How To Tell the Difference Between Arrogance and Expertise

How To Tell the Difference Between Arrogance and Expertise August 5, 2021

After participating in a frustrating “discussion” on Twitter the other day (is there any other kind of discussion on Twitter?), I posted the following on my Facebook page:

Here’s a dynamic I don’t understand.

  1. A person asks for my qualifications that justify my saying what I am saying.
  2. I briefly provide those qualifications.
  3. I am in short order accused of being arrogant and thinking that I am better than everyone.

I expected that I would get a number of interesting comments from my Facebook friends and followers, and they did not disappoint. A sampling:

  • Who do you think you are, Vance? Honestly.
  • This is so funny; must suggest stand-up
  • They don’t really want your qualifications. They want to stomp you for being an unqualified pompous person, or, if you provide qualifications then you will be a pompous educated person (a.k.a. egghead).
  • Not better, you just know more.
  • Well . . . don’t you think that you are at least better than most everyone?

And from a colleague and friend in the history department at my college:

  • Been there.

Every college professor has definitely “been there” and could provide many examples of when their expertise has turned into a liability. My favorite recent example of this dynamic happened during Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial in late 2019.

The witnesses at the hearing that day were four academic, legal experts on all matters concerning impeachment. One of them, Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan, immediately became the target of all sorts of faux outrage from the right because she used an amusing observation that happened to include the first name of President Trump’s youngest son: “While the president can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron.” In a world in which adults were adults rather than fools, this would have raised a few chuckles, been dismissed as a rather lame attempt at levity, and everyone would have moved on. But no. Everyone from former first lady Melania and Kellyanne Conway to my dachshund Winnie weighed in on the matter—which was then dragged out for public display on a daily basis for the next several weeks.

But I’m actually more interested in another sort of reaction to Professor Karlan’s testimony, as well as to her general demeanor. There was something about her that some found so annoyingly offensive that they just had to bloviate about it. Here’s a representative reaction to Professor Karlan from “Fox and Friends” the morning after her testimony:

The disdain is evident, and, you know, it sort of recalls back to the 2016 election when voters didn’t feel heard, when they resonated with President Trump, because there is this elitist, disdainful reproachment coming from the far left, and especially in academia, that makes people feel disconnected and undercut. Everything about her exuded that she was better, and smarter, than anyone watching. And that’s so off-putting.

Now that just pisses me off. And not because of her ubiquitous use of “you know” or the awkwardness of “recalls back.”

It pisses me off, first, because Professor Karlan is the only one of the panel of four legal experts called to testify who generated this reaction. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that the other three persons on the panel were men. No, that couldn’t possibly be true. In a world where politicians like Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar are judged for being too assertive or “shrill,” when a similar tone in a male politican would be either ignored or praised (has any male candidate for any office ever been described as “shrill”?), it couldn’t possibly be the case that there is general discomfort with a woman who is pointed, direct, and knowledgeable—could it? Nah.

It also pisses me off because the quote from “Fox and Friends” above exhibits a whole bunch of lame stereotypes about academics, stereotypes that anyone whose life is spent in academia (as mine has been for more than three decades) quickly becomes so sick of that they want to vomit. After seeing the clip quoted above on Twitter, I responded with this:

I’ve been a college professor for 30 years. I’m used to being in a room where everyone believes they are the smartest person there. And they very well may be. Half the people at monthly department meetings in my department of 20 faculty have confidence that could seem like disdain (but isn’t). Deal with it.

As I read that now, a year and a half later, I notice that it is far more measured than I was feeling at the time. Over the past two decades I have been both a department chair and the director of a large academic program that, at any given time, involved 75 faculty and 1800+ students. People over the years have suggested that trying to direct faculty must be like “herding cats.” I always responded that it’s worse; rather, it’s like herding cats when each of the cats in the room has a Ph.D. and is sure that it is the smartest cat in the room.

My guess is that Dr. Karlan was in “professor and expert” mode in front of the Congressional committee during the impeachment hearing; that is, after all, why she was asked, along with her three expert colleagues to be there. I don’t know for sure, because I was on campus in the classroom, then in meetings, during the hearing. But I didn’t need to see it to know exactly what happened to generate animosity such as that expressed on “Fox and Friends.” A highly educated and trained scholar with relevant expertise—in this case, expertise in legal and interpretive matters concerning impeachment—was asked to respond to questions relying on her training and expertise. She did so, directly and pointedly. And then she is criticized for acting and sounding like the very expert and highly trained person that caused her to be summoned to the hearing in the first place.

Any academic or college professor could provide you with multiple examples of the same dynamic. “Please provide us with your expertise and knowledge, but please don’t do it in such a way that makes us feel that you have more knowledge or expertise than we do. Otherwise, we might decide that you are an elitist and think that you are better than we are.” News flash, people. Dr. Karlan did know more about the topic under consideration at the hearing than you do. That’s what being an “expert” on something means. The fact that she communicates her knowledge and expertise in a manner that you find “elitist” is your problem, not hers. Your ignorance is not equal to her knowledge. If you are threatened or annoyed when you find out that some people know more than you on any number of subjects, that’s on you, not them. There is a difference between elitism or arrogance and knowing what the hell you are talking about.

To quote a phrase from 24/7 new channel talking heads that is vastly overused, “let me be perfectly clear.” If you got the impression, “Fox and Friends” person, from Professor Karlan’s testimony that she thinks she is “smarter” than you, that’s because concerning the matters on which she was speaking, she is smarter than you. And me. And probably all but a hundred or so human beings on the planet. That’s why she’s an “expert.” She’s earned the right to deliver her insights with an authority and air that might cause you to surmise that she thinks she’s better than you. That’s because in this case she is better than you. Her opinion matters more than yours. That’s why the Judiciary committee wanted to speak to her and not to you. In this case, your opinion doesn’t matter. But her knowledge does.

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