The age of self-proclamation
We live in an age when people proclaim themselves to be something, and without any substantial basis to support their claim, actually get away with it.
There are self-proclaimed medical specialists who, on the basis of their supposed expertise, claim to know the cure for cancer, the power of some fruit or vegetable, the truth of a vaccinated child’s death.
There are self-proclaimed influencers who, on the basis of their supposed social media reach, peddle their influence to resorts and restaurants, demanding free trips, free rides on inaugural flights and free smartphones with which to take selfies of their self-proclaimed Instagrammable selves.
Then there are self-proclaimed scholars who, on the basis of nonexistent diplomas, claim various universities as their alma mater and, despite being disowned by their supposed institutions, continue to use their fake academic capital. Others tout their supposed international credentials to divine the nature of our culture and pontificate about the crises of our time.
There are even self-proclaimed poor and marginalized who, by virtue of their supposed victimhood, lay claim to public sympathy or office, holding up a kulambo or eating pandesal as proof of their austerity — or showing a DNA test as proof of their indigenousness.
And, of course, there are self-proclaimed political leaders who, despite their clear biases, declare themselves to be the higher ground or the middle ground, above the fray, down the earth, out of the box: the very voices of reason.
Some forms of self-proclamation are generally harmless. We leave them be if tourists fancy themselves as travelers, hobbyists connoisseurs, pundits thought leaders, Star Wars fans Jedi. Who are we to prevent people from calling themselves “honorable”? Self-proclamation, to be clear, is different from self-identification: When people identify as belonging to a certain ethnicity, gender, religion, to a large extent we have to respect their autonomy.
Moreover, there may be some cases where what would appear as self-proclamation is actually a group-proclaimed authority dismissing an outsider’s legitimate claims. To agree that they are “self-proclaimed” is to contribute to their unjust exclusion.
But in many instances, self-proclamation poses a danger, because the people who resort to it are often untethered to the commitments of the position they claim to hold. People who claim to be leaders, for instance, whether of students, farmers or indigenous peoples, make full use of their supposed identities’ symbolic capital, but do not really act on the implications of “leadership.”
Self-proclamation affects everyone: When “medical experts” spread hysteria about vaccines, they undermine the credibility of the entire medical profession and, more importantly, endanger the lives of the public. Studies have shown that self-proclaimed experts are more vulnerable to the illusion of knowledge and are more likely to fall for false claims, thereby also impeding their growth.
In light of the dangers of self-proclamation, the challenge is to be critical of people’s claims to authority, by holding them to the standards of the position they claim to hold. If they are indeed academics, are they committed to evidence? If they are indeed medical experts, are they committed to “do no harm”? And if they are leaders, are they committed to their constituencies?
This call for vigilance applies to everyone, but is particularly salient for institutions like the media. Social media following—a major factor in the rise of self-proclamation today
—is a poor substitute for credibility. But all too often, media accepts it uncritically, unwittingly legitimizing people’s self-proclamations.
Finally, in the spirit of reflexivity, we should also interrogate the claims that we make for ourselves — and the prejudice we may hold for others. Even if we have valid credentials and truly belong to the groups we identify with, surely we can draw inspiration from Socrates whose only claim to wisdom lies in these words: “I know that I know nothing.”
Indeed, regardless of our positions and backgrounds, we can all profit from a sense of humility — one that we will never learn from the self-proclaimed children of god.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.