Symmetrical egalitarianism

Can egalitarianism be disrespectful?

In some social contexts strict egalitarianism is the very embodiment of respect. An example of such a context is a gathering of equal peers deliberating on a shared problem. Each is understood by the others to hold an opinion of equal validity to his own. Each peer is entitled the same level of attention, the same time to speak and to be heard out and to be believed and also to be questioned. Of course, each participant has a personal opinion regarding the rightness and wrongness of opinions stated, but any expectation that others will give one’s own opinion more weight than any another’s undermines the equal peer relationship. Let’s call this symmetrical egalitarianism

In other social contexts, however, strict egalitarianism can be disrespectful. An example of this kind of context is a group of people gathered to discuss a specialized topic, where some members of the group have invested significant time, energy and resources to continually improve the quality of their beliefs in this area, where other members have not made the same level investment. The former have worked to become authorities on the topic at hand and the latter have not. (Imagine an accomplished physicist in conversation with a group of less experienced scientists, or even scientists who are accomplished in fields outside the one being discussed). In such situations, giving equal weight to each person’s opinion would insult the authority’s hard-won expertise. For one reason or another his work has failed to accomplish its goal of improving his understanding — that is, elevating his initial opinion to informed belief, reflective practice,  cultivated knowledge and refined judgment.

Why would an expert’s expertise be denied or ignored? Perhaps his field is not one where genuine knowledge is possible, and can never be more than a matter of opinion, where one person’s opinion is as good as another’s no matter how much work is invested in cultivating knowledge. Or perhaps the alleged expert has taken a bad approach, and has wasted years of effort following the wrong path further from the truth. Or perhaps the would-be expert has some personal flaw or limitation that has prevented him from acquiring real knowledge or has led him to aquire delusional opinions that only appear to him to be knowledge. Or perhaps the laypeople are convinced that genuine knowledge in the field necessarily and automatically leads an expert to an egaliarian attitude toward his own opinion: the superiority of his view consists in its paradoxical refusal to regard itself as superior, and any hint of judgment is a symptom of inferior knowledge.

This latter view actually has some validity. The world is stuffed with authoritarian experts who flash their credentials and demand submission to their authority. This ought to be resisted. No expert should require non-experts to obey without being persuaded by reason. This is non-egaliarian tyranny of experts. 

But what true experts ask for is not unconditional obedience or uncritical belief. What they ask for from others is patience and effort The expert needs time not only to express their views, but also to impart enough expertise that others have the context needed to understand and fairly assess the expert’s ideas. Let’s call this asymmertical egalitarianism — an egalitarianism that acknowledges equality of reason and judgment, but also acknowledges the realities of expertise and permits it conditions needed to be heard and understood.  

It is these conditions that symmetrical egalitarianism denies. From the point of view of symmetrical egalitarianism, the time and attention an expert requires to convey the background of his factual opinions is experienced as an unfair domination of a conversation. Each person is doled out the same quantity of time as everyone else, and this self-regarded expert is trying to take more than his share. 

But from the point of view of expertise, this symmetry creates an unfair asymmetry of means to convey meaning. The laypeople are given what they need to fully communicate their views, but experts — the very ones best informed on the topic at hand — are forced to provide their views without context, which means their views will seem obscure, pedantic or nonsensical compared to the down-to-earth practicality and plain speech of the regular guy, or they try to provide context and get cut off before their point is made. Symmetrical egalitarianism guarantees the common sense status quo view always prevails, and those in the room with genuinely unique and deeply considered views will be subjected to a Bed of Procrustes truncation that allows them to talk but denies them the means to be understood.


Incidentally, this symmetrical and asymmetrical egalitarian concept can be applied to other fields. For instance, in education symmetries of fairness are sometimes established on the basis of allocated resources, the right to reach some standard level of acheivement or to maintain some pace of improvement. These symmetries are often enforced at the expense  of subtler forms of fairness, such as the ability to actualize one’s own potential. Obviously, this creates deep problems, including problems of measurement and objectivity, but the depth of such problems does not warrant ignoring these problems as essentially insoluble, or worse (and most commonly) denying the problem’s existence altogether. 

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