On the multiple follies of insider knowledge, in praise of plural thinking…

Sometimes we have to trust experts: If a doctor sends you for a scan you should probably go. Of course you can seek alternative advice but in the absence of specialized knowledge we are rendered rather passive in the face of threats and fears.

It is arguable that much of political commentary in Northern Ireland is driven by unknowability and the intercession of experts who provide light and insight.

Thus we are told that a problem with Brexit is to do with our inability to future-orient ourselves or recognize the risks of rhetoric: Simple answers to a complex problem that mirrors the inward facing logics of Brexit itself while reproducing the Brexit dynamic of unspoken access to privileged information that somehow evades others.

We are drip fed information by journalists professing to know more than the ubiquitous dogs-in-the-street by their harnessing of contacts and information reiterating homely vacuities.

These gems of received wisdom often contradict actual historical evidence or else collapse in their own internal contradictions – sometimes in the space of a sentence. Thus we were recently informed that Gerry Adams’ relationship with Charlie Haughey ‘is what happened, and that became the start of the peace process that led to the Sinn Féin-SDLP talks of 1987 – which ended in failure in 1988’.

It’s in the interests of politicians to frame themselves as part of that elite whose wisdom lies in knowing what is otherwise unknowable.

Seamus Mallon’s recent commentary on Adams revels in that elitism, unconsciously, perhaps, projecting how he views himself in a portrayal of John Hume’s political leadership in which ‘we see how skilled practitioners of the art of politics clearly define their objectives and remain aloof from all distractions that would essentially weaken their resolve’.

Mallon went on to assert that Hume had to go to the Americans after the Anglo-Irish Agreement because ‘there was nowhere else to go’. Unionists were refusing to engage and the British government refused to face them down.

This is all very plausible until one recalls that the structure of the Anglo-Irish Agreement provided little incentive for unionists to engage when they were essentially rendered agencyless and furthermore, it acted as a disincentive for nationalists to talk to unionists given that they already had Dublin involvement – the Irish dimension – in their pockets.

The point isn’t to argue for one ivory tower or one elite over another. It is to suggest that a huge part of Northern Irish politics takes place in a rather passive fashion: A value-exchange relationship, if you will, in which consumers receive wisdoms and confidences from on high.

Something like Slugger O’Toole doesn’t subvert this; it doesn’t replace one set of knowledges with another. It inverts the relationship by suggesting that knowledge about politics, society and history in Northern Ireland is plural and diverse and non-exclusionary.

There will always be people willing to listen to and repeat the ideas of the elites – particularly, if they are simplistic or reheated folk wisdom. I demarcate elites here in the three fields of representative politics, academics and journalists – the list isn’t exhaustive, exclusive or inclusive.

It is the methodology of claiming (assuming) insider knowledge or privileged status that is key.

The method is priestly in nature and conjures truth and passivity. The measure is not only in what is being said, but rather, more particularly in the (implicit) claim of a right to say it based on special knowledge or insight: ‘No one is exempt from talking rubbish’, wrote Montaigne. ‘The misfortune is to do it solemnly’.