No, don’t worry, I’m not going political (not any more than I ever am). I found this story via my Google Alerts and although it really had nothing to do with the actual subject I was looking for, I found it interesting. (The age of the article shows you how long I’ve been sitting on this post.)

Why?

It’s a question I’ve often had internal debates about. Who is considered an authority? And this ties into the back-and-forth over my last post.

Just because one is a man doesn’t mean one is automatically incapable of empathy or understanding of women’s issues. I recognize that. On the other hand, this article reminds me of my feelings as a girl.

I’d read articles (often in my mom’s Reader’s Digest) written by male doctors on the subject of women’s health. They never seemed credible to me. For instance, over and over again they’d describe menstrual cramps as a “mild discomfort” — that is, if they bothered to acknowledge the cramps were physical symptoms and not psychosomatic.

My own cramps felt like someone yanked my uterus out of my body (stretching it to a distance of about 3 feet it seemed), then pulled it down to my knees and squeezed it as hard as they could over and over and over in nauseating waves. This was usually enough to make me lose my lunch — and be unable to eat or drink anything for the rest of the day, even water. The family doctor laughed at my request for morphine and suggested OTC Advil instead. Needless to say, Advil failed as real pain relief, though if I took at right as my cramping started, I was able to function at a very basic level. (On the other hand, my sister did indeed only feel a mild discomfort and I hated her for it.)

When a 10 year old girl knows more about the realities of menstration than a doctor (an “authority”), it doesn’t bode well for instilling the proper respect and awe for such authority. Still, it illustrates what I’ve wondered since a young age. It’s not just the old boys-against-girls thing (most everyone likes to play for their own team), but how much authority does someone have when they speak only from their academic knowledge? And what defines “academic” vs. “experience”?

Some authority is easy to define. Two people write a book for escorts. One is a CPA, one is a former escort. Who has more authority? Although most people’s knee-jerk reaction is probably the same, it really depends on the topic under discussion. Or maybe the perspective in which the books are written makes the difference because there are at least two basic perspectives of escort work: escort and client (there are a couple more I can think of, but that’s not important right now). Or maybe I’m being really generous.

Or how about someone who writes about sex work? They’ve never done any sex work themselves, yet they’ve spent years researching and talking to a variety of sex workers all over the world and even lived with a few for brief periods of time. They come as close to the experience as they can without doing it. Some say their remove from the subject makes them more credible than someone who is living it. Does their extensive research make them more more of an authority than a girl who, ten years ago, danced for a few months in a peep show in San Francisco?

But what if their research is tainted with their own personal biases and beliefs about sex work? Are they an authority then? Do their vicarious experiences and reporting count for nothing? Does the researcher’s authority depend on how they use their information and expertise? Are they authorities only if they sway to one side or another on a particular issue? Is popular perception, shaped by mainstream media, truly the only conferrer of “authority”?

back to politicians

The above article about Obama vs. Hillary on women’s rights issues raises questions. Sure, Hillary has done a lot of speaking on women’s rights. But some of the things she’s spoken about — sexual trafficking, AIDS and rape — are things she’s never experienced herself. So is she any more of an authority than Obama? She’s been researching these issues longer, but since the experiences of Third World women are not theirs, are either of them an authority? Does speaking extensively on a subject make you an authority? Fieldwork? Research? Charity work? Simply being a spokesperson?

Don’t know. This isn’t a post about answers. Just questions that have been swirling around in my head for a very long time. And yes, most of those questions are self-directed.

12 thoughts on “what is authority? (expertise)

  1. It’s a difficult question, and I don’t think there’s one across-the-board answer.

    You had lots of good examples in your post, but this one in particular drives the point home, I think:

    Or how about someone who writes about sex work? They’ve never done any sex work themselves, yet they’ve spent years researching and talking to a variety of sex workers all over the world and even lived with a few for brief periods of time. They come as close to the experience as they can without doing it. Some say their remove from the subject makes them more credible than someone who is living it. Does their extensive research make them more more of an authority than a girl who, ten years ago, danced for a few months in a peep show in San Francisco?

    This just goes to show why I think questions of authority really have to be taken on a case-by-case basis. The girl who danced for a few months in SF 10 years ago will be an expert on her own experience, obviously; but if that was her only contact w/ the industry, she’s probably not the best source to go to for information about broader questions of sex work. The researcher doesn’t have direct experience, which will always be a bit of a red flag, I think; but should the former dancer automatically be granted greater authority? In this situation, I don’t think she should.

    Of course, it’s also not a pissing contest, but the fact of the matter is, many if not most of us understand the world in terms of “more” or “less” of this, that, or the other thing.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this comment… I guess my point is just that I have as many questions about “authority” and “expertise” as you do! 😉

  2. I am the authority…

    on all things *me* 😉

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist!

    But seriously, it makes me think of how many child psychologists have no children (my sister in law for example) and how many marriage counselors are single or divorced..lol

    I don’t think any of us can be an expert on anything but our own life and experiences and what then if we bump our head and get amnesia??

    Then we are SOL on a good title shot;(

    Sorry Amanda, giddy night for me tonight…but hope I at least made ya smirk;)

    Lil;)

  3. Amber,

    Yes, it’s really hard to determine who is an “authority” sometimes. I sure don’t have any answers. People that I consider an authority on a given topic may not always be ones that others chose.

    It seems so personal, but then the media comes into play too. I’ve wondered about the media frenzy over some people who have thin experiences (at best) while others have written books on the same topic that I liked a lot and expanded my knowledge. One example would be the amount of attention Melissa Farley has gotten vs Laura Agustin (misspelling, I’m sure).

    It’s not an easy answer. I’ve wondered about this my whole life and still am not any further along in the process.

    Lily,

    I’m the authority on me too! We’re THE authority on two different people! 🙂

    But you bring up another kind of tangled point — when does someone expand their authority beyond themselves? If you want to accomplish something, you have to gain authority beyond yourself (even if it’s to become the manager of a restaurant — you need to understand the jobs everyone else has to do). Speaking on a larger scale, when does someone became an authority on big issues?

    The news article I referenced sees Hillary as an authority on particular women’s issues. Is she? Is she more of an authority than the researchers whose work she quotes? Why aren’t they considered the authority? Or does her broad focus make her more of an authority than a researcher who only knows one particular subject?

    I don’t expect you to have an answer, but your comment raised some great questions.

    XX

  4. I think we end up with a LOT of categories for a LOT of experts;)

    If only everything had guidelines, but then, the world would be a boring and honest place;)

    Lil;)

  5. Lily,

    We do have a TON of “experts” out there, some of whom don’t seem to know very much at all. Which makes me wonder how they got the title and how they keep their “expert” status.

    XX

  6. This makes me think of that saying that goes something like “people become Teachers of what they want to learn.”

    I’m thinking that people only “become” “authorities” when someone gives that to them. I don’t give it out very often.

    I think a healthy mind questions everything in front of it….and inside it, too, for that matter. I question lots; in fact, most.

    I define Truth as that which cannot be argued. If that’s the case, then there’s very little Truth in the world except personal experience.

    Great post. Thanks.

  7. Gillette,

    There’s a lot of truth in “people become Teachers of what they want to learn.” And you’re right, not much absolute truth except personal experience.

    But I don’t like the idea of “authority” being conferred by some mysterious other, especially in cases like flawed research of sex work being taken at face value and not questioned. Even fairly little things like this snowball into much larger problems — mostly because people DON’T think and question.

    XX

  8. an expert in my book is one who’s been there, done that ,and has the T-shirt. thinking about the priest who gives marriage councling based on training, reading, and observation. never has been in the trrenches, is he an expert?
    george washington was given command of the contential army because he was tall and looked good in uniform. never commanded troops in combat. his first real battle in brooklyn was a complete diaster, but he looked good and providence was on his side. everyone knows the rest of the story. gw prevailed and bacame a very able commander. point is here are no experts the first time out. read and reseasrch all you want. until you’ve done it, you are just an observer.

    rex

  9. Rex,

    I believe in the experience angle myself, with rare exception (we kind of have to trust a doctor’s advice in most cases). BUT, the problem is that many times, people overlook those with experience in favor of those making the most noise or the most popular. This seems to be a real problem with the media these days.

    XX

  10. I would say that experts are those who can deliver truth, not bias, no matter how much knowledge and experiences they have.

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