Qualified to Speak?
Under what conditions is a person qualified to hold an opinion? This is a question that to me feels especially relevant in the modern day where it’s possible to quickly learn about a new topic, to feign expertise, and to get opinions out into the world.
On one end of the spectrum, a doctor is quite clearly qualified to have an opinion on medical matters. She has had the training. But most cases are not so clear-cut. For example, to what extent am I qualified to give an opinion on Indo-Chinese relations, or the US school-to-prison pipeline, or the New Iran Deal, when at most I have read a few articles on the subject. If I do express my opinion out loud, then an expert may very well come along and tell me that I have drastically misunderstood or misrepresented some key part of the argument. However, if this is true, then what is the cut-off for qualification? Do I need to study US foreign policy for 10 years before I can make a comment on whether the US-Iran deal was a good idea, 20 years? Do I need to have some kind of natural talent base? If I speak up before I am properly qualified, then I may be spreading something dangerous, and if I refrain from speaking then what is the point of all my study in the first place!
The cost of speaking out before properly understanding a topic can be very high, and there is always a risk that I will do more harm than good by speaking. Since many topics are sufficiently complex it is perfectly like that I have got something wrong whenever I speak. It applies especially in politics and current affairs, though extends to matters beyond the political. For instance, to what extent am I qualified to give advice to a friend who is considering breaking up with his long-term girlfriend? There is a chance, that even if I have the best of intentions, I could end up doing more harm than good – and knowing this, should I keep quiet; or maybe it is by keeping quiet that I am least helpful?
It might seem that in most cases the stakes are not so high – and most times that’s true; but it remains that each of us individually needs to ask the question “do I know enough about this to say my thoughts out loud, or to speak in this particular venue?” and this is a question that comes up over and over again.
Added to this is the phenomenon is that nowadays everyone has the ability to express an opinion out loud to large groups of people – everyone has access to a microphone. It used to be that if I wanted to say something to a thousand people, I would have to work very hard to either get published in a newspaper or to spend hours and hours at the phone having individual conversations with people I know. Now, I can post a Facebook status and immediately my opinion is “out in the world” – I personally think that this ability ought to place more responsibility on the person expressing the opinion to make sure that what they are saying is correct, and has gone through a due diligence process. So then the question becomes – how self-conscious should a person be about the material that they put out into the world?
A counter argument runs along similar lines. Because of the sheer volume of content available online, it is much less imperative to be self-conscious about the content you produce. When someone posts a Facebook status, it is true that this can reach a thousand people instantly, but those thousand people are being bombarded constantly by a whole host of other content too, and so the chances that your expression will resonate is very unlikely. Therefore, a healthy attitude might be just throw ‘stuff’ out there and see what sticks.
One solution is that you should only speak to the extent that you know. You should only express opinions that you believe to be true, and that you think can reasonably be backed up, or come from your experience. But then this doesn’t address the problem as much as it passes the buck along one step – what counts as “reasonably be backed up?” If I read a story on a news site that later on turns out to be fake, can I share it without a feeling of guilt? A better solution is that at each possible level of training or experience, there is some spectrum of things on which a person is qualified to speak about.
Another idea is that intentions matter too; so long as I have good intentions then I should try to express my opinion even on matters I’m not 100% sure about. But, if it were the case that intentions were all that matters, maybe I would let a well-intentioned surgeon operate on me. I don’t mean to suggest that the trivial choices we are faced with in life are all as life-or-death as a coronary bypass, but rather that there exists some continuous spectrum of things leading from cases where competence is mostly irrelevant (that friend who just wants to talk), to cases where competence is absolutely mandatory (flying a plane containing 130 passengers). And within that spectrum there is a whole range of possibilities where competence / qualification is needed to some degree or other (talking about the Britain’s decision to leave the EU, or attempting to mentor to a 17 year old trying to find his way in the world). I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do feel it is easy to underestimate the damage that can be done by speaking up without being properly qualified to do so.