‘Experts’ vs people's lived experiences
i think it's important to make a distinction between two general categories of experts.
Firstly, there are experts in fields such as climatology and mathematics, fields where the ‘objects of study’ don't directly or necessarily involve people. Those of us who don't have significant relevant training in these fields should respect the many years of training and experience these people have, and start from a working assumption that they're more likely to be correct than not.
On the other hand, there are experts on topics such as queerness and gender. Such people are not necessarily inherently more correct than individuals who have direct lived experiences of those topics.
Historically, experts in psychiatry regarded homosexuality as inherently pathological, and this was reflected in the DSM, the American Psychiatric Association's “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual” for psychological issues. This changed only after many years of activism by many people, including many queers who weren't actually psychiatrists themselves.
There's a long-standing phenomenon of experts not listening to sex workers, instead treating them as always ‘prostituted’ or trafficked, and in need of others to speak on their behalf. (There was a meme-style image circulating several years ago, involving a photo of self-described “pro-life feminist” Melinda Tankard-Reist, with the text “Shut up, I'm trying to give you a voice”.)
A number of experts on autism are pro-ABA, ‘Applied Behavioural Analysis’, which is regarded as a ‘gold standard’ for ‘treatment’ of autism, and of autistic children in particular. But many adult autistic people are critical of ABA[a], often due to their own direct experiences of it.
In each case, the experts claim(ed) ‘better’ knowledge of something than people who've experienced it. Not only this: people whose experiences contradicts the experts' knowledge are ignored or dismissed, with a variety of justifications being given:
- “A person wanting to engage in homosexual behaviour is obviously mentally ill, and so is not rational.”
- “Sex workers either have Stockholm syndrome[b], or are just paid shills for the sex industry, or both.”
- “Autistic adults who are ‘high functioning’ don't understand the issues and needs of ‘low functioning’ autistics.”[c]
- More generally, it's claimed that the experiences people have had mean they can't be ‘objective’ about what's ‘really’ going on.
My long-standing familiarity with the preceding is why i was so disturbed when a neurodivergent genderqueer person went down the “experts on gender say ....” path i mentioned in yesterday's post[d]. Ignoring, downplaying or dismissing “ugly little facts”, to use T.H. Huxley's memorable phrase, is certainly useful for protecting one's theories and ego, but i'm not sure it's ethical, particularly when it's done by people with the sort of privilege and influence that academics and/or professionals have.
In the 1990s, South African disability activists coined the phrase “nothing about us without us”. It continues to be highly relevant to many marginalised groups — and particularly those whose lives are significantly impacted by ‘expert’ opinions.
To me, there's a significant difference between taking the word of experts on things like global warming, and taking the word of ‘experts’, academic or armchair, as being necessarily correct regardless of various individual people's experiences of their own lives.☙
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[c] The phrases ‘high-functioning’ and ‘low-functioning’ are actually quite problematic. Applying the label ‘high-functioning’ to an autistic person because they're articulate / employed / working on a PhD can obscure the fact that they have massive trouble with basic daily tasks such as eating adequately, or going grocery shopping. It's been proposed that better alternatives would be the phrases ‘high support needs’ and ‘low support needs’, although some have raised concerns about these phrases also.
An additional issue is that autism and intellectual disability are not the same thing, despite being regularly conflated: one can be autistic without being intellectually disabled. The conflation of the two has contributed to many autistic people not getting a diagnosis for many years due to supposedly being ‘high functioning’.