Why we stopped trusting elites
William Davies 29 Nov 2018
A modern liberal society is a complex web of trust relations, held together by reports, accounts, records and testimonies. Such systems have always faced political risks and threats. The template of modern expertise can be traced back to the second half of the 17th century, when scientists and merchants first established techniques for recording and sharing facts and figures. These were soon adopted by governments, for purposes of tax collection and rudimentary public finance. But from the start, strict codes of conduct had to be established to ensure that officials and experts were not seeking personal gain or glory (for instance through exaggerating their scientific discoveries), and were bound by strict norms of honesty.
But regardless of how honest parties may be in their dealings with one another, the cultural homogeneity and social intimacy of these gentlemanly networks and clubs has always been grounds for suspicion. Right back to the mid-17th century, the bodies tasked with handling public knowledge have always privileged white male graduates, living in global cities and university towns. This does not discredit the knowledge they produce – but where things get trickier is when that homogeneity starts to appear to be a political identity, with a shared set of political goals. This is what is implied by the concept of “elites”: that purportedly separate domains of power – media, business, politics, law, academia – are acting in unison.
A further threat comes from individuals taking advantage of their authority for personal gain. Systems that rely on trust are always open to abuse by those seeking to exploit them. It is a key feature of modern administrations that they use written documents to verify things – but there will always be scope for records to be manipulated, suppressed or fabricated. There is no escaping that possibility altogether. This applies to many fields: at a certain point, the willingness to trust that a newspaper is honestly reporting what a police officer claims to have been told by a credible witness, for example, relies on a leap of faith.
A trend of declining trust has been underway across the western world for many years, even decades, as copious survey evidence attests. Trust, and its absence, became a preoccupation for policymakers and business leaders during the 1990s and early 2000s. They feared that shrinking trust led to higher rates of crime and less cohesive communities, producing costs that would be picked up by the state.
What nobody foresaw was that, when trust sinks beneath a certain point, many people may come to view the entire spectacle of politics and public life as a sham. This happens not because trust in general declines, but because key public figures – notably politicians and journalists – are perceived as untrustworthy. It is those figures specifically tasked with representing society, either as elected representatives or as professional reporters, who have lost credibility.
To understand the crisis liberal democracy faces today – whether we identify this primarily in terms of “populism” or “post-truth” – it’s not enough to simply bemoan the rising cynicism of the public. We need also to consider some of the reasons why trust has been withdrawn. The infrastructure of fact has been undermined in part by a combination of technology and market forces – but we must seriously reckon with the underlying truth of the populists’ charge against the establishment today. Too often, the rise of insurgent political parties and demagogues is viewed as the source of liberalism’s problems, rather than as a symptom. But by focusing on trust, and the failure of liberal institutions to sustain it, we get a clearer sense of why this is happening now.
The problem today is that, across a number of crucial areas of public life, the basic intuitions of populists have been repeatedly verified. One of the main contributors to this has been the spread of digital technology, creating vast data trails with the latent potential to contradict public statements, and even undermine entire public institutions. Whereas it is impossible to conclusively prove that a politician is morally innocent or that a news report is undistorted, it is far easier to demonstrate the opposite. Scandals, leaks, whistleblowing and revelations of fraud all serve to confirm our worst suspicions. While trust relies on a leap of faith, distrust is supported by ever-mounting piles of evidence. And in Britain, this pile has been expanding much faster than many of us have been prepared to admit.
Confronted by the rise of populist parties and leaders, some commentators have described the crisis facing liberalism in largely economic terms – as a revolt among those “left behind” by inequality and globalisation. Another camp sees it primarily as the expression of cultural anxieties surrounding identity and immigration. There is some truth in both, of course – but neither gets to the heart of the trust crisis that populists exploit so ruthlessly. A crucial reason liberalism is in danger right now is that the basic honesty of mainstream politicians, journalists and senior officials is no longer taken for granted.
There are copious explanations for Trump, Brexit and so on, but insufficient attention to what populists are actually saying, which focuses relentlessly on the idea of self-serving “elites” maintaining a status quo that primarily benefits them.
In academia, censorship and conformity have become the norm
DEBRA SOH NOVEMBER 28, 2018
A new academic journal, titled The Journal of Controversial Ideas, launching in the new year, will be peer-reviewed and offer a diverse range of viewpoints, calling upon liberals, conservatives, as well as those who are religious and secular, to submit their work. Most notably, it will allow academics to publish under pseudonyms.
Much of the response to this journal has been criticism alleging that only academics with hateful ideas would require the option to publish under a pseudonym. In truth, facts today are deemed controversial if they deviate from accepted narratives, and professors must self-censor out of fear of being condemned and losing their jobs.
Based on conversations I’ve had with colleagues still working in academia and from what I can tell about recent cases of censorship, the antagonism is primarily from left-leaning colleagues attacking other liberals. The problem has been increasing and was the reason I chose to leave the field of sex research.
In the last several months alone, multiple controversies involving academic censorship have emerged. Earlier this year, a paper by Theodore Hill, a professor emeritus of mathematics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, wrote about the “greater male variability hypothesis,” which posits that men are more variable than women along a number of traits, including intelligence, translating to a greater number of men at the high and low extremes.
After the paper was accepted in one journal and subsequently rescinded due to feminist scholars’ fears that it would be used to justify sexism, Dr. Hill got the paper published in another journal online, only to have it disappear from its website shortly thereafter. He was told the decision was not due to the paper’s scientific methods but its political implications.
In August, another controversy erupted when PLOS ONE published a study by physician Lisa Littman. She wrote about rapid-onset gender dysphoria, a growing phenomenon of girls who, out of the blue, announce they are transgender. Due to backlash from transgender activists, Brown University pulled the study’s corresponding press release, and PLOS ONE said the study had been placed under review. Considering that it underwent peer review prior to being published and other experts in the field would have scrutinized it for its methodology and content, the decision was unheard of.
These instances are indicative of a larger, worrisome trend – instead of debating contentious ideas, those in opposition to them throw words ending in “-phobic” around, shutting the conversation down and pretending they don’t exist.