their interests in doing so.
Completely unlike the Mediaeval serfs, however, their contemporary counterparts capitulate their discernments and voices willingly, as an act of faith based on indolence or apathy rather than the Mediaeval illiteracy and uneducated ignorance that made superstition and credulity almost an inevitable characteristic of those populations.
In the contemporary analogue of this Mediaevalism, there appears to be a willing complicity by even educated people, able to check facts and sources, to believe interpretations and proposed theories as if they were holy scripture, or as if only a narrow caste of high priests could render the correct selection and explanation of information, circumstances, and choices.
The veneer of expertise
In the present environment there are fewer barriers than at any other time in history to pursuing most information or ideas to their root sources, be they books, articles, reports, surveys, scientific findings, or transcripts. There are fewer barriers than ever before to forming personal conclusions, and comparing or contrasting these with the ‘expert’ opinions presented via mass media. Perhaps the only real obstacle to accessing and processing information is the motivation to go looking, and to do a bit of thinking.
Such a process of investigation and analysis is not to be confused with the idiot bleatings of far too many people who have heard or read some pithy summary of a topic and now believe they are informed and entitled to inflict their new-found ‘wisdom’ on all who surround them, as if they understand their topic, or the implications of the things they say. An attitude perhaps rooted in the unfortunately far too common, ignorant misunderstanding that democracy is a simple process of majority rule, and free speech is the unrestricted right to repeat any sort of arrant nonsense without being challenged on it, or even ridiculed for demonstrated fatuity. It seems almost astonishingly difficult to explain to some people, particularly those with overly rule-bound technocrat tendencies that they rightly deserve critique and censure for proposing cretinous ideas and opinions as if others should be bound by them, like categorical imperatives.
It is to short-circuit this kind of nonsensical bleating that governments routinely turn to academics for packaging a preferred course of action in the counterfeit neutrality of academic method. Counterfeit because terms of reference or specifications of scope almost always predetermine the outcome, leaving the academics only to wrap what narrow range of conclusions are left in the semblance of academic method, which is to cite knowledgeable sources, to structure conclusions as if they flowed irrefutably from those sources, immune from any and all alternatives, and to create the language, including technocrat jargon, with which the anticipated recommendations can be ‘sold’ to the public.
What becomes submerged, and almost deliberately concealed in this process, is that academic process is never closed off like a report or study delivered by a politically appointed individual or group. Academic method relies on debate. A paper or dissertation is always only ever a waystation in an ongoing discussion, not the vessel of a monolithic or unarguable truth.
Not to recognise this distortion of the academic process in the service of political masters lends legitimacy to the undifferentiated, monotone character of supposed political debate in Western societies; certain status quo positions are never questioned at all, even when this works to the distinct disadvantage of the majority, whose consent is nevertheless regarded as at least symbolically necessary to legitimise policy measures in liberal democracies. This is most conspicuously the case with the assumptions about Western political economy, which have been taken to mean, since at least the 1970s, an unquestioning and disproportionate support by all major political groupings for the interests of trans-national corporations, persisting despite overwhelming evidence that this support has led to massive social and economic dislocations, if not outright disasters for large majorities of voters, including suggestions of a disappearing middle class in the US and Europe.
This, I think, is one of the penetrating insights encapsulated in Thomas Paine’s deceptively simple sentence:
… a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.
– Common Sense, 1776.
The fabrication of justifications, the outright lies, and the absence of even attempts at alternative policy positions work solely because a majority of people do not question the authority of experts. Like Mediaeval serfs mutely accepting their feudal slavery in an economic system presented to them as ordained by god, and not open to any challenge, contemporary mass media consumers appear satisfied that making occasional, apparently fashionably progressive statements constitutes political engagement, and taking no other action is justified by the certainty of individuals not being able to change anything. A mind-set which actually perpetuates that very outcome: people convincing themselves they cannot change things for the better means they don’t try, which is the most efficient way of preventing change.
Contemporary Western status quo justifications may no longer be able to rely on divine authority (outside the US, that is), but secular faiths have supplanted spiritual ones. None of these contemporary incarnations is more abused and pernicious than the faith in numbers as interpreted to us by various high priests of economics, algorithms, and opinion polls.
The problem is the high priests are almost always wrong in their interpretations. Economics relies on fundamental assumptions that are admitted to be tendentious at best, and metrics really only measure carefully selected attributes, which are usually quite distinct from what they are said to measure. Algorithms never have and never will replace the human decision-making faculty and function that is claimed for them by social media cum advertising aggregators. Polls measure responses to specific questions within specific samples and rarely carry the range of meaning attributed to them. All these numbers confidence tricks work, though, because few people ever object with even the most common-sense ripostes, such as: ‘counting someone who works three hours a week as employed full-time is a deliberate lie’; or ‘persuading an advertiser someone will buy face cream just because he mentioned it in his tweets is a stretch’; or ‘polling four white guys in Mitt Romney’s country club on welfare policy does not represent a remotely accurate description of how people in Compton feel about it’.
The limits of determinism
The contemporary trend in uncritically accepting completely ludicrous conclusions based on numbers that just don’t support them is exacerbated by the shift since the 1980s of Western education away from humanities subjects that teach critical thinking and its rôle in social and political evolution, towards technical vocational training that focuses solely on technocratic and scientific skill-sets which do not equip people thus trained to understand human social and political inclinations, the lessons of history, or the difference between logic and rationality. Almost completely eradicated by this trend is any appreciation at all of ethics, which has come to mean to many people no more than a deterministic legalism rather than a reconciliation of experience, conflict of interest, and notions of justice.
This imbalanced shift towards a technocrat but fake scientism in approaching human organisation is precisely the reason why centrally planned economies failed, and why the trend by private corporations to emulate central planning, via deliberate manipulation of ‘free markets’ to their advantage, has such disastrous consequences (market bubbles, busts, and financial meltdowns). Unfortunately, too few people are properly equipped to critically evaluate and reject the flawed arguments underpinning policies and practices which collaborate with such manipulations.
The deterministic, technocratic approach to decision-making processes is a branch of the Enlightenment that overreacted to ecclesiastical superstition by proposing that all features of the universe, including human beings, could be understood as machines of varying complexity which can be disassembled, reassembled, and improved upon using only scientific methods. What has gone missing in this conception is the part of the physical apparatus that makes human beings human rather than just intricate automatons; no matter how hard even the neuroscientists have tried, they cannot locate the source of consciousness, creativity, aesthetics, and reason just by describing the mechanisms that might enable these qualities.
In other words, the technocrats, with their irrational faith in numbers to describe and fix everything, are actually not that far removed from religious zealots, because underlying both paradigms is still just an irrational faith that the word of god is revealed in the scriptures, or reality is made meaningful solely in numbers.
It appears that at the heart of the dilemma about accepting the authority of experts in preference to our own judgements is an unresolved and pre-rational desire to attain certainty about difficult questions and apparently intractably complex problems. Unfortunately certainty can be satisfied only by blind faith; priests or experts are not all-knowing, and have not discovered any special preview of divine revelation or omniscience. Not even in the most advanced sciences. Belief in their infallibility may create that illusion, but history teaches us the endlessly repeated examples of their failures. At least it teaches that to people who know a little bit of history.
In the absence of certainty, however, and as a matter of imperative need, people and societies cannot wait for investigation and debate to remove doubt and reservations. Individuals and societies must act in myriad ways every day, and in a political context that means sides must be taken and votes must be counted.
It seems tragic, in the literary sense, that in such a process we are presented always with only binary choices. Yes or no. For and against. Forced to discard from a final choice all that might be useful in the options not chosen. This implies that our courses of action, and the policies with which we govern ourselves, are effectively restrained from constant observation, re-evaluation, adjustment, and fine-tuning. A restraint that appears entirely counterproductive under any circumstance other than absolute certainty.
The binary choice mechanism may serve to short circuit what is sometimes called paralysis by analysis, but it also hides from us the possibility that we can act positively and move forward without rejecting a pluralism that recognises multiple valid options and courses of action, without any necessity to discard or condemn the ones not immediately chosen.
Abandoning judgement is surrendering liberty
… there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom. Nor, on the other hand, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimise our behaviour. Thus we have neither behind us nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse.
– Jean Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, 1946.
We can void our wisdom, our judgement, and our responsibilities only when we are prepared to also surrender our rights and prerogatives, which is what we do every time we complain about governments, or captains of industry, or the cost of the services and benefits we nevertheless expect. It happens every time we expect someone else to ‘sort it all out’. Someone more expert. Someone whose judgement is better than our own. Someone we can look to, and quote knowingly, as if we understand, as if we were suddenly enlightened. And when the best laid plans of the experts fail, they are also the scapegoats we can blame rather than blaming ourselves, which is actually where the accusing finger should point most obviously.
We sometimes cheapen the creative rejection of orthodox public discourses by calling it ‘thinking outside the box’, almost as if that were a pre-emptive apology for the audacity of an imminent, implied affront to popular thinking. It is a horribly undergraduate, smartarse phrase, but it illustrates its own shortcoming: a box used to signify a paradigm implies a discourse in which boxes are normal containers for discrete, limited items to be classified and segregated from others, not a recognition that we might actually reject the notion of boxes as normal altogether, along with all the rules and ranges of even dissent already anticipated in such a paradigm.
Is it not possible that there are no sacred cows or rules at all? No limits to what is permissible to be discussed or implemented? Only the limits of consequence and responsibility for any proposed action. I wouldn’t call it thinking outside the box at all. I’d just call it thinking. Your call.
Neither will an existentialist think that a man can find help through some sign being vouchsafed upon earth for his orientation: for he thinks that the man himself interprets the sign as he chooses. He thinks that every man, without any support or help whatever, is condemned at every instant to invent man.
– Jean Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, 1946.
 See the descriptions of how the mass media works offered by Noam Chomsky, http://peterstrempel.com/2013/05/03/manufacturing-consent-noam-chomsky-and-the-media-1992-revisited/. Nor are the so-called entertainment and social media exempt from this taxonomy.
 See, for example, Siegel, Alan & Etzkorn, Irene (2013). ‘When Simplicity Is the Solution’, Wall Street Journal, 29 March, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324000704578386652879032748.html, accessed 21 May 2013.