How (not) to be an Expert

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If there is one lesson universities should have drawn from the Holocaust, it is to not reproduce technically competent yet morally vacuous specialists and experts. Recent events suggest that they have failed to achieve that end.

 

Known for his indefatigable advocacy of pacifism, the tumultuous years of the First World War saw the British philosopher and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell heavily involved with the No-Conscription Fellowship, a British pacifist organisation that opposed mandatory conscription. In 1916, at the height of the Great War, Russell anonymously published a leaflet supporting Ernest Everett, a schoolteacher who was sentenced to two years hard labour for claiming exception and objecting to conscription on socialist grounds. When six people were arrested and sentenced to prison with hard labour for distributing the Everett leaflet, Russell  revealed himself as its author in a letter to The Times.

Russell was consequently found guilty of violating the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, which prohibited prejudicing the discipline and recruitment of the armed forces, and he was awarded a fine of £100. Soon after his conviction, in an attempt to distance itself from his Pacifist views, Trinity College summarily dismissed Russell from his lectureship. When he attempted to earn a living by lecturing in the United States, the British government refused to issue him a passport. For a while, Russell was left with no other option but to  live on the charity of his brother and friends.

This troublesome episode later led Russell to  opine that ‘The habit of considering a man’s religious, moral, and political opinions before appointing him to a post or giving him a job is the modern form of prosecution, and it is likely to become quite as efficient as the Inquisition ever was.’ But as Catherine Nixey   points out, hardly anything about his ordeal is modern, when, for example, the Catholic Church ‘had been using moral and political opinions to withhold jobs and control public for centuries.’

Indeed, the threat to livelihood remains a potent weapon to force people to change their beliefs, switch their allegiances, and disavow their professed moral and political standpoints. In the first few decades after Christianity ascended to the status of official religion in Europe, the vast majority of those who joined its ranks did so in order to retain access to their legal rights, jobs, and properties.

Equally, it is often the privileges associated with belonging to the dominant group that persuade people to switch groups. When the Islamic empire first spread across non-Arab lands, the Arab conquerors showed scant enthusiasm about proselytising their non-Arab subjects. Islam, they believed, belonged exclusively to the Arabs. But that did not hinder their non-Arab clients (mawālī), who were desperate enough to avoid special taxes levied upon them,  from converting to Islam.

Thus, it turns out that our moral, religious, and political views are often reflected and refracted by our livelihood and the labour on which it depends. Russell, who viewed his profession as that of a gadfly and not that of a myrmidon, chose not to put aside his Pacifist ideals, sacrificing his lectureship thus. A fellow pacifist in his position might have decided to do the opposite. How much blame should we then impute to the latter for compromising their integrity? More importantly, is there a specific threshold beyond which an expedient compromise becomes inexcusable, regardless of whether it was made to secure a career, escape destitution, or even avoid prosecution?

If genocide scholars can unearth incontrovertible evidence of the past atrocities perpetrated by countries they represent or work on, they can also be eerily silent on present-day genocides lest they draw the ire of state authorities.

The Everett leaflet penned anonymously by Bertrand Russell.

 

The Technically Competent Barbarian

In his seminal work, Rethinking the Holocaust, the Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer makes an interesting observation about the root causes of the Holocaust. Less so than by ideological and structural factors — which were present in other cases, but which alone or in combination did not lead to anything similar to the Holocaust — it was primarily driven by career enthusiasts, i.e., the German intelligentsia, who played a decisive role in making it a reality:

The determining factor was that the layer of intellectuals — the academicians, the teachers, the students, the bureaucrats, the doctors, the lawyers, the churchmen, the engineers — joined the Nazi party because it promised them a future and a status. Through the fast-growing identification of the intellectual layers with the regime, it became possible to have the genocide easily presented as an unavoidable step towards the achievement of a utopian future. When Herr Doctor, Herr Professor, Herr Director, Herr Priest or Pastor, Herr Engineer became collaborators with genocide, when a consensus evolved, led by the semi-mythological figure of the dictator, it became easy to convince the masses and to recruit them to carry out the murders.

Bauer then wonders, ‘If we have indeed learnt anything, it is whether we do not still keep producing technically competent barbarians in our universities’. The main lesson that universities should have drawn from the Holocaust, Bauer believes, is to not reproduce scholars who are technically competent yet morally vacuous. But what exactly does it mean to be a technically competent barbarian today? How do universities produce them?

In Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said offers a compelling description of who these barbarians are, and how they are routinely churned out by universities and state bureaucracies. These are the specialists and the experts. As they climb to the eyrie of subject knowledge and academic distinctions, specialists confine themselves to ‘a narrow area of knowledge’, they ‘lose sight of anything outside one’s immediate field’, and ‘become tame and accepting of whatever the leaders of the so-called field will allow’. The walls of the echo chambers they confine themselves in only resound dominant paradigms in their respective fields, more often than not drowning out contrarian voices, stamping out thus any hope of a paradigm shift. Meanwhile, experts are ‘certified by the proper authorities’ — who speak the ‘right language’, who cite and cleave to the ‘right authorities.’

Still, it would be dishonest to suggest that specialist and expert contributions to the ever-expanding body of human knowledge are trivial, that they cannot escape their echo chambers, or that they are incapable of challenging the status quo that props them up. There are historians specialising in colonial history, there are postcolonial and decolonial theorists, development economists, climate scientists, ecologists, and anthropologists, who contradict established paradigms through their work.

At the same time, it would be premature to conclude that such paradigm shifts are only made possible thanks to years of knowledge accumulation and specialised training. Often, they only require exuding the curiosity of a tyro, mustering the courage to defy received wisdom, and venturing onto the untrodden path. Said aptly describes this as ‘amateurism’. It is ‘the desire to be not moved by profit or reward but love for and unquenchable interest in the larger picture, in making connections across lines and boundaries, in refusing to be tied down to a speciality, in caring for ideas and values despite the restrictions of a profession.’

Two things, moreover, can be true at once. Scholars might bring to light and critique past injustices while remaining blind to present ones. Thus, if genocide scholars can unearth incontrovertible evidence of the past atrocities perpetrated by countries they represent or work on, they can also be eerily silent on present-day genocides lest they draw the ire of state authorities. For the same reason, while singing paeans to past decolonial struggles, many postcolonial and decolonial academics may avoid altogether talking about ongoing ones.

In an age where job security is defined by neoliberalism-induced precarity, pursuing a career in academia is as much about learning how to trim one’s sails, about mastering the art of deftly navigating the shoals and shallows of controversial subjects, as it is about having an excellent academic track record. The journey to tenure often starts with entering a Faustian Pact with your employers: chart your career course only along the path trodden well by your superiors, and you’ll be rewarded in due time. Moreover, any hope that tenured academics might put their privilege to some good use without any fear of reprisal must be nipped in the bud, for tenure   does not guarantee academic freedom but only job security — so long as there is no ‘just cause’ for removal.

And these so-called just causes are sometimes anything but just. In recent days, scholars protesting genocide have found themselves in troubled waters. Accused of stoking anti-Semitism, they are disinvited from academic events, relieved of their duties, and investigated by the authorities. Meanwhile, their fellow professionals cheerleading the Israeli onslaught on Gaza, intimidating and doxing student supporters of the Palestinian cause, are allowed to carry on scot-free, for the order of things is such that they and they alone remain the arbiters of truth, they alone embody free speech and set its boundaries.

 

Parrhesia: Speaking Truth to Power

In Classical antiquity, the people of Greece practised a certain type of free speech — known as parrhesia. What sets parrhesia apart from other varieties of free speech is that it is a form of truth-telling directed against those placed in positions of power. Those who exercise parrhesia not only set great store by the duty to speak the truth, but also know what they speak is the truth. Exercising parrhesia also means putting oneself willingly in harm’s way.

As Michel Foucault puts it eloquently: ‘In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.’

Much of the exercises of free speech that we witness nowadays from a great many experts only mirror and amplify official agitprops. Worse still, by parroting falsehoods or staying silent, these experts end up aiding and abetting the muzzling of dissident voices and the demonisation of minority communities. Actions as such stem not from any sense of moral duty, but from self-interest and moral apathy. To these experts, any exercise of parrhesia — Aaron Bushnell’s self-immolation, for instance — is thus not only perplexing but also irrational, tout court.

Today, it is the official recognition as an expert that allows one to disassociate from the vox populi. Experts, after all, aren’t supposed to act like dilettantes; experts must always remain vigilant lest they fall prey to any populist cri de coeur — more so when there is a risk of falling foul of the authorities. Experts must not undermine the authority of the very power that elevates them above the laity. An expert’s labour, we are told, is thus spent much better in guiding powerholders to reach the correct decisions — in practice, this often amounts to no more than unscrupulous endorsements — and not in airing subversive opinions, a hamartia that guarantees nothing but downfall.

Be that as it may, one need not always wait for experts to declare genocide as genocide, for in most of us, the human conscience has developed adequately enough to recognise evil the moment it manifests before our eyes. Evils such as genocide cross that threshold beyond which it becomes morally incumbent upon us to speak truth to power, to exercise parrhesia, no matter the repercussions.

And if experts tell us otherwise, if they claim that it is always facile or even folly to draw parallels between past and present atrocities, that it is not hypocritical to discriminate between light-skinned and dark-skinned victims of genocide, between Ukrainian and Palestinian children, that we should only but selectively channel our human solidarity, their authority can and should then rightly be called into question, their advice rightly be disregarded.

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