While being interviewed earlier this week by David Wilcox about our new report, RSA ChangeMakers, he asked me whether by identifying and subsequently supporting the ‘ChangeMakers’ driving positive change in Peterborough we were inadvertently helping to entrench existing power structures. I responded by saying that the method we devised for identifying ChangeMakers was intended to do the opposite. Yes, we first asked those in the Council and the Local Strategic Partnership who they would consider to be a ChangeMaker. But we then asked those who were named for their own suggestions of ChangeMakers, and then asked those new people that were named for theirs, and so on over a number of waves. The idea being that we would be able to get further away from the ‘status quo’ and identify individuals lying under the radar.
Thinking about this further, in principle David’s concern probably still stands. After all, these individuals are by their own admission well-known in their neighbourhoods, knowledgeable and highly skilled, and capable of changing the behaviours of others. 7 in 10 of the ChangeMakers we surveyed strongly agreed they could persuade and convince other people to do something; 8 in 10 strongly agreed that they could come up with new ideas to overcome problems.
So my question now is not whether these people are ‘experts’ or ‘elites’. Rather, it is whether we should even care if they are in the first place. Shouldn’t we be viewing these individuals as assets to make use of rather than elites to be fearful of? Judging by recent events, perhaps not. Across the political and scientific landscape there now appears to be taking root an anti-expert and anti-elitist movement that only looks set to grow. Take Newt Gingrich’s Super Tuesday speech yesterday morning where he explicitly attributed his poor performance to the elites in Washington. Or take the climate change scientists like Michael E. Mann who’ve faced “McCarthy-like” threats for being too vocal in their evidence-based opinions. Everywhere you turn there appears to be a simmering angst towards anyone with a discernable expertise or knowledge-base.
This can’t be doing us any favours. In a world that is hostile to facts and ambivalent to reason, it is hard to imagine that our scientists, social commentators or even local ‘ChangeMakers’ are going to come forward with important insights that are uncomfortable yet necessary to hear. Nor does it bode well for encouraging future generations to enter the same fields. The message is stark: better to be ignorant and accusatory than to dedicate your life to being an active member of society, speaking out and basing your opinions on reason.
Hence the blog title. This is a line from a poem written by Sir Walter Ralegh that I recently came across in an LRB article. While it refers to his habit of imagining up successful conquests in the new world only to be faced with eventual defeat, it could equally be seen as an apt motto for this phenomenon. In folly we feel we are free to flourish, while in reason we feel as though our dreams and visions become debased and diluted. Which is perhaps one reason for current sentiments towards elites and experts. It may be that we don’t want to be confronted with unfortunate opinions that distract us from our vision of the possible – whether that’s the idea of the American dream or the notion that we can continue to consume without limits. Nor do we want to be compared to the experts themselves, for fear of looking like a lesser person.
It is a sad irony that all of this is happening at the exact moment when we need our elites and experts the most. As Nick Pearce argued recently in the Financial Times, to better the life chances of the genuinely needy and vulnerable it is important not only to improve social mobility but also to look at how our current elites can help those at the bottom of the ladder. As he put it:
There will always be elites in some form, even if inequalities can be narrowed. Widening the circles of entry to leadership positions is important but it’s not enough just to have different kinds of people in charge. Elites, however formed, must attend to the common good.
Our task is to try and find new ways of enabling elites to do so. This is exactly what initiatives like that of the ChangeMakers project are designed to do. Though I very much doubt they would see themselves as experts, let alone elites, they are nonetheless endowed with an extensive repertoire of abilities, ideas and connections that can be drawn upon for the benefit of their local area. If we can learn to live with the notion that there are indeed ‘experts’ and so-called ‘elites’ in our communities and public services, then we will be going someway to removing one of the biggest stumbling blocks to mobilising these assets for the greater good.