Chesterton, COVID, and the Overreach of Experts

I can’t really think of anyone I’d rather share a crockery of boiled kidneys with than the 400-pound, Right Honorable G.K. Chesterton. Who else can take a seemingly ordinary moment and guild it with the sparkling depths of a silver mine? Who else can see a trembling Pekingese and imbue it with all the righteous fury of a three-headed Chimera?

Though his literary contributions have always held a special place in my heart, I recently found my admiration rekindled after reading one of his many published essays, The Twelve Men. Following a typical Chestertonian flight path, I laughed, was bewildered, shed tears, and left challenged. Though the piece itself is brief (I encourage you to read it), I’ll attempt a rebrevitization for the the expediently inclined.

After beginning with some appropriately irreverent thoughts on jury duty (“the oath is administered to us . . . by an individual resembling an army surgeon in his second childhood) Chesterton moves speedily on to the tragedies of the accused playing out before him. During the deliberation of one of these cases, he finds himself confronted with the startling realization “that tragedy is the highest expression of the infinite value of human life. Never had I stood so close to pain; and never so far away from pessimism.”

At this moment he also realizes that it isn’t by accident that a jury is made up of non-experts. In fact he recalls that “it was the instinct of Christian civilization to most wisely declare that into their judgments there shall upon every occasion be infused fresh blood and fresh thoughts from the streets.” 

In a world increasingly enamored with expertise, I believe we could learn a thing or two  from the beer-swilling prince of prose. For in a great spasm of irony, it is actually the non-expert’s lack of expertise that is the justice system’s greatest asset towards the realization of justice. From the bench of the juror, one is able to see beyond the dulling influence of procedures and protocols to the actual unfolding of lives before them. 

You see the danger for experts is that, for all their insight, they are often hindered by the very systems that empower them. Chesterton notes:

The horrible thing . . .about all judges, magistrates, barristers, detectives, and policemen, is not that they are wicked (some of them are good), nor that they are stupid (several of them are quite intelligent), it is simply that they have gotten used to it.

And without the occasional collision with “fresh blood and fresh thoughts,” potentially life-altering decisions end up being made by a man in a white coat on the 6th floor after a cool examination of “the facts.” I am not here suggesting that justice is subjective, but that part of what it means to be just is the ability to interpret facts in light of their impact on human being.

It isn’t hard to imagine a seasoned judge losing sight of the soul behind the accused; nor is it hard to imagine that after endless days looking at petri dishes, ones and zeroes, and legal documents, the human face behind it all grows fuzzier. 

I could say other things on the subject of experts. Like how expertise in one area doesn’t automatically qualify you to comment on some other area of non-expertise. Or how data doesn’t actually come equipped with a “now what?” button and that there are often other, less objective factors, influencing directives. Or how even the infallibilities of experts aren’t always as bulletproof as everyone wants us to believe.

But my intention here is not to demonize experts; because when experts do what they’re supposed to be doing, God bless them for their efforts. And in times where circumstances outpace one’s own ability, there should be a necessary deference towards those with the greater experience.

Where deference becomes negligence, however, is when a conclave of “experts” becomes The Voice Over The Waters, thundering over all. And so in the midst of COVID discussions we hear regularly from first-mate Justin, the forever-impeded Doug Ford, and the increasingly evasive Theresa Tam. And, yes, medical officers and health professional may be able to weigh in on factors specifically pertaining to physical health. But here’s the thing—there’s more to think about here than just physical self-preservation. 

Though the streets may be empty, behind closed doors many are struggling with loneliness, various mental-health issues, and a myriad of relational challenges. In many cases, quarantine measures have only made it more difficult for individuals already struggling in these areas. But you won’t hear about these issues from experts, because that isn’t their area of concern.

Again, I am not trying to criminalize the category of expert, nor am I suggesting an across-the board democratization of specialized industry. Far from it. What I am advocating for is allowed space for a “jury” outside the current narrowly-approved field of expertise. This jury might include parents, teachers, pastors, police, PSW’s, or anyone else who can weigh in as to what top-down decisions actually mean on the ground for those they’re responsible for. 

The good news is that the opinions of experts only have as much weight as the media and powers that be decide to give them. Which, last time I checked, amounts to. . . *flurry of mouse clicks* . . . oh, all of it. 

Chesterton closes with a comment on the apparent anomaly of the jury:

When it wants a library cataloged, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind it uses up its specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing round.

The decisions being made now are serious. They are impacting lives, institutions and the well-being of society.

So why are the experts the only ones we’re listening to? 

Where are the ordinary men and women? 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Chesterton, COVID, and the Overreach of Experts

Add yours

  1. Nice piece! Thanks for the invitation to read. Have you engaged with Ivan Illich on the question of ‘professionals’? There’s 1977’s “Disabling Professions”, which is a collection of essays on the topic, and also, although I have not yet read it, 1978 “The Right to Useful Unemployment”. Might be worth a look, given your interests.

    All the very best,

    Chris.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: