“Write what you know.”
Though it is true that this concept is misapplied by burgeoning wordsmiths as it applies to fiction, I would like to argue that this quote applies also to those of us engaged in non-fiction writing. Perhaps even more so.
I write articles, mostly. But I also consider the other parts of writing I frequently engage in. Youtube comment discussions. Twitter debates. The rare foray onto a Facebook page. These are all, in their way, non-fiction writing. Maybe the title is a misnomer. It’s about speech, too. The private phone conversation with my business partner about degeneracy in Hollywood. A discussion on my Youtube show about alternative media. The long debates with my father about the Canadian healthcare system.
Whatever, we’ll call it writing. It makes us sound more like pipe-smoking intellectuals than (more accurate) iPhone wielding Twitter addicts.
Maybe you know, maybe you don’t. Write anyway.
When I was a teenager, I was very much a left-leaning liberal progressive. I believed in big government, I believed in “social justice” being a good thing, I believed in “a woman’s right to choose”, and I believed in the frightening frequency of all of the evil “isms”.
I talked about these things, and wrote about these things. Often at length. I remember a particular old Livejournal entry where I praised the Dixie Chicks for saying they were ashamed George Bush is from Texas, while acting as though all criticism they received was just evil and wrong, across the board, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
I remember debates with my dad about abortion, where I considered his views completely unrealistic and cruel to women. Republicans were evil. George Bush was the Worst Person Ever™. Barack Obama (in 2008, anyway) was a great guy who would solve racism in America.
The usual stuff.
Anything I believed in was argued with the unique fierceness of one who is quite ignorant to why they believe as they do. (An anecdote on that in a few moments.)
Much of what I argued was mired in the (frustrating, I’m sure) logical fallacies, lack of experience, lack of expertise, and lack of knowledge that Tom Nichols wrote about in his seminal article (and later, book) “The Death of Expertise”.
I have read his article, and I’d be interested to read his book. I agree with much of it, in fact, especially this bit, bolded mine:
All of these are symptoms of the same disease: a manic reinterpretation of “democracy” in which everyone must have their say, and no one must be “disrespected.” (The verb to disrespect is one of the most obnoxious and insidious innovations in our language in years, because it really means “to fail to pay me the impossibly high requirement of respect I demand.”) This yearning for respect and equality, even—perhaps especially—if unearned, is so intense that it brooks no disagreement. It represents the full flowering of a therapeutic culture where self-esteem, not achievement, is the ultimate human value, and it’s making us all dumber by the day.
Thus, at least some of the people who reject expertise are not really, as they often claim, showing their independence of thought. They are instead rejecting anything that might stir a gnawing insecurity that their own opinion might not be worth all that much.
I certainly think this all to be true – and I am not intending to argue against Nichols’s assertions about the harm that this anti-intellectual equal playing field of opinion can do to our broader society. Consider this article an admittedly inexpert complement, not a polemic.
The issue is twofold: the making of an expert has changed, and the usefulness of the ignorant as a tool to enlighten the curious has changed.
Whatever the history of expertise is, for better or worse (as Nichols certainly acknowledges), we exist in 2017, where a person with a doctorate in sociology may be far less of an expert than a self-taught intellectual. Not always. Not often. But with the internet, it certainly can happen, and it probably has.
The very idea of an “expert” is weakened when the institutions which used to produce intellectuals insist on producing a high percentage of the very same sort of entitled dolts that we complain the laymen are.
There are negatives and positives to this, just as there are to the second issue.
The same rise of the internet and social media which has fostered “the new expertise” has also given rise to the ability for those with an intellectual bent to use the willfully ignorant to demonstrate their own argument.
If you use Twitter, you know what I’m talking about. I use this tactic quite a lot myself (ME, AN INTELLECTUAL!!1!1!).
People tweet me painfully idiotic things, and I show those reading my timeline just how idiotic they are.
This has its own perils, which I’ve grappled with, too.
It is a bit of a truism that a debate does not take place to change the mind of the opposing side, but to change the mind or cement the view of the audience. I’d call these people, the sort of people who will actually consider hearing two sides, across the spectrum of belief, the “curious class”. These are the people that sit by while the experts battle the Jenny McCarthy’s of the world. The people who want to learn something, as misguided as they (we) may sometimes be, and as prone to bias as (we) often are as human being.
I don’t consider myself an intellectual, or an expert. I also don’t consider myself among the willfully ignorant.
Not anymore, at any rate.
I consider myself a member of the curious class.
I have come to find this distinction, though simplistic, explains the logic of my choice in friends. I have friends who are staunch anarcho-capitalists. Those who are vehemently anti-war in almost every situation. I ended up in a very long tweet battle last night with my friend Josh (mentioned in an above piece – the Josh Conscience™ himself) about whether or not the government should enact anti-trust legislation against tech pseudo-monopolies like Google.
(I’m leaning yes, for the record. But I’m open to being convinced.)
And then, in my real life, I can think of two people who I have spoken with at length about politics/culture lately. My dad, the progressive liberal who I talk about an annoying amount.
But there’s also my new-ish friend, whose name I’ll keep private.
Finally, the anecdote from like three headers ago. An expert writer? Nope.
We met on a camping trip when I was in New York back in the summer, and we stayed in touch. Last time I was in America, we spent a weekend hanging out. She is a self-described “liberal Democrat” and feminist. I had briefly walked into her butting heads with another friend of ours back in the summer, over the issue of Islam.
And in our two-hour conversation about that same topic, a few months later, just the two of us, I watched a person I had feared was part of the willfully ignorant reveal herself to be “like me” in the way that I consider most important in a friend.
She was, like me, part of the curious class, cloaked in the ignorance of her position. Was she ever willfully ignorant?
If she reads this, I don’t think she will be offended: she said it herself.
After a long discussion, where she listened to me explain why I am such a critic of Islam, asked questions, and bothered listening to what I had to say without assuming the worst of me like many in my own life do, she told me straight out: “I didn’t know anything about Islam. I defended it based on people I knew who were Muslim. I was ignorant. I’m thinking about everything you said.”
It was one of the most refreshing conversations I’d had in real life in a long time. Not because she ceded some of my points – but because she wanted to hear them. Because she did me the honor of considering them.
Conversations like that make me wonder if the lines are more blurred than any of us think.
I don't think I'll change the world. But maybe that's not my goal. Maybe I just want to be here. To speak. To join the hum of ideas.
— Stefanie MacWilliams (@StefMacWilliams) October 30, 2017
Who is the expert? Who is the intellectual? Who is the wise? Who is the dumb? Who is the misled? Who is the ignorant?
Who are the curious class?
Is it something innate, something that I draw to myself in my choice of friends because I feel at home among those who question everything, even when their conclusions are often entirely opposite to my own?
Is it something that can only emerge from the primordial ooze of ignorant ego? Or do some people (not me) skip that phase entirely? Is it an evolution on a timeline, or a static state?
The only way to find out, the only way at all, is for those who are curious to speak. Even if we become the example of stupidity for others. Even if the experts out there turn us into fools. Perhaps especially so.
This view of things gives me a boundless energy and confidence to learn. I don’t have to be an expert – not yet. I don’t have to always get it right – not yet, likely never. I don’t have to know – I only have to try to know. Whatever my constantly-worrying mind fears about the future of my career, I feel a sense of calm.
All I have to do is keep asking questions – and have the faith that my answers will grow less stupid with time.