My conflicted relationship to “expertise”

Am I an expert? Are you?

I became a published author last year, while working for Thousand Currents and while teaching young and evolving social change makers in the University of Vermont Masters of Leadership for Sustainability program, i.e. before #SausageGateFest. In my Communicating for Social Change class, I found many of the students struggled to claim their own expertise. I attributed this to them being at times overly conscious of not wanting to speak for or over others. (How refreshing is that?!) Question is: Do we silence our own voices in the process?

Regardless, claiming expertise is important, in that most of us around the world remain unheard, and are socialized to minimize our strengths and contributions. (Hence one of my mantras: There is no “voice for the voiceless.” Only those not listening.) Ultimately, I wrote the message below to encourage my students to use their credibility in an authentic, yet undeniable way.

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Expertise has been used as a tool of domination throughout history. So-called and self-proclaimed “experts” have been aligned with power structures and have been dividing people and sublimating them for centuries.

Of course there are also many other ways of dominating people in our communications. Perfectionism, along with its other friends: worship of the written word, valuing formal education over lived experience, quantity over quality, and the assumption of objectivity, are what anti-racism trainers Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun describe as characteristics of white supremacy culture – in my mind all related to the concept of expertise.

Yet, I know I want a surgeon who has developed specialized coronary expertise to be the one operating on my heart. Don’t you? No, not just a medical student who has read about the procedure, but someone with actual, applicable, hands-on training and experience and a track record of successful surgeries.

The issues we most care about – climate justice, anti-Black racism, new food systems, etc. – all require a reframing of meta-narratives in the so-called “mainstream” discourse. That means part of our role as communicators is highlighting the important knowledge, ideas, and resources that come from outside the Western, white, privileged, Christian, cis male perspective. We can all agree (I hope) that there is a cost to all of us when so many of the best minds and perspectives who don’t fit the mainstream’s idea of “expert” are left out of it.

Here’s where it gets conflicted.

At this point in history, we know the experts don’t have all the answers. We even suspect them. And yet we also know that each of us has fundamental know-how and resources that contribute to and that others can utilize for social transformation. That’s why I encourage you to “own” your experiences (the accumulation of which eventually results in expertise) and to value your voice.

I wish we were further along in the mainstream, so that it were more inclusive. (Note that the concept of the “mainstream” is being questioned outright and is itself changing rapidly.) But until then, even when our entire ethos as professionals or organizations is about up-ending the notion of who the “experts” are, claiming expertise is often part of an internal journey that accompanies claiming our space and our rights. We can responsibly honor others by authentically centering ourselves and the uniqueness – and the potential generalizability – of our experiences.

When I see people reject their own “expertise,” I only ask that you take a deeper look. As social animals, humans naturally look to others to guide us and offer insights. So why not you?! Isn’t it important for people of your age/ethnicity/gender/sexuality/background etc. to also be in the mix?

I’m curious about what happens when we expand the notion of expertise. What happens when we acknowledge that people are experts in their own lives and communities?

What happens when expertise is defined by a humility rooted in the continual commitment to learning?

Is it then possible to stop relating to expertise in an authoritarian way? What happens when deep contextual knowledge, cultural skills, or the ability to operate in a responsive manner becomes the expertise we know we most need? What does it mean to weave expertise with accountability to the collective?

Then, do we start to de-couple “claiming expertise” and trust our own self worth within the process of claiming our ever-evolving voices? When do we shift our focus from accumulating knowledge to becoming wise?

Screw Gladwell’s 10,000 hours! By offering more concrete details for people to hang on to about you, you can let them decide the degree to which they’ll listen to what you have to say. Without it, you don’t distinguish your voice/perspectives from the multitude of Twitter trolls and establishment blow-hards. You also make transparent your own learning process and evolution. And without that, how are we ever to inspire transformation in others?

Each one of us represent the dispersed nature of knowledge. And sometimes, in order to be taken seriously, we still have to establish our credibility – early and often.

And that’s ok.

But feel free to disagree with me. That’s also the point.

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3 Comments

  1. Faruque Malik

    Using expertise as a tool for dominance is an historic truth. It is human psychology and societies have benefited by this.

    Expertise used as a tool of exploitation and unfair protection of vested interests is a bane for all societies.

  2. Yes, absolutely! Terminology is very important to the messages we send, and ‘expertise’ is a very exclusive term. We all have experiences and skills we have developed a long the way (whether through formal training or life experiences), but ‘expertise’ is conferred on only a few, blocking out all of the other voices we might also learn from. I’d love to see the use of this term, and what it implies, phased out of common practice. Thanks for spreading the word!

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