So, in need of inspiration, I began by re-reading last week’s miscellany in order to search for any leftover typographical smidgeons on which to extemporise (I’m hoping that extemporise means ‘waffle’). Sadly I found none, so I turned on the TV and made coffee…
My attention was immediately drawn by a ‘health and fitness’ guru in a neon-pink lycra bodysuit who, if not quite prepared to assume mantle of True Messiah, was more than prepared to be regarded as senior disciple. She had very firm opinions about what was good and what was bad for us, she was thin, lacklustre, almost featureless, and had a pious aura around her that you could pop with a boat-hook. She very much believed that the government should legislate in order to ensure that we all embrace the lifestyle that she has mapped out for us.
We live in a world where everyone knows best and no-one tolerates ‘other’: personality is drowned under the steady ooze of a megalomaniac desire to create a breed of clone, all adapted to think just like ‘me, me, me’ and ready to be advised of the errors of their ways and the price they must pay for that fancy coffee and a slice of carrot cake. I’m certain that she did not insist that she was referred to as a ‘guru’ but I’m also pretty sure that she didn’t object too strongly either. This righteous certainty is, I think, the nub of my ‘beef’ with all ‘experts’: the all-consuming desire to inform us not just of what they are doing right, but most importantly of what we are all doing wrong; what we should not be doing, and how we must stop doing it before we go blind. I cannot tell you how much I resent fat politicians telling me that I should eat more healthily. There is a cumulative effect of being told ‘You eat too much; you drink too much; you exercise too little’ and that effect can be expressed as ‘Oh, f*ck off…’
I don’t suppose that the phenomenon of the ‘expert’ is a new one. I imagine that many a Neolithic man, caught out in the biting sleet of a British summer day with just a single layer of eviscerated stoat for comfort, will probably have been watched over by a pompous, mono-browed contemporary, sucking on his teeth, rubbing his chin and chiding, ‘You’ll never start a fire with those two sticks: you’re rubbing them together all wrong and your kindling’s getting wet…’ Go to any football match, at any level and you will realise, very quickly, that everyone’s an expert. Experts infiltrate almost every facet of our lives: we welcome financial advisors into our homes; we have ‘lifestyle coaches’ haranguing us from our TV’s; we have Fred down the pub who knows, with an absolute certainty, that all of our nation’s problems are caused by immigration, and is very willing to impart his knowledge to anybody who might, inadvisably, wander within earshot.
To me, the term ‘expert’ implies that an individual has a greater depth of knowledge and understanding than is the norm: expertise requires knowledge and knowledge requires fact. Fact is not, necessarily, the product of formal education. I know that the sound of breaking glass and the strangled scream of ‘Leave him, Gavin. He’s not worth it’ does not signal the ideal time to get up and go to the bar. I know never again to offer to strum the mandolin without first checking that they are talking about the musical instrument and not the kitchen implement. I understand these things without being taught. I need no expert to lecture me about feckless inadequacy – I know all about it.
It also strikes me that expertise implies a certain level of engagement. I watch the news every day, but I do not believe that qualifies me as an expert on current affairs any more than my love of cake makes me a master baker. I have attained and surpassed the rank of ‘Master of none’ without ever passing ‘Jack of all’. ‘Competent’ is an accolade that I am seldom afforded. I am what is known in technical circles, as “a bleedin’ liability”. It strikes me that actually becoming an expert involves the narrowing down of horizons. A broad knowledge-base may make you appear intelligent, but not an expert. Experts have specific knowledge that is unavailable to the likes of you and I – unless of course we buy their book.
And so we are surrounded by an ever growing band of ‘experts’ who believe that the world would be a much better place if everyone else was just like them. (I am not implying that they would, in any way, consider overseeing a program of eugenics- I’m just suggesting that, by and large, it would be better if nobody proposes it to them.) Yet this belief is based exclusively on opinion. Opinion is a personal thing that can seldom, if ever, be modified by the opinion of others. I’m not even sure that opinion can ever be wrong. Fact, yes, but opinion, I’m not so sure. Even if it’s unhelpful, bad or downright offensive, who’s to say that it is actually wrong? There is a breed of politician that almost inevitably falls back on ‘public opinion’ when expressing a personal notion for which the proof is, at best, insubstantial. Surely the most galling thing in the world is to be asked your opinion by someone who actually has no interest in it at all, other than to tell you it is wrong. Does the fact that an opinion is ‘widely held’ actually make it right? I think that the correlation between ‘popular’ and ‘right’ is one that requires rather more testing. There is the common claim that the biggest selling brand in the marketplace is ‘The Nation’s Favourite’, without any consideration for the alternatives: is it merely the cheapest, the most widely available or simply just the one that we have always bought? Does ‘widely used’ necessarily equate to ‘most popular’?
Conviction is fine, as long as it is private. It pays, in my experience, to remember that when people ask you what you think, it means only that they are prepared to listen, not that they are interested. In our heads, we are all experts. We all know what is right but, unfortunately, most of the time it also means knowing that what everybody else is doing is wrong. And sometimes it means trying to persuade them to stop it. The law is there to make us refrain from doing what is unlawful. Family is there to stop us doing what is unsavoury and, for everything else, we have experts. And quite frankly, I prefer the carrot cake…
If you’re going through hell, keep going. – Winston Churchill