Whom To Trust

This is a post from four years ago which still seems relevant except for the fact that the lowered intelligence I speak of became even more apparent in the recent presidential election.

The truth is something different from the habitual lazy combinations begotten by our wishes. (George Eliot)

One of the major curiosities in this most curious age in which we live is the undue adulation the young receive at the hands of their elders. In fact, one might say the young now command center stage in this drama we call contemporary living, as their elders are ignored and shunted off to stage left, despite the fact that they spend countless hours trying to pretend they are young themselves. The young can do no wrong and we listen at doors for the latest piece of wisdom they might let slip from their lips. They are charming, lovely, beautiful — untainted by the stains of a corrupt world. If families are talking over the dinner table and the young speak up silence immediately ensues in order to allow the youngsters to say their piece, though as they grow older they withdraw, become sullen and disinclined to speak at all. The notion that the kids are simply being rude has gone the way of the dinosaur. In any event, it never occurs to anyone that when they speak what the kids have to say may not be worth listening to and their withdrawal from the adult world is nothing more than a sign of their budding narcissism. But there it is: the result of the youth rebellion.
Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, insists that it started in the 1960s when groups like the S.D.S. led the attack on the “establishment” in general and the universities in particular, giving birth to the slogan “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Richard Hofstadter would insist, I dare to say, that it started a decade earlier during the McCarthy hearings, or, perhaps, when Dwight Eisenhower was running against Adlai Stevenson and suddenly Americans began to distrust the “eggheads” like Stevenson. The youth movement, he might say, is simply the logical development of the anti-intellectual movement that began in the 1950s and which has since been fostered by growing numbers of people in this commodified culture who have never trusted those impractical types who live in “ivory towers.” In any event, as a culture we have come to distrust the elderly (especially those who can think and speak coherently) and instead we check our gut feelings and listen to the young as the sources of what we like to call “truth.” The result has been a general lowering of the culture to the level of what I would label the “new barbarism.” The attack on the universities has resulted in grade inflation and the dumbing down of the curriculum in the schools, and the distrust of those over thirty has resulted in the mindless rejection of all in authority, including parents and teachers, and the almost total dismissal of the notion of expertise which, we are told, is “elitist.” To be sure, the teachers and parents have been party to the retreat as they have shown little courage and practically no confidence in themselves in the face of this onmslought. But, face it, some are in a better position to know than others and the odds are that those who have lived longer and studied complex issues carefully probably know a thing or two. Perhaps it is time to invent a new slogan: “Don’t trust anyone under thirty.” Or so says Mark Bauerlein and this sentiment, if not those same words, is echoed in the writing of another contemporary student of America’s current cultural malaise.
I refer to Charles Pierce who, in his best-selling book Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue In The Land of The Free, points out that this attack on authority and expertise — and those over thirty — has resulted in a lowering of intelligence (in a country where more people vote for the latest American Idol than they do the President of the United States), along with the reduction of all claims to simple matters of individual opinion, anyone’s opinion. And this in a nation based on Enlightenment ideas articulated and defended by the likes of John Jay, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. We have devolved into a nation that has declared war on intelligence and reason, the cornerstones of the Enlightenment, and prefers instead the alleged certainty of gut feelings and the utterances of children. We have turned from books and hard evidence to the mindless drivel of reality shows and video games. Pierce defends three “Great Premises” that he is convinced sum up the attitude of Americans in our day to matters of fact and questions of ultimate truth:
(1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
(2) Anything can be true if someone says it [often and] loudly enough.
(3) Fact is that which enough people believe. (Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it).
I suppose the last parenthetical comment might be regarded as a corollary of the third premise. But the fact is that in this relativistic age we distrust those who are in a position to know, we wait for the latest poll to decide what is true, and we adulate the young while we ignore the fact that, lost as they are in the world of digital toys, they know very little indeed. As Pierce has shown so convincingly, we are all becoming idiots. We have lost the respect for that truth which we do not manufacture for ourselves, but which stands outside the self and requires an assiduous effort to grasp even in part — together with our conviction that some things are truly evil while others are truly good. All truth is now mere opinion and the moral high ground has been leveled. We ignore the beauty all around us along with the ugly truths about what we are doing to the planet while we indulge ourselves in the latest fashion and seek the liveliest pleasure, convinced that it is the good. And all the while we wait eagerly to see what pearls of wisdom might fall from the young who are busy playing with their digital toys.
What will come of all this remains to be seen, but we might be wise to recognize the fact that those under thirty are still wet behind the ears and don’t know diddly about much of anything of importance. Their elders don’t seem to know much either, but if we recall that the admission of our own ignorance (as Socrates so famously said) is the beginning of wisdom, then that may be the way the adults in this country might begin to resume their role as mentors and our distrust of authority and expertise might be put to rest while we acknowledge that the children know even less than we do, and the majority does not determine what is true or false.

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Expertise

One of the things that defines the times in which we live is our suspicion of anyone who presumes to know what he or she is talking about. We deny expertise. It’s one of the sadder effects of our egalitarianism. We move from the moral fact that all are equal to the absurd conclusion that no one knows any more than anyone else. Aside from our medical people and our auto mechanics, whom we must trust, we think all other opinions are of no great weight, certainly no better than our own. We forget what George Berkley once said: all opinions should be tolerated for what they are worth. Some opinions are heavy and others are so light they float away in the wind, many of our own included.

But if it is my opinion I am convinced that it weighs as much as yours, no matter who you are. “It’s just Plato’s opinion,” as one of my students said in reading a Platonic dialogue, with the clear implication that it weighed no more than this particular American college freshman’s did. “We are all entitled to our opinion” translates for many into “my opinion is just as good as yours.”

Take the issue of global warming, as an example. There are a great many people in our Congress who think that 97% of the scientists are wrong despite the fact that those scientists have examined the situation carefully and are reluctant to draw conclusions that cannot be corroborated by their peers. That is to say, those who sit on their butts every day making huge salaries think they are as smart as those who are paid very little to study the appropriate evidence and draw conclusions, many of which are unpalatable to them as individuals. Science is disinterested and a very strict task-master. Yet, those sitting on their butts in Congress, or running for president, claim to know better than they what is happening to our world. The problem is, of course, those who do not know control the mechanisms that might make our world a safer place in which to live and plan our collective future.

Expertise, if you think about it, is based on knowledge of one’s field. An expert in biology may not be the best person to ask about the literary value of a new novel. But in his or her field the opinions uttered have weight. We do ourselves a great disservice to ignore the experts in an age in which we are overwhelmed by information and have so little knowledge about so many things. Like it or not, we must trust others to help us understand what is going on in our world. If we have pain in the gut which we think results from listening to political lies, and it the pain persists, we really ought to visit the physician and listen carefully to what she has to say.

At some point we must trust the experts and acknowledge that there are people who know a great deal more than we do. We must trust those who know and know those who are worthy of our trust. But those people who stand up before us running for political office and who claim to know things that are patently absurd should not be trusted. We must always be on the alert for those who claim to be experts but who know less than we do, while at the same time acknowledging that there are experts who know a great deal more than we do. It requires judgment and scrutiny of every word and gesture — and a suspicious eye on the possibility that there is a hidden agenda somewhere that we might not want to embrace.

In a word: ask ourselves whether or not the person who is making the claim has something to gain from our believing what he or she has to say. The scientists who predict that our planet is in dire straights have nothing to gain from our accepting their conclusions. Those fat cats who sit in Congress and are paid to vote as the corporations want them to definitely have something to gain from the rejection of what the scientists have to say. And that politician with the strange hair who stands there making outrageous claims wants us to believe everything he says even though so much of it is bollocks. His agenda is not even that well hidden.

In a word, we must suspect all those “experts” who have a hidden agenda. But this is no reason to reject expertise altogether: there are some who really do know more than the rest of us. But, to my knowledge, none of them has strange hair.

Improving Taste

My good friend and former student, Paul Schlehr, read my previous blog on “Disputing Taste” and raised some excellent points. To begin with, he asks how we could possibly know that our taste “improves” and doesn’t simply change? He also doubts that by hanging out with artists or even tea-tasters our own taste could be markedly altered, much less improved. If I have no eye for color, going to an art gallery with Ed Evans isn’t going to help me much.

These are good points. He is right, of course, that if I have no eye for color — or if I am tone-deaf — I probably won’t learn much by hanging about with artists and musicians. But short of those extreme cases, it does seem to me that we can learn a great deal from those people and our taste does indeed improve with exposure — though Paul correctly questions whether increasing awareness necessarily leads to improved taste. Not necessarily, but very likely.

Ed Evans read my blog and said that he doesn’t really know what makes art good but he “knows what he likes.” Indeed. But that liking (which is what we call “taste”) comes from years of experience and training. Ed noted that in his student critiques his students frequently resisted his comments by saying “my friend likes it.” Ed’s response is standard: “that may be so, but your friend doesn’t have the years of experience that I have had.” And experience, as mentioned in my earlier blog, counts. It allows us to compare and contrast different works. It tells us what kinds of technique the artist employs, what goes into the making of a painting, for example. It teaches us about composition and color, balance and harmony. And knowing these things does deepen our awareness and improve our taste. “Improve” in the sense that it moves from the naive, gut feeling, to a more sophisticated level of appreciation that demands more of the object because we are more aware of what is going on.

Now, no matter how much two people see in the painting, there is no guarantee that either of them will like it, or that they will both like it, that their taste will be similar. These are separate issues altogether and do not show that taste cannot improve. Even in the case of something as simple as interior decorating, my taste will improve as I learn what colors clash, which complement one another, and what kind of statement certain forms can make in specific surroundings. As I learn these things, as I learn more about the world around me, the sharper my senses become and the deeper my sensibilities. My taste improves. In the end, I have better taste than I did in the beginning. To use Paul’s example, I will move from liking paintings of Elvis done on black velvet to a preference for paintings done by the masters. I demand more, and in doing so, I may be disappointed more often, but I will also gain in my appreciation: my taste will improve.

It may be a loose way of talking to use terms like “good taste” and “bad taste,” and it may mean no more than taste that does or does not agree with mine. I think this does happen and this concern lies behind some of Paul’s comments. But this language can also suggest a deeper sense of realization of what is going on in our world, a turning of attention away from my subjective responses (or “reactions” as we like to say) to things going on in the world. In any event, I would prefer to use Hume’s terminology and talk about “refined” or “vulgar” taste — or perhaps “discriminating” as opposed to “undiscriminating” taste  — to suggest that improvement requires greater sensibility and wider experience.

I do think we could learn a great deal from the tea tasters in China about how teas differ. We can, and do, learn about wine by listening to experts and directing our attention to what is happening on our tongue as we swirl the wine about and focus attention on the specific properties of the wine itself. And I also stick by my analogy between the physicians who are expert at what they do and the artists who are also experts at what they do. Even though there are clear differences between the two, they both draw on their teaching and years of experience, as do the wine tasters and the tea experts. As Hume noted in his essay on “The Standards of Taste,” the expert is noted for his or her “strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of prejudice [as much as possible] . . .”

Taste does not only change, as Paul suggests, it can (if it does not in fact) also improve by virtue of those properties that are grounded in the objects around us and because we focus attention on those properties and don’t dwell on our own particular responses to those properties. If we attend to what is going on around us and listen to the experts, our taste will not only change, it will improve in our appreciation of wine, painting, music, or even tennis. We demand more and the satisfaction, though less frequent, is greater.

Disputing Taste

David Hume said long ago that all art appreciation is a matter of taste. This has become a cliché in our day when we reduce not only art but any matter that cannot be quantified to one of personal taste. “It’s all relative,” whether it be art, ethics, or world affairs.

But the issue rewards careful thought. What does “taste” amount to? Is it “all” really relative? I think not. Taste, after all can be either refined or crass. There are people in China who can distinguish among more than six hundred teas, and there are wine connoisseurs who can tell us exactly what the properties of the wine we most prefer happen to be. The classic example in this regard is Sancho Panza in Cervantes’ Don Quixote who tells of his uncle who could taste the leather and metal in a keg of wine that later was determined to contain a key with a leather strap attached. Taste can be a pretty sophisticated sort of thing. And it’s not all about what’s going inside a person’s head.

If I go into an art gallery with my friend Ed Evans he can show me things I would never see otherwise. He has seen hundreds of paintings and he paints himself. He is the consummate artist. He knows what painting is all about. His eye for color is astonishing. After a few visits to galleries with Ed, my taste in art would improve. Of that I am certain. Conductors of symphony orchestras can tell if the person in the fifth chair in the second violin section in an orchestra of 80 people is slightly flat. These people see and hear things that anchor their rather sophisticated taste. Their sensibilities are quite simply greater than mine, and I don’t for a moment think they are making things up. In a word, taste is not all subjective, it arises from a closer examination of the thing we are tasting. There are things going on out there, features of our shared world. Those who are open and aware of those features are in some sense of that word “experts” though that word is anathema in our day. Why?

We trust the expertise of our physician (we had better!). And we trust the expertise of our auto mechanic (again!). We don’t dispute their “taste” in these matters. They know what they are talking about. Well, the tea-tasters, and the wine connoisseurs, not to mention the artists and musicians among us, are also experts and worth listening to. They can be wrong, of course. Anyone can be wrong, even your doctor or the auto mechanic.  But chances are they know what they are talking about. At times we stake our lives on it.

I don’t claim to be much of an expert myself, except perhaps in the realm of tennis — which is a form of art when played by certain players. But my taste in music, art, and literature has improved over the years, thanks to the people I have surrounded myself with during that time. When it comes to tennis, I have played, taught, and coached for many years, watched hundreds of matches, and I have a pretty good idea what makes a player a good one. When I coached I used to watch my players warm up against their opponents.  Within a few minutes I could pretty well figure who would win in many cases — barring the unexpected. I could also spot weaknesses in the opponent’s game and pass that information along to my player. In some sense of that word, I am an expert — though I am certainly not infallible. Experience does count for something.

But we don’t even have to allow that there are experts. We need only allow that some people seem to be more aware of what is going on around them. As a result, their taste doesn’t only differ from ours, it might even be better, sharper, more highly developed. To say, as we do, that it’s all a matter of taste, or “there’s no disputing taste,” is therefore simplistic. It ignores many objective properties of our shared world and closes us off to experiences that can refine our own taste and enlarge our world. When someone else has different taste from mine, it pays me to wonder what it is that anchors that person’s taste: what is it about that painting or that piece of sculpture that my friend likes? Why does she think standing up to that bully is a good thing? In the end I may not agree with her but, if I ask her I might learn something.