01 December 2021

Lasch—Omnicompetence

Christopher Lasch
The Revolt of the Elites (1995)

According to Walter Lippman...the "omnicompetent citizen" was an anachronism in the age of specialization. In any case, most citizens, he thought, cared very little about the substance of public policy. The purpose of journalism was not to encourage public debate but to provide experts with the information on which to base intelligent decisions.
(p. 10)

(This "in opposition to John Dewey and other veterans of the progressive movement.")

Lippman's argument rested on a sharp distinction between opinion and science. Only the latter, he thought, could claim to be objective. ... This cult of professionalism had a decisive influence on the development of modern journalism. Newspapers might have served as extensions of the town meeting. Instead they embraced a misguided ideal of objectivity and defined their goal as the circulation of reliable information—the kind of information, that is, that tends not to promote debate but circumvent it. The most curious feature in all this, of course, is that although Americans are now drowning in information...surveys regularly report a steady decline in their knowledge of public affairs. In the "age of information" the American people are notoriously ill informed. ... They have become almost as incompetent as their critics have always claimed—a reminder that it is debate itself, and debate alone, that gives rise to the desire for usable information. In the absence of democratic exchange, most people have no incentive to master the knowledge that would make them capable citizens.
(pp. 11-12)

a misguided ideal of objectivity

the kind of information, that is, that tends not to promote debate but circumvent it

it is debate itself, and debate alone, that gives rise to the desire for usable information

All brilliant points.

The misguided ideal of objectivity also prevails, I think, in certain academic milieux. To be sure, academia is the place for it. There should always be some of this kind of academic work being done as a necessary safeguard against the total unmooring of discourse from its empirical foundations. But there are, nonetheless, many academic projects where the conceit to objectivity is counterproductive for precisely the reasons laid out by Lasch above; if many of these are one-off projects, nonetheless they collectively comprise a sizable chunk of academic turf. Further, it is always worth asking whether the rigidly objective academic posture has emerged organically from the task at hand or if it is a merely calculated piece of theater designed to give a certain impression to a certain audience for a certain self-interested reason.

The circumvent[ion] of debate by appealing to hard facts (which usually are just hard to verify) has a history worthy of its own book. Interestingly, Lasch begs an exemption for religion here, precisely where some of us (as he is aware) would think of it first.

Priding themselves ["devoutly open-minded intellectuals"] on their emancipation from religion, they misunderstand religion as a set of definitive, absolute dogmas resistant to any kind of intelligent appraisal. They miss the discipline against fanaticism in religion itself. The "quest for certainty," as Dewey called it, is nowhere condemned with such relentless passion as in the prophetic tradition common to Judaism and Christianity, which warns again and again against idolatry, the idolatry of the church included. Many intellectuals assume that religion satisfies the need for moral and emotional security—a notion that even a passing knowledge of religion would dispel.
(p. 90)
These are beautiful thoughts, but I can't help but think we have passed through incomplete evidence here, i.e. merely the worst of the "intellectuals" and the best of the "religious."

As for debate itself, this is so brilliant and so important, but damned if it is not also extremely unpleasant nowadays. Because we live in the age of information I have often found myself simply unable to engage (whether to agree or disagree hardly matters) with much of anyone too far outside my own political orientation, because their arguments, whether well-crafted or ill-constructed on the rhetorical level, so often invoke supporting evidence which I am entirely unable to evaluate for sheer lack of familiarity. Regular competence is elusive enough; omnicompetence feels unattainable. Human beings cannot become "omnicompetent" on any larger scale than the village. By affinity I am a big-city person to the bone, but on a purely rational level it is becoming ever more difficult to ignore this problem.



We do not know what we need to know until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy. Information, usually seen as the precondition of debate, is better understood as its byproduct. When we get into arguments that focus and fully engage our attention, we become avid seekers of relevant information. Otherwise we take in information passively—if we take it in at all.
(p. 163)



The attempt to bring others around to our own point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead. We have to enter imaginatively into our opponents' arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational. Most of us tend to think of it (as Lippman thought of it) as a clash of rival dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives any ground. But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents. They are won by changing opponents' minds—something that can happen only if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments. In the course of this activity we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.

If we insist on argument as the essence of education, we will defend democracy not as the most efficient but as the most educational form of government, one that extends the circle of debate as widely as possible and thus forces all citizens to articulate their views, to put their views at risk, and to cultivate the virtues of eloquence, clarity of thought and expression, and sound judgment. As Lippman noted, small communities are the classic locus of democracy—not because they are "self-contained," however, but simply because they allow everyone to take part in public debates.
(pp. 170-171)
We lose sight of this nowadays because we seem veritably surrounded by others' "views," hemmed in on all sides by them as it were. But perhaps the real story is how many people don't articulate anything in particular, perhaps because they have nothing to articulate, and moreover (as Lasch would have it here) because they don't have to.

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