25 October 2014

I Studied This for Five Years. You Have an Opinion

One of my 'favourite' pastimes (as in, not) is when I find myself discussing something I know a lot about with a person who knows … less much about it. Being an anthropologist, 'something I know a lot about' will usually be along the lines of social and cultural determination, how do we define power, what are human rights really. That sort of thing. Gender is one of my favourite topics (for real), and so I spend a lot of time reading about it, thinking about it, researching, how do we understand female sexuality, how do we socially define women? I may not be the most expert in the whole wide world, but I dare say I do know my stuff.

Of course, this does not mean that I am ultimately right, and other people may have thought about the same thing, researched the same topics, and reached different conclusions. Sure. Nobody, not even I, is infallible. (Who'da thunk!) Even so, as I mentioned, I spend a lot of time on this. I just finished five years at university to become super-smart at what I do and be able to speak with at least some authority and knowledge about it. So while it is totally fine when people disagree, it can be a teensy-tinsy bit frustrating when somebody who knows absolutely nothing whatsoever about the subject at hand A) tries to explain to me what is actually the Final Truth, and B) argues that Their Opinion is just as valid as mine, simply because it is Their Opinion. Uh-huh.

Let me start with A. Anybody can be an annoying know-it-all, but I mostly experience this from men. #Notallmen and stuff, but there you have it. Enter the concept of mansplaining. This is a very specific phenomenon with a (cis) dude explaining to a woman (of any variety) something that she already knows, and probably knows better than him. The Very Patient Explanation will not be interrupted by such nonsense as “I wrote that book” or even a simple “I know”. Condescending tone is not unheard of.

Since I know you all adore my personal examples, a recent one was me posting in a Facebook-group for Italians abroad that I would like to make a language exchange to freshen up my Italian. Having a certain amount of experience with what happens when I stick my nose out publicly, not limited to but also in Italian facebook-groups, in order to avoid sexist asshats as far as possible, I started the post (in Italian) with “car* tutt*”, which is basically a gender neutral replacement for the Italian gendered plural endings (tutti e tutte). It's a feminist thing, and so I hoped sexist asshats wouldn't want to waste their time on me and my inbox would stay relatively nice in tone. I got a lot of comments and pm's, and all was well and good. However. Next morning, I find a comment (in English, so we're sure the Ladies will understand) Explaining, Very Patiently, that my initial greeting is a left-wing and hyper-feminist thing, and people might associate me with such people when I use it.......... Oh dear. People might think I'm a feminist. The horror!!! Thank you, Very Patient Man, for assuming that I don't know what I'm doing.

Now, to B. (It appears to me that this is also mainly a male thing, but for now that is purely anecdotal. Evidence in either direction is welcome.) I am not in anyway arguing that people are not entitled to their own opinion. By all means, think about things and take a stand. I would, however, like to stake a claim that not all opinions on everything are equally valid.

Let me start with an example, to make my point more clear. I once got into a huge argument with Very Clever Guy about whether or not beauty standards are biologically or socially determined, and whether they can change. I'm mainly on the side of social influence here, and think that those standards can definitely be changed, even it might take some time, even generations. Remember, I studied this for years. Clever Guy is adamant that it's biological and that's the way it is because that's the way it is. That was his main argument, and nothing I could say could convince him that there is any possible way it might be otherwise. Also, it's just His Opinion.

This is a delicate point, cause sure, it's his opinion, he can have it. It is just much less qualified than my opinion on this particular subject. I simply do not think it's unreasonable to request that what I have to say on this subject actually be taken into account, and also that it be respected as the more qualified opinion of the two. This of course goes for everybody in a lot of situations.

Let me try to put this in a different context. As mentioned, I'm mainly an anthropologist. There are plenty of things I do not know about. Building (literal) bridges is an example. I have no clue. So, imagine me discussing with an engineer about bridge-building, telling said engineer that their way of building bridges is wrong and that my way is better cause that's my Opinion. Being really adamant that this is my Opinion on how bridges should be built and it's equally valid as whatever the engineer says and knows about it, and also the engineer is just wrong.

You can probably imagine how seriously I would be taken. (Spoiler alert: not at all.)

Of course, while a lot of people don't build bridges, everybody has a gender. They will therefore also have some sort of experience regarding gender, and so they will always be able to have an opinion on their own lived experience. I totally respect that. I would just still argue that while your personal experience of your lived gender is your own and cannot be questioned by others, analysing the perspectives for society does require some sort of professional expertise or at least that you do some sort of research and thought and look around you. Gender is also science.*

What I'm trying to get at is that it would be super-nice if everybody could just please inform themselves before they start blurting out all sorts of opinions about anything that occurs to them. We live in the age of the internet so it shouldn't be impossible. I'm sure the world would be a much nicer place. (Also smarter.)

I may be coming off as terribly elitist when writing this. (Actually, that's probably the case.) And perhaps I am an elitist person. But this is getting to something that I find immensely frustrating. If every single opinion on every single thing is of equal value, no matter the level of information behind it – then why did I even bother studying for five years? If the level of authority granted to a statement doesn't change with increased knowledge? What's the motivation for becoming smarter, if nobody will ever respect it? I'll be over here, wondering.

* I'm aware that there are all sorts of intersections with class, race and other factors here that influence knowledge, and that sometimes you need to live things to understand them. I don't question that at all, and I most definitely could learn from others in less privileged positions. My beef here is mainly with the straight white cis middle-class dudes who believe to know everything simply because they're them.

1 comment:

  1. I have a degree in Political Science. You, I'm presuming, don't. Would you defer to my opinion when it comes to talking about politics?