Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Safety in Letters

I was accused of being anti-intellectual today, and it was a fair call, given something I'd clumsily written (since deleted along with following comments which inadvertently hurt some others' feelings).  I'm not anti- much in life, but I'm certainly not anti-intellectual.  Nor am I anti-academic.  One thing I am though is anti-supremacist.  That was a point I tried to make, but as sometimes happens, I acted gracelessly, and did not pay due attention to my words and mood - then I got my buttons pushed by someone's bad response to my inadequacy of expression, and I got even more unconscious and habitual.  Harsh exchanges occurred.  It was unpleasant.  Mea culpa, for my part in that.

However, it did serve to make me examine more closely the urge I had to speak in the first instance.  Now perhaps I'll do a better job of making my point than could be served by a short Facebook status and comments.

What did I do?  I erroneously, unintentionally, implied that having letters after one's name was something worthless.  Of course it's not worthless to those who have sought them, nor to the institutions whose livelihood depend on dispensing them.  But the letters are just signifiers; they do not magically impart some special or sanctified superiority on the part of the degree holder.

You know, the whole "trust me, I'm a Doctor" thing is what we're on about here.

I'll be very clear on this point - having a degree does not necessarily make someone more right or more knowledgeable than anyone else on any topic at all.  What it does signify though (except in the case of many honorary degrees or the phony bought-for-cash kind) is that the degree holder is more likely to know more about the area of expertise their degree is in than someone who did not complete the education necessary to attain such a degree.  Further than that, it also signifies a higher likelihood that they are more mentally disciplined, more able to meet academic standards of writing, earn more, and have had a more economically privileged upbringing than a non-degree holder.  But these are all likelihoods, not facts.

A lawyer cannot know all the law.  A doctor cannot know all medicine.  But chances are very high indeed that they know better than you or I about some pretty good ways to investigate a legal or medical issue towards a good conclusion.  This high chance though does not discount the possibility that someone without such a degree might be more knowledgable - generally or specifically - than a 'qualified' person.

A doctor (just to use one example) doesn't even know or know correctly all the things they were taught in medical school.  Otherwise to get a degree they'd have to demonstrate a 100% correctness in every single exam, evaluation, practicum and dissertation to pass the course.  Which would be ridiculous.

Yet there's a disconnect that happens, and it's all our own doing.  We without the degrees (and before anyone brings this up I am in no way envious) and those with degrees are both in this game together.  What happens all too often is that we mistake the letters after someone's name for knowledge.  We use them to make ourselves feel confident in the accuracy of the information given out by the degree holder, which makes what they say more 'true' even if it isn't true at all.  Who makes the authority figures anyway - those wielding the power or those ceding it?

And why do we do it?  Those with the letters I think often do it unconsciously, as they become more and more competent and confident in their fields, and as they get used to the sorts of authority others accord to them.  They're no different from all of us in that regard - I know I'm very confident in certain subject areas I've never had formal schooling in, and you are too.  You're good at your job, as a parent, a good driver, whatever - even if you're not, you confidently believe that you are.  And being in the social stratum of the 'lettered', having the cachet, indeed the intellectual responsibility such a thing can bring to bear on one, must impart a certain sense of confidence.  Of course it can be a conscious put-on too, especially for example if one chooses to spuriously use one's letters after one's name, or call oneself 'Doctor' when one's PhD is in Classical Greek.

But why do others put so much burden on the shoulders of the ranks of the tertiary-qualified?  I think it's because very often we just want someone to tell us what's right.  We simply want to put our faith somewhere, to not live with the nagging uncertainty that dogs us and only grows when we have to make important decisions about our legal status, our financial affairs, our health.  We want someone else to shoulder the responsibility and this, apart from recompense for years spent unable to work for a living while knowledge is gained, is why we tend to reward the lettered authorities more handsomely.  We are paying for peace of mind.

Like you've never heard a cliche about an arrogant lawyer, the brusque aloofness of a surgeon, an academic's ivory tower, yes, I know.  And for sure, the stereotypes exist for good reason, and there are plenty of those who choose to hold their noses aloft among the hoi polloi by dint of the weight of letters they proudly bear affixed to their names.  But we have to realize that more than it being some thing done downwards, inflicted from a level of higher-up cognoscenti upon the poor plebs, that it's every bit as much the populace that demands such behaviour, through endless reinforcement, of those we wish to have such authority over us. We too often blindly nod and swallow.

If a doctor tells me something that makes sense given all I know already, that rings true with my existing knowledge base, then I'll tend to believe them.  Because they're a doctor, not because they have the letters;  this is an important distinction.  I respect them no more - and no less - because of their qualification.  I do however choose to make a shorthand judgement, as we all tend to - because they're qualified and experienced, I weight their advice as more highly likely to be good in certain subject areas.  But believe me, if it doesn't make sense to me, if they can't explain it in a way that does or point me to where I can get some confirmation of what they're holding out as fact, then I'll make sure to do the looking on my own, if it's important.

We can't all be that way inclined all the time though, any more than all of us have the necessary innate smarts or application to do the mental cramming and contorting required to pass the bar exam.  We rely on such shorthand signifiers to help us make good decisions.

All I'm really saying is that we would best be very self-aware about when we're choosing to put blind faith in another human's judgment; letters after their name or not.  I hope to goodness no-one trusts me like that with anything very important.  When we choose to just accept the plumber's advice on needing new pipes (they're qualified too you know) or the dietitian's orders that we must feed our child such-and-such without any questioning, because they're qualified, we are relinquishing our power.  We then accept personal responsibility for what happens next.  We choose to invest them with our faith, and we have no-one to blame if blaming is somewhere we subsequently want to go.  I want the same sense of security that we all want, especially in times of disruption or seeming danger to myself or my loved ones.  I recognize that I may not ever be able to understand all the medical or legal or financial stuff I might like to in order to satisfy this want, so in place of that I make a judgment to trust another person's advice sometimes.  But that's my choice.

It's not fair to those who chose to do those hard yards of education, as signified by that scattering of ungrammatical letters they may now legally display after their name, to blindly trust and then later complain that they should have known better.  No.  That's not how life works.  Sure, if someone sets out to deliberately deceive you, or lies to you, that's different.  But if they say "trust me, I'm a doctor" and you buy it on that alone, then caveat emptor ('buyer beware').  Most professionals, if they have pride in their work, will welcome your interest, your willingness to understand the important things, and if they don't then they're not doing a good job by you; and you are well deserving of better treatment than that.  Aren't you?

People deserve respect.  Letters are just tools and signs.

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