Friday, September 24, 2010

The Cult of Expertise (Part 1)

The life of a “primitive” is perilous.  There are dangers lurking in every tree, under every rock.  Life in the modern world is no less perilous, although the dangers are less salient, perhaps.  There is danger lurking in every egg processing plant, in every corporate boardroom.  The air we breathe, the water we drink, the factory farmed food we eat, the buildings we occupy, the appliances we interact with, the political alliances our leaders forge are all potentially deadly.   

The difference between the two, the primitive and the modern, is that the former is personally equipped to face the danger; he has the weapons and the physical constitution—and the knowledge—to protect himself and his family.  He may not always be successful, but he always has the power to act in his own best interests.

That is not the case with the victims of civilization.  As an individual, I have very little power over daily threats to my existence.  I have no control over the levels of toxins released in the air and water.  I have no control over the side effects of the genetic alteration of my food.  I have no control over oil spills or nuclear accidents or plane crashes or levee failures.  How much mercury is safe to eat?  How many highway deaths are acceptable?  I have been trained from a very early age to acquiesce to the opinions of experts and to the demands of people who have been granted the power to make decisions.  And there are laws and regulations and policies—and people with badges and guns—to ensure that I continue in my acquiescence.  I have no choice.  I have no real control.  And the knowledge I am allowed to exercise is restricted to my own slice of specialization.  

Specialization and division of labor is the hallmark of civilization.  A sense of personal power and control is the hallmark of psychological adjustment.  There is an inverse relationship between personal control and specialization, which suggests that psychological adjustment and civilization are mutually incompatible. 

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