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This depiction of a Greek symposium depicts what many American workers think about experts. Spending days in idle talk while living off their labor.

What Do We Mean by “Idiot?”

Ascendant idiocracy could mean catastrophe or opportunity

(Consider this a draft and not a finished thought)

It’s interesting to note the origins of the word “idiot,” which come from the Greek word idios which literally means “one’s own.” Idios was a metaphor for people who were incapable of engaging in the public arena because they did not educate themselves. In other word, laborers, who would not have had the time or resources to pursue the education and participate in the symposiums that defined Athenian democracy and Greek public life.

It doesn’t mean their opinions were wrong, but that they weren’t valued.

I can think of the example of my first wife’s father, who started with nothing and ended up supervising Michigan parks in the Upper Pennensula. He railed against decisions made in Lansing, by “experts” in forestry with doctrates and no experience working on the lands they supervised. He loved to talk about a conference where he was forced to listen to a plan (already adopted and delivered to him to implement) described while the expert referred to a map that was upside down. He had to interrupt the speaker and ask if he realized his plan would work only if water flowed uphill.

In the work world supervisors often make decisions based on a macro view of operations, while workers (today’s idios) operate from a micro view. How do we accomplish this task at this minute? As a result, management decisions often contradict the realities of day-to-day operations (much as the laws of physics break down at the quantum level).

Because their input on day-to-day operations is often dismissed, forcing them to work harder at their job or produce what they believe to be inferior results, workers mistrust management’s decisions, and, by analogy, the opinions of experts who know nothing of life in their town on their street.

When an expert predicts that a tax increase will lead to improved roads, the person who pays taxes expects the pot hole in front of his house to be fixed. He can’t see the improvement in roads across the state or city. S/he knows only that his road remains unprepared, the stop sign that would prevent commuters from speeding past his house in a shortcut to the highway isn’t installed, and his neighbor’s son spent six weeks in the hospital after one of those speeding drivers hit his bicycle and wasn’t punished by the law.

No one, neither the home owner or the expert can follow complex web of interactions between the assessment of taxes and road repair and maintenance on this particular street. When the expert says “fiscal policy dictates developing a structure to evaluate and deliver necessary services” instead of “taxes won’t fix every pothole in every road, but traffic across the city will improve,” he speaks in Greek to many homeowners worried about the streets they drive every day.

In the past workers with high school degrees had no voice in public policy. We gave them a free Internet which leveled the playing field. The idios is no longer a private person but a public one with her own Facebook feed, blog and followers on Twitter.

If we use the term “idiocracy” to mean “stupid people run the world,” we misunderstand the situation. It does feel as though the idiots are in control. (As a good friend of mine, Austin Bender, once said, “The stupid train is at the station. Everybody board.”) In reality, the experts and laity talk at cross purposes. The experts speak to the macro world, the idios the quantum one. We speak with different languages to different questions on the same topics.

I’ll confess that I too want to pull my hair and scream “the idiots are in control.” When I do so I try to step back and reflect on the situation and not my gut reaction.

Only when we acknowledge that the ascendant idiocracy is really the rise of the lay class into the sphere of public discussion can weaddress the problem realistically. We stop thinking of working people with limited educations as stupid and learn to speak directly to their concerns with a language they speak. Which is what the President did.

The difference should be that we learn to speak the language of working Americans and address their issues with honesty, open minds and most of all respect.

Written by

Living metaphor. Follow me @stephens_pt.

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