The Cocktail Party Contrarian: The Anti-Experts
I don’t blame the 18-year-old for her dilettantish efforts to ‘make the world a better place.’ I blame the adults who run programs like these, and who encourage young people to take serious matters so unseriously.
I was speaking to a young woman the other day who told me she was a member of a citywide youth commission on “equity” and “solidarity.” When I asked her what that meant, she seemed startled. Some words are designed to be conversation stoppers. If someone is an “activist,” or fighting for “human rights” or “inclusion,” if she believes in “diversity” or wants to “change the world,” we are all supposed to understand the meaning and the mission.
The follow-up question doesn’t often follow. I asked one. Predictably, this young woman stumbled.
She tried to work out her understanding of “solidarity” in real time, seemingly for the first time. Then, she wrongly defined equity as equality. She clearly hadn’t spent much time thinking about the principles around which her committee had organized itself. She hadn’t gotten past the buzzwords, and no one, it appeared, had ever asked her to.
Teenagers aren’t expected to engage big issues at impressive depth, and I don’t blame the 18-year-old I was speaking with for her dilettantish efforts to “make the world a better place.” After all, signing up for social action projects, however manufactured, is the path to social acceptability and, of course, college admissions. I blame the adults who run programs like these, and who encourage young people to take serious matters so unseriously.
This young woman is going to deliver a presentation she and her fellow committee members worked on at an upcoming conference. The subject is their review of policing practices and is based on data they collected for the project. When I asked where she had collected the data, she again seized up. Data was another word-shield that she had been taught to hide behind.
Ultimately, I felt sorry for her. She was led to believe that she was practicing the height of civic engagement and learning best practices for tackling big social problems. Two questions into our conversation, she started to recognize she had been duped. She hadn’t learned how to assess data, evaluate a problem, or think through the potential effects of a proposed intervention. All she was shown was how to bypass the real work and get to the real point — driving an agenda.
We are creating more than just another generation of virtue-signalers who speak before they think and who litter Twitter with mindless memes. We are creating a whole generation of such people who don’t even know they are the anti-experts, trained to know little and espouse a lot. They grow up and show up in our kids’ classrooms, in our politics, and in our media, degrading everything while believing they are there to help.
Anyone who can’t go three questions deep into an issue he or she espouses should be ignored and dismissed, young people especially. They need to learn now that non-experts are entitled to their uninformed opinions, but not to an audience. They need to know that everyone with a thought isn’t a candidate for a committee.