Part 1: The problem with traditional expertise.
Who comes to mind when you think of the word “expert?”
Why do you think of them as experts? For most of the general public, we consider people to be experts if they are publicly visible, possess charisma, and are vocal about a particular issue.
People who have traditionally been positioned as competent by virtue of their charisma, their racial identity, and their wealth tend to be rewarded with the unequivocal trust of the public even when their actions are not aligned with the public good. Their benevolence tends to be inflated, their competence is assumed, and the accountability towards them has traditionally been low.
In the last two decades the exponential growth of our digital infrastructure has allowed us to connect in even more intimate ways to people traditionally positioned as experts. This has slowly allowed subject matter experts to be rewarded with more of the publics’ attention even on matters that they may not possess expertise around. An example of this is the high volume of masterclasses being taught by people who have no specialized knowledge on their offerings but because they have been able to garner success and attention in other areas of their work, they are seen as experts in whatever they create content around.
This conflation of expertise with popularity and the ease of accessibility due to the prevalence of social media has been a double-edged sword in that while it has created room for more marginalized voices to be seen as experts of our experience, it has also led us into an era of misinformation and disinformation. This is mainly due to the fact that the people traditionally situated as experts have co-opted the language of the marginalized, capitalized on their popularity and traditional assumptions of competence, and in turn maintained the power structures that are not supportive of our collective well-being.
From world leaders like Donald Trump and Putin, to others who have conned smaller groups of people like the Tinder Swindler and the disastrous Fyre Festival, we’ve watched an uptick of people who have been assigned leadership positions under these traditional metrics of expertise revealed to be morally bankrupt, unable to hold the nuances present in their worldview with the experiences of others, or incompetent.
The added visibility from social media, biased algorithms, and decades of being socialized to see a particular group of people as experts have led us into an era of misinformation and bad leadership. We can come out of this era better collectively if we take seriously the work of decolonizing expertise and building new frameworks for determining if the people and institutions we reward with our attention collectively are worth the trust we give to them.
Thanks to the rise of a new era of civil rights activism, a global reckoning around colonialism and settler colonialism, the accountability from the “Me Too” movement, a public health pandemic response with very poor leadership, and as recent as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the carefully constructed house of cards of traditional expertise is quickly crumbling and the trust of the people is being eroded daily by those who have been granted power.
With more media accountability and the popularization of public callouts, a tool propagated by queer transformative justice communities, some steps have been taken to de-platform people who rely on that public trust to commit harm. In some cases it has allowed for the dethroning of expertise that is harmful, rooted in racist, sexist, queer-phobic ideologies, or abusive. However this increase in accountability is simply not enough to curb disinformation and misinformation. To be even better public citizens we must interrogate the root of why certain people are positioned as experts, decenter the construction of expertise that is rooted in imperialism, settler colonial politics, racist, sexist, ableist, and queer-phobic ideologies, and center experts who are grounded in community, have an ethic of care, and are responsive to feedback and accountability.
This is what decolonizing expertise looks like in practice.