Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Dangerous Amateurs

Not all amateurs are a problem.

I live in a small town  world, and much of the community's important work is done by amateurs. Most of our major local organizations are run by amateurs, and our elected officials are all folks with a real day job-- there's no real money in being a professional politician on the local level.

I have been one kind of amateur or another most of my adult life. My actual training is to be a high school English teachers, but I have been a radio dj, church choir director, technical stage manager, band director, graphic artist, photographer, musician, all-around theater guy, and writer/fake journalist. I always knew I would be a generalist, so I grabbed some coursework here and there to back some of these jobs up, but mostly in these pursuits I am an untrained amateur.

My saving(ish) grace is that I know what I don't know, and I know there are professionals out there from whom I can learn. Before I take on a responsibility, I do my homework, read up, study up, talk to people who are pros, watch them work and learn from them. And in a community like mine, there are plenty of people like me around. We backstop each other as well.

But there are other types of amateurs in the world. More problematic. More dangerous.

It is one thing to know you lack the professional expertise, the trained knowledge for a particular field. It is another thing to believe that no such body of knowledge exists, or that any such knowledge and expertise is unimportant as long you are, you know, really interested in whatever field we're talking about.

These are the folks who figure that since they occasionally eat at a restaurant, and they like food, well, they're qualified to open a restaurant. These are the folks who figure that public speaking is just standing up and flapping your gums for a while (usually a really long while). These are the people who feel that since they have seen performers they like on tv, they know more than enough stagecraft to direct live performers. These are the people who figure they're smart enough to run a country just because they think so. These are the people who are sure they are just as smart as those fancy-pants climate scientists or those doctors with all their vaccination baloney. These are the people who have been fortunate to find success in one area and who therefor conclude they possess all-encompassing wisdom.

And of course these are the people who believe they know more than enough to open a school, run a school, create education policy for a state or nation because, you know, they went to school once.

Sometimes they're honestly ignorant. They really don't know what they don't know, have no idea that there's more to an endeavor than meets the eye. Sometimes they are proudly, aggressively ignorant; they know there are supposedly experts, people who claim to Know Stuff, but the proudly ignorant amateur is sure that expertise is a scam, a con being run by people who want to hold onto power. The proudly ignorant amateur is certain he's smarter than all those guys.

These dangerous amateurs make a mess, both by deliberately destroying structures that have been carefully built over time and by stupidly breaking what they don't understand. Eventually they may emerge from the rubble to make wise pronouncements like "It's hard to educate people trapped in poverty" or "Health care is complicated" or "I have discovered that water is wet."

There is nothing wrong with venturing into new areas with an awareness of what you don't know, and a determination to fill in the blanks. But there is danger in amateurs who don't know what they don't know, and even more danger in amateurs who believe there's nothing they don't know that's worth knowing, who brandish their ignorance like a club and their privilege like a battle ax. When these dangerous amateurs grab the reins of power, we are all in for a bad ride.

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