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Why we reject the experts who don't fit our stereotypes

Contemporary attitude to expertise is a resistance to other people having power. But sometimes, you can’t “just know”. Sometimes your speech needs therapy

Tamil movie ‘7aum Arivu’ is an exact reflection of a contemporary attitude to expertise. 
Tamil movie ‘7aum Arivu’ is an exact reflection of a contemporary attitude to expertise. 

Online school is where parents go to learn about the world. Instead of the quick weird interaction outside the school, where you participate in shaming or being shamed, you can see straight into other people’s homes for the full 45 minutes that free Zoom permits. Recently, my friend Neha was witness to an interaction online. One mother asked the teacher in a school Zoom meeting about her four-year-old, who is dealing with a severe speech delay. The child had been in speech therapy for months and the mother wanted the teacher to have this information. This prompted a side question from a father who wanted to know whether his three-year-old should go to a therapist because he was not speaking too many words.

Parent No.1 suggested a single visit to a speech therapist could give them an assessment and then they wouldn’t have to listen to every family member’s opinion (“boys speak late.” “Put some honey on his tongue.”). Parent No.2 then made this astonishing statement: “I don’t listen to other people’s opinions. I don’t want to go to a therapist. I just want to know.” Parent No.1’s face shut down like a shop shutter.

I like to call this the 7aum Arivu theory of expertise. If you have heard me quote from this seminal (in every sense of that word) work before, it’s because this 2011 Tamil movie is so profound and packed with meaning. In 7aum Arivu, aka the Seventh Sense, the Chinese create a pandemic in India, starting in Chennai, when a Chinese agent provocateur deliberately infects a dog with a dangerous virus.

This movie tells us that an ancient Pallava king had taught the Chinese karate. This king was full of biomedical knowledge. So now the only antidote to the pandemic lies in activating the DNA of the Pallava king in one of his descendants. In his blood lies not an antigen but actual knowledge. Cue scientist with a distinct nativist bent, Shruti Haasan, chasing the descendant, Suriya, a circus performer, with a gleam of determination in her eyes.

I love 7aum Arivu for so many things but mostly because it is an exact reflection of a contemporary attitude to expertise. The poet Kabir said, “Kasturi kundal base, mrag dhundhat ban mahi”, a superb metaphor for the person looking for wisdom everywhere when it lay inside her all along. Kabir’s musk deer metaphor did not anticipate the human gazing into his navel and arriving at the wisdom that lime juice would cure corona. He did not arrive at a time when that man in Neha’s parent group wanted to deal with speech delay by just knowing.

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Some of the distrust of institutions has come from traditional hierarchies. The wellness movement in the West grew from an understanding of how little conventional biomedicine offers women’s health—mind and body. But so much of this kind of approach to expertise is a resistance to other people having power and abilities. Which is why the same five people are on TV news panels talking about everything from nuclear war to epidemics to primary school education.

Sometimes it’s an imagination shaped from caste—hence the descendant of the Pallava king who is destined to save us all from Dong Lee’s pandemic. Sometimes it’s only because you are a man. Like my father’s badminton partner in the late 1980s who mused aloud that he should be able to take on Steffi Graf (yes, I said badminton). Or the man who called my therapist friend and asked her if she thought “she could match his psychological level”. She said it was unlikely and said bye-bye. Therapists are frequently confronted by reluctant clients convinced they can always “fool the shrink”. Funnily, the clients of dietitians are much more likely to believe that they have X-ray vision and can see every last hastily eaten bite. A famous dietitian once told me in a characteristically entertaining generalisation that her women clients from north India were most likely to call and “confess” and then get upset if she didn’t scold them. How else were they to know she was devoted to the cause of their betterment?

For many people, it is inconceivable that the person who doesn’t scold or wear power in a familiar way is an expert in something. It is difficult for them to look at a young woman and imagine she has spent the last seven years studying the history of pensions or that the young man in sunglasses should get full credit for the weight of Arivu he brings to his songwriting.

But all knowledge is not 7aum Arivu sitting in your DNA waiting for you to descend from your circus elephant. You can’t “just know”. Sometimes your speech needs therapy.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.

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