How to tell the difference between elitism and knowing WTF you are talking about

How to tell the difference between elitism and knowing WTF you are talking about December 5, 2019

I haven’t posted anything political here in a while; it’s Advent, and I’m trying to stay in the “Advent Zone” that I described in last Sunday’s post. But in the aftermath of Wednesday’s first impeachment hearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee, I’m choosing to briefly step out of the zone for a few observations.

Image result for pamela karlan

The witnesses at the hearing were four academic, legal experts on all matters concerning impeachment. One of them, Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan, has been the target of all sorts of faux outrage from the right because she chose to introduce 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 Melania and Kellyanne to my dachshund Winnie, recovering from surgery at the veterinarian, weighed in on the matter—which will undoubtedly be 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. There was something about the person giving the testimony that some found so off- putting that they just had to bloviate about it. Here’s a representative reaction to Professor Karlan from “Fox and Friends” on Thursday morning:

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,” the awkwardness of “recalls back,” or because she’s using a word (“reproachment”) that actually isn’t a real word.

It pisses me off, first, because at least in the smattering of social media outrage I subjected myself to, 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 candidates like Harris, Warren, and Klobuchar are judged for being too assertive or “shrill,” when a similar tone in a male candidate 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 the past three decades and more) 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, 24 hours later, I’m surprised 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 often used to suggest 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 yesterday; 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 don’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, 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 does 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 and knowing what the fuck 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 Kaplan’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.

So there. I’m now headed back to my Advent zone, having let off a bit of steam of the sort that builds up in every academic on occasion. Thanks for listening, and have a blessed Holiday Season!

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