I'm Not An Expert, I Just Play One on the Internet

There are several torturous things I do to myself (aside from eating far too much chocolate, overbooking my schedule like a peak season holiday flight to Cancun, and keeping my laptop at the kitchen table by The Least Ergonomic Chair in the World).  I study social theory, internalizing all the harm we have done to each other on the slim chance that my eminently unremarkable mind will be able to contribute something useful.  I actually pay for this privilege curse.  And then?

I watch Frontline and surrender what few hours of sleep my schedule permits to a night of restless brain spinning.  You know, 'cause I'm smart like that.

My thoughts are still seriously disorganized, so let me thank you ahead of time for bearing with me.  Thank you!  And, also?  You're all kinds of awesome :-)

I've been reading a bunch of scholars that speak to the dissociation we're experiencing as a society, right now.  We have trouble connecting with each other in a meaningful way.  We apprehend advertising as information, and often ignore information not attached to effective marketing.  This isn't news.  Terry O'Reilly has been talking about it on The Age of Persuasion for a lot of years, and most parents know about the how psychological studies on "nagging" in small children to help advertisers teach kids to nag more effectively.  We live in a world where exchanging work for money and money for things is very important to just about everyone.  And when we run out of things to need, advertising is there to ensure we have adequate created wants to meet (or exceed) our households' disposable income.

I think there is a relationship between the dissociative affects of our society, the sort of cultural hollowness or melancholy so many are feeling, and the effectiveness of advertising.  If I buy this, people will like me.  If I brand myself this way, people will accept me.  If I purchase these things for my kids, people won't judge me – OR, they will judge and find me exceptional.  (And who doesn't want THAT?)  I think one fuels the other.  We work crazy hours to earn enough money to acquire all of these created wants, or perceived needs.  We don't have time to hang out with friends, travel to visit with family, or pop over to a neighbour's house for coffee, or chat over the fence like our parents used to do.

(Or do we?  Please tell me it's not just me.)

And so the physical dissociation driven by these crazy work hours, this demonstrated valuing of work over leisure (or time for meaningful connections), makes us so hungry to belong to something.  Our need to be members, to find our tribe, has to be satisfied.  Especially, in an increasingly secular society like ours where the built-in community the church provides is still embraced by some – but also marginalized, vilified and emphatically refused by many, many others.  A social philosopher named George Herbert Mead once wrote about this sense of exaltation people experience when the person we believe ourselves to be meshes (however momentarily) with the person others perceive us to be during collective activity.  He calls it the "fusion of Self".

We crave that.

Watching Frontline last night, the filmmakers demonstrated how much more likely we are to believe YouTube than our paediatricians; or to accept a couple of blog posts and some magazine articles over a virologists' expert opinion; and – by extension – to form a collectivity of like-minded people and use our voices to justify inaccurate information rather than deny our need to belong.  I'm not saying that's inherently wrong.  I am definitely not arguing against forming online communities, engaging in political action, forming flash-mobs, or getting virtual support when physical support just can't be available.  I am an extraordinarily busy person and I spend a lot of time online, in part because I need that connectivity.  I need my tribe.  But I have to wonder if our faith in this sort of partially (or superficially?) connected community has become blind.  Has the availability of information, whatever its veracity, made us all "experts" on issues we actually know very little about?

So, let me come clean, here.  I'm not a parenting expert.  (Yeah, yeah.  Y'all can stop laughing, now.  I'm serious!)  My knowledge of early education, childcare, and public school classrooms is limited to my own experience and that of close friends and family.  I have to trust that the environmentally aware and ethically sourced products I use are actually what they claim to be.  I have to trust that my bank isn't trying to screw me, and that the corporations my savings support aren't doing any egregious harm.  I have to trust my gut with my kids, and my heart with my friends and family.  When you're not an expert, you have to trust a lot.  And now I'm wondering if our refusal to trust authentic experts stems from exactly that.

I mean, if we really are so hungry for community, wouldn't we all rather put our faith in people we believe to be just like us?

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I’m a mother, corporate refugee, grad student, quiet activist and child care provider.  I live in Canada and write about grace, joy, hilarity, leg hair, living healthy, and learning with kids over at The Valentine 4: Living Each Day.

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