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Ignoring Your Expertise Elitism

Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t find the late Norm Macdonald’s comedy very funny. (Neither do I.) Comedians, on the other hand, often think Macdonald was not just hilarious but peerlessly so. What do the comedy experts see in Macdonald’s comedy that we don’t?

The question bothered Gladwell, so he did a little research. He found that these other comedians admire what I’ll call Macdonald’s metacomedy — the way his jokes explore and stretch and expose the form of the joke and the expectations that form engenders. We hear Macdonald just telling weird or bad jokes; his fellow comedians see a modernist genius — an expert’s expert, if you will.

I’m fine with that framing of Macdonald, because it lets me off the hook for straining to find him funny because funny people do. The musicians’ musician, the chefs’ chef, the architects’ architect is a time-honored hyper-niche, proudly rarified and working on a plane accessible only by their peers and a handful of other connoisseurs, not the masses. I’d even admit that the “expert’s expert” defense makes some of Macdonald’s comedy (like his famous moth joke) more explicable, if not exactly “funnier.” But it doesn’t mean I have to acquire a taste for Norm Macdonald. And it doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy the expertise of comedians with broader appeal.

Not so for Gladwell. In his eyes, the case of Macdonald as comedians’ comedian — revered by insiders, dismissed by outsiders — exemplifies our culture’s general dismissal of expertise itself and default to wallowing in our ignorance. If Gladwell had his druthers, we outsiders would recognize that our indifference to the Macdonalds of the world is rooted in our own misunderstanding of their value, and we’d use that recognition as occasion to educate ourselves in what insiders know. But we don’t, says Gladwell, because we’re now surrounded by media platforms that celebrate our lack of expertise, that thrive by “catering to the impulses of the uninformed,” which he condemns as “kind of a dumb way to conduct civil discourse in a society.” Money quote:

All of us, in the areas where we are outsiders, are prone to thinking and saying things that are just plain dumb. The trick is to recognize when we are in that zone, and keep our mouths shut.

This brazenly elitist argument about expertise — let’s call it “expertise elitism” — is a really weird argument to make in September 2021, at least 18 months into a pandemic that has seen insider consensus on all things pandemic contradicted by later findings (not to mention reality) many times over.

But despite the weirdness, I’m really happy that Gladwell said all this out loud, and especially the part about non-experts should shut up. Because some measure of expertise elitism is a part of nearly every expert, and that’s who Gladwell’s real audience is. You probably wouldn’t echo his expertise elitism publicly — that would date you and be embarrassing — but you probably wouldn’t disavow it privately.

If you want to be a public expert, it’s critical for you to start coming to terms with your own expertise elitism and what it tells you not to do, what it says is beneath you. I’m not talking about how you deal or don’t deal with trolls. I’m talking about how much you shade your public expertise for insiders — in language, conclusions, outlet choice. And I’m talking about which voices and organizations and outlets you judge are “outsiders” — and which opportunities those judgements mean you leave on the table. Because the culture of expertise — and its tendency to draw hard lines between insider and outsider — is not your friend when it comes to being a public expert.

For example: A big consulting firm issues a report right in your topical wheelhouse, and it draws all the wrong conclusions. But the big consulting firm is just that — big, gross, mercenary, not academic — and the report is glossy and clearly pitched to a corporate audience. So you snigger about the report with your fellow academics on Twitter and refer to it derisively at academic conferences. Meanwhile, the report is being read by a sector that, if you were honest, you’d like to influence. It’s defining the narrative for your topic with the business world — and you’re MIA to counter it because of your expertise elitism.

Gladwell’s expertise elitism is 200-proof nostalgia. It pines for a lost world in which experts opine and the rest of us listen. A world in which our indifference to your expertise can actually be a positive signal to your expert guild of your expertise, rather than a function of your deficiencies as a public expert. A vanished media world of ideas and expertise ruled by public radio, stentorian Sunday op-ed pages and talk shows and big books written by people like Malcom Gladwell, all bringing us closer to the insights of experts while keeping us at arms length from them.

If that last sentence made you wince, good — your expertise elitism is certainly manageable. Now try this: Keep a list of the things your expertise elitism tells you not to do — writing for USA Today, speaking at an industry conference, using templates to format pull quotes from your latest talk for Instagram, whatever. Then, after two months, do one of them. Check afterwards to see if the sky fell or not. Rinse and repeat (at a higher cadence, ideally).

That’s what being a public expert means. As in: Accessible to an audience with which you want to have conversations — but no less of an expert.

Or you could go back to being like Norm Macdonald, who said: “I never do impressions, but I probably should. People like that stuff.”