Brexit and the Humiliation of the Expert
It’s been one week since I woke up to the news that Britain had shocked the world by voting to leave the European Union. In the weeks leading up to the referendum vote, the debates became incredibly contentious and acrimonious. For weeks, I’d been walking past Vote Leave and Vote Remain canvassers, explaining sheepishly that I’m an American and their leaflets would be wasted on me. In my own college housing an undergraduate who had put up a Vote Leave placard in her window came home to discover her room had been broken into and her placard torn from the window and ripped up.
As a stranger in a strange land, a foreigner with no voting rights but lots of political opinions, I’ve been torn between a guilty delight that finally I have a reprieve from being asked to explain how in the world Trump got to where he is and a feeling of deep sorrow for my friends whose futures are now deeply uncertain, as the university I so dearly love undergoes a potentially transformative transition.
But I’m also aware of the deep shift that the Brexit vote signals for those of us in the elite sphere—within which I count myself. I almost have to—I have two Master’s degrees, am a published author, and have spent two years of my adult life living outside the US (first in Japan and now in England). The class and race disconnect that we saw develop throughout the referendum campaign in England is reflected in the racist and classist campaigning that’s already happening in the US.
Numerous Americans immediately turned the Brexit vote around to discuss the 2016 election. It’s galvanized a certain portion of the population to get out the vote more, to battle misinformation campaigns, to figure out how to battle fearmongering with facts.
But there’s also a deep existential crisis that’s happening and it’s not just the question of what it means to be British. It’s a question of what the experts do when their expertise is no longer wanted—a question of what it looks like when elections and campaigns are run not on facts but on the way people feel about the narratives they’re given.
This is a worry that’s been at the forefront of a lot of progressive Americans’ minds ever since Fox News became the most watched news network. I once sent my own father a 1500-word email about why he shouldn’t trust Glenn Beck’s Nazi-focused fear mongering, to absolutely no avail. Fear is a deeply powerful motivator, and when paired with misinformation and a convenient scapegoat, fear is almost unbeatable.
And it’s this fear that’s making a lot of us much more afraid about what will happen in November. We know we must learn from Brexit but we also feel an existential dread about what lesson we’re supposed to learn. Nihilistically, it feels like our expertise, our knowledge no longer matters—whatever we say, the fear machine will be bigger, will be faster, will be seen as more trustworthy. How do you change minds with expertise when the experts are told they aren’t needed?
But the thing about being human, about being a citizen, is that critical thinking is a vital part of engagement. If we encourage people to think critically and then let them decide with all the information available, we can learn to trust each other again. Much of the electorate saying we can’t trust the experts are saying so out of experiences of condescension and elitism on the part of those same experts. Having more access to knowledge than a lorry driver from York doesn’t make us better people—it just gives us a different base of knowledge to work from. There is a legitimate grievance with a lot of experts that academia unfortunately propels—that information is intentionally inaccessible and that’s what makes it good.
One of the major struggles I had in writing my dissertation was the switch into the particularly elitist, Oxfordian academic writing. “Say ‘significance’ instead of ‘importance.’ Don’t use colloquialisms. Say ‘sexuate differences in phenomenology’ instead of ‘differing life experiences between people.’” And so on and so on and so on. I had to start doing my own practice journaling to regain my sense of my own voice after attempting to do what the experts wanted.
How can we ever hope to change hearts and minds when we purposefully obscure our own ideas under a haze of academic language and expertise? How can we fight misinformation campaigns if we can’t even make information transparent to everyone in our field? Anyone who has tried to read Judith Butler without training in dissecting and understanding her particular brand of academic speak would most certainly come to the conclusion that gender theory is solely the field of bored elites with nothing better to do with their time, rather than a vital understanding of how we live and breathe and exist.
What Brexit revealed is nothing new. It is something experts have depended upon to set themselves apart for centuries. Being able to unlock the code of academic writing does have the ability to make you feel smarter, like a better person. But that strain of pride, of being “better” than the common man is also what contributes to this massive information divide. No wonder the non-experts don’t trust us—we don’t even come close to speaking the same language.
The task now is not to trick people into following experts again, but to develop humility about the fact that we will not be listened to if we do not demonstrate that we can listen first. Brexit has shown the world the ugly, opaque, elitist side of expertise—and now we have to take that lesson with humility and move from there.