We Need To Stop Using Diplomas And Job Titles As Proof That We’re Right

If the past three years have taught us anything, it’s that according to an elite few, we shouldn’t be allowed to think for ourselves.

By Gwen Farrell4 min read
Pexels/Polina Tankilevitch

We’ve all experienced what could be called “qualifying language,” not in the grammatical sense, but the condescending tone individuals seem to appropriate when they use their experience, credentials, degrees, or employment to discredit someone else’s statement, which may be purely anecdotal.

We might not be keenly aware of this, but we see it. All. The. Time. Whether you’re on social media or in the workplace, someone has something to offer that’s about to dismantle your opinion or your own research into the matter. Not only does this effectively make the individual using qualifying language the focus of the conversation, making us more narcissistic and self-involved, but it’s also used to dispel the thoughts and opinions people possess by virtue of being humans in a free society. For these reasons and more, we need to stop using qualifying language, and address it earnestly when it’s used against us.

Everyone's an Expert

You might have opinions or have done your own research (the enemy of every expert) on Covid, the healthcare system, pregnancy and childbirth, the environment, or any number of other popular topics, but according to many, none of that knowledge on your part matters unless you have the bona fides to back it up.

When I was a student in an intelligence program in college, my instructor – a former security advisor on the Middle East – constantly stressed the importance of bona fides, or the sincerity of a source. An individual’s bona fides might be their knowledge or experience with the subject, and in matters of national security and intelligence gathering, these are crucial. In an argument on Twitter though, not so much.

It should be said that anyone’s standing as a leading figure in their field, whatever it may be, is reason enough to lend a listening ear to what they have to say. But in recent memory, bona fides like credentials, degrees, and important-sounding career titles have been weaponized against the public time and time again, leading to more, not less, distrust of our most significant institutions. Both local and federal public health officials, for example, blame ignorance and skepticism for increasing distrust in their expertise. But their green light on needless lockdowns, mask mandates for young children, and threatening the livelihood of those who declined to take the vaccine understandably grew their opposition rather than their support. 

Any lede beginning with “experts say” should be cause for concern. These experts may have the years of experience necessary to make observations and criticisms, but unfortunately, their expertise isn’t immune to financial considerations or ideological affiliation or plain old human error. 

One scholar writes, “Expert advice is the lowest level of evidence on the evidence hierarchy. Yes, they may be an ‘expert’ in their field, but being an expert does not necessarily mean their perspective is true and impartial. Degrees are earned in school, but ‘expert’ diplomas are not handed out. Expertise can be earned, peers can recognize an expert as an expert, or expertise can be a self-proclaimed title. No matter how expertise is claimed, it can be a dubious title.” 

Even when experts do go against a narrative, they’re often punished and banished for it by their own institutions, rather than being welcomed as part of a varied, robust discourse. In these instances, it’s evident that these narratives aren’t about discourse or even intellectual discussion and learning. It’s about control. 

Weaponizing Your “Expertise” on Social Media Doesn’t Usually Change Minds

The inclination to silence any dissent (or even just a difference of opinion) doesn’t begin and end with the Ivy League educated or the government appointed. Something as innocuous as a previous experience or casually-held opinion could be the target of someone else’s better, more shocking opinion in an exhausting game of one upmanship – like the living embodiment of Kristen Wiig’s SNL “Penelope” character.

Why do people do this? It could be a way of trying to add to the conversation and participate, but more often than not, it comes off as narcissistic, especially if the individual is commenting on something traumatic or damaging. 

You see this on social media all the time, particularly with contentious topics but even with innocuous ones. Though the term “trauma dumping” is symptomatic of the pop psychology mindset running rampant through our culture, it’s an accurate description of what people engage in each and every day. If someone makes a post about sexual assault, you might feel the need to disclose being a victim yourself in the comments. If someone has strong opinions about an issue like gun violence, you might be told your opinion is incorrect by someone who’s been a victim of gun violence.

We’re not addressing facts here, but opinions, and opinions aren’t correct or incorrect. Like feelings, they just are. They exist whether we want them to or not, but as self-involved individuals, we’re offended by the notion that someone out there could have a divergent opinion from ours, especially given our past experience or the expertise that we use to qualify our opinion as being the “correct” one. Even the opinions or rhetoric most offensive and disgusting to the average person is held by someone, somewhere, and that realization can be difficult to unpack.

This is why language is so crucial to our cultural development, but now, seemingly less and less effective at gauging someone’s true character – particularly a perfect stranger on the internet. You might be labeled a racist, a sexist, or a misogynist – but those words arguably hold a vastly different meaning compared to what they used to, and for the person who does hold those convictions, it makes no difference whatsoever to be called them. We use qualifying language to buttress our lived experience or to insert ourselves in someone’s thought or opinion, shutting down their anecdotal logic or attempting to “own” them. But even after we log off, that person will still hold their opinion as their own, and our qualifier will probably have little to no effect on changing their mind, especially on a controversial issue. All we’ve done is use a genuinely traumatic memory to garner attention, or even fabricate one to knock someone who we will never know down a few pegs.

Let’s Reintroduce Ourselves to Nuance

In a heavily politicized culture where nearly every issue has sides and is evidence of divisiveness, there can only be black and white perspectives on things. Nuance or a gray area is completely absent from the majority of online interactions, which is why we increasingly see viral tweets meant to stir up engagement instead of authentic discussion and why people constantly feel offended. 

It is possible to exist in the middle of things, but it’s not conducive to online arguments. What’s even more disturbing is that the lines between fact and opinion have become blurred, which further enables qualifying language. No one can disagree on something if it is “your” truth, even though that perspective isn’t an objective fact but simply your lived experience.

All of this has led to our chronic obsession with social media and with ourselves. We have scientific proof (not opinion) that social media addiction leads to increased levels of narcissism, but we may think we’re doing everyone online a favor by sharing our experience. We are no longer just one of the human race. We are the main character of the story, and that kind of attitude is dangerous in its encouragement of self-aggrandizement. We may believe that we’re special, from having been told so by everyone around us, and we may believe that our qualifying experiences, knowledge, or expertise on paper grants us a particular dispensation to comment on things the rest of the rabble isn’t entitled to. But in reality, we are no one special.

Closing Thoughts

You can become addicted to winning online arguments or owning your mortal enemy on X (formerly, Twitter). Does any of that have any significance in real life though? Most likely not. Our lived experiences, especially our traumatic ones, are evidence that we’ve survived the most terrible things life can throw at us, but that doesn’t mean they need to be brought up in every comment section or argument.

Likewise, our degrees and job title are evidence of challenging, hard work and years spent accruing knowledge on something we’re passionate about. But if someone is offering their opinion, our diplomas don’t need to be trotted out as a way to silence them. Nuance still exists whether we ignore it or not, but if we want to have genuine, engaging discussions on contentious topics, it’s up to us to remember that there’s probably a gray area between our opinion and someone else’s.

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