Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On Being an Authority


When I was in high school, it wasn't "cool" to be smart. I was a 4.0 student, nerdy, a bit of a teacher's pet. I read a lot, so I knew plenty about lots of different subjects. I liked answering questions in class, because I felt good about being the one with the answers. Not many other people actually seemed to want to answer them, so why not? One day in English class, after answering several of the teacher's questions, the girl in front of me turned around and said "ugh, you're such a know-it-all!" And I don't think I raised my hand in that class very often after that. Being smart, knowing what you're talking about, wasn't acceptable, apparently.

But it's not just that people don't want to offer any answers: it's the way they give them. Like Taylor Mali says, many of our statements are laced with invisible questions, because no one seems sure of themselves anymore. And seriously, if I hear someone say "this is just my opinion and I could be wrong but..." one more time, I'm going to scream. Being wrong is not some kind of crime, but we seem to have this irrational fear of it-- thus we must declare it in advance. Being right is not some kind of crime, but we're afraid of it-- thus we must never act as if we're sure. After all, it's they that speak with conviction who we roll our eyes at, as if it's smarmy, nerdy, arrogant.

Confidence is not always arrogance.

Since when did the majority of people decide that they they need to question even their own intuitions to fit in? Since when did it become okay to condition people to harbor unfounded doubts concerning their own intellectual value? It's bullshit, people. It's absolute, utter fucking bullshit.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote "[s]peak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today." It's a tiny bit out of context, because what he's really talking about is our right to be inconsistent, but it also speaks to our right to believe we know what we're talking about, without apologies.

One of the things that is simultaneously incredibly annoying and saddening is the shyness I see my peers display when it comes to sharing their own thoughts. No one offers real answers these days. People say "well, from my reading of the text, and this is probably wrong, Dorian Grey seems like he could possibly be a total hottie. I dunno. Yeah." And then you shut your mouth and listen to the professor blather because the professor is very intelligent and educated and always right; he has a piece of paper to show it.

You know how authorities like professors get to be authorities? By asserting their own opinions. They research and develop opinions and back them. Your professor was not born with the answers. Your professor decided he had the answers and proved it. You have the same ability to do that in every single aspect of your life. Just because someone else has been doing it longer doesn't mean that he is any more correct.

Your mind is valuable. You're smart-- and that's cool. You are an authority on what you believe, what you know to be true, and you shouldn't second-guess yourself just because someone might disagree with you or think you're being a know-it-all. The truth of the matter is, few people would get anywhere important without speaking with conviction. There would be no professors, no scientists, no journalists, no doctors, no lawyers, no-- dare I say it-- politicians.

If I could ban all those nasty "I thinks" and "I might be wrongs" I would. I would throw those phrases and all their kin out of the English language.

And, no, I don't think that would be a good idea, I know it.


Do you find it annoying when other people seem "too" sure of themselves? Not sure enough? Do you speak with conviction?

14 comments:

julialuckett said...

this is a great post! very interesting, and I can really relate

Julia
http://julialuckett.wordpress.com

Allison said...

This is *such* a relevant post for me right now! I have this weird emotion dichotomy going on between enjoying the fact that I am an interactive learner who speaks up a lot and takes leadership roles in my college classes and the background feeling that for some reason I shouldn't be doing that. Sometimes I even make a conscious decision to shut up for a while and let someone else answer the questions or lead the discussion and all that results is crickets-- it makes me wonder if they are quiet because they expect me to speak up next or if they would still be such sacks of potatoes even if I weren't there.

I wonder if I am annoying; but if I am considered annoying, is it because of the *way* I go about things or that I go about them? Do people want to just sit in silence during class and be talked at all the time?

Rachael said...

My favorite professor not only had us call him by his first name (he was, as far as I know, the only one on campus who did, everyone else was Doctor or Professor...I went to a small, really conservative college), but also banned the phrases "I could be wrong" and it's variations AND "you're wrong". We could disagree, no one was ever wrong. They might be factually incorrect, in which case we freely corrected, but we did so without telling them they were wrong. It was refreshing, especially I was constantly told I was wrong because of my opinions everywhere outside his classes and his office.

Like Allison, I also don't understand the cricket phenomenon in the classroom. I talk too much in all situations, as do many people I associate with, but put us in a group setting with a defined leader and I'm the only one besides the leader who talks. It's aggravating, because then I feel conflicted as to whether I should just shut up and let the leader lead or if I should talk more to counteract the silence.

Kim and Roxanne said...

That was a great post! You are right about being people being afraid of being wrong. I really enjoyed reading this!

Cara said...

This is a great post....I totally agree. People should be proud of their knowledge and opinions and others should want to learn from them rather than dismiss them as nerds and know it alls. Another thing that should be banned: making your sentences go up at the end so your opinion sounds like a question rather than a statement.

Leia said...

I think I'm just like you ;)

ejessop said...

Terrific post! I've been catching in myself the tendency to preface the occasional statement with "and I could be completely wrong, but..." It's frustrating and, I think, makes me come off as less self-confident.

There's also the interesting thing that happens where people don't talk due to the opposite reason: it's not cool to be WRONG, either. I've especially felt this as a woman in technology--fearful of answering in a class full of men lest I give the wrong answer and confirm anyone's beliefs about women's abilities in computer science. And then the utter silence in the class gets to me and I answer anyway, since none of them are going to...

Jessica said...

Rock the fuck on!

Zmaga said...

I really like this post, despite the fact that I am sometimes one of those "I might be wrong" types, but I wouldn't want anyone to think that I think that my opinion is the only right answer. But I find myself not saying answers, even if I know they're "good enough" just because I'm afraid.

Vanessa said...

I'm really glad this went over so well :) Thanks, guys! Love you!

Greta said...

The first paragraph is about me. I am sure of it. Are we the same person?
No, seriously, it's such a shame that it is not accepted to know stuff. People play dumb because that's simpler than being smart and proud of it. Such. A. Shame.
You're good, Vanessa. Really, really good.

Jem said...

this is such a great post and something which deffently pertains to my life. just today i was in my government class and no one seemed to want to answer the questions which my teacher would ask us. i really hate the "cricket" feeling that often happens, so a lot of the times i answer the questions. i'm not always right, but i like that atleast i try compaired to others who seem not to care at all. so lately i've been feeling a bit "Hermione Granger" like, always with my hand in the air! its nice to know that i'm not alone with this feeling though! :)

LPC said...

This is the one really good part of being over 50. You just realize that what you know, you know.

Rachel Elizabeth said...

I am pretty sure you wrote this post about me. I love that your blog is based on content that matters. Yay for being smart!

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