One day, a hair stylist confided in me. “I want to be a psychologist,” she said. “I could be much more useful to my clients if I were – most of them want me to listen, more than anything else.” This woman was not looking for some kind of social promotion to a more prestigious career; she doubted her own ability to console other human beings. She had become convinced that to do this, her humanity was not enough: she had to have the competence of an expert as well. As a human being, she felt inadequate; she needed the authority conferred by officially recognized knowledge. This story is a perfect digest of the evolution of humanity, especially over the last century: There has been an enormous effort to transfer the capacity of the individual without special training – who is no more, nor less, than a human being – into the hands of an expert who, in extreme cases, is everything but a human being.
Such a transfer of capacity in favour of the expert may be quite direct; for example, when we seek out a psychologist to help someone close to us deal with an issue – an illness, a bereavement, a financial loss, for example – when we have always known to turn to one another for consolation about such things. It might also be transferred to a machine, or to an agency run by experts. A good example of transferring capacity to a machine is the growing reliance on GPS guides to help us find our way. In times past, the one who had the best sense of direction became the guide, the leader. The memory for places, which comes naturally, surely has hidden ties with all other forms of memory, and reinforces the identity of the person who possesses it. In the era of the GPS, taxi drivers in big cities won’t deserve the admiration of their passengers as they once did!
The confidence we place in public food security organizations provides a striking illustration of the shifting of capacity to an agency. As is the case in transferring the ability to remember the places, what is at stake here is a vital skill. What could be more important to, or more defining of a culture than food? The relationship between culture and food is so close that in Old French the word “nourishment” (nourriture) signified both food for the soul and food for the body. By what kind of endless discussions and celebrations were they able to improve the quality of their food and drink, to reduce their toxicity, to celebrate their energizing properties? Bitter, sweet, acid, pungent, sour, tender – all of these words by which we know ourselves are connected to the exercise of our responsibility with respect to food. A companion is one with whom we can share our bread (companion, from the Latin cum meaning “with,” and panis meaning “bread” or “food”). Since the start of the twentieth century, this capacity and this know-how has largely devolved onto public sector food security agencies: henceforth we can eat, without fear, all foods approved by the experts. What have we gained by putting ourselves in the hands of experts here, if not an epidemic of obesity likely without parallel in recorded history.
General opinion, nevertheless, is that all of these shifts liberate rather than dispossess, and certainly this is true in many cases. Who would want to spend two hours a day drawing water from a well when it is provided to us by a public service designed and administered by experts? But these are secondary capacities, and we can delegate them to others without impoverishing ourselves.  We have unfortunately become accustomed to thinking that we may just as safely shift other, more vital capacities and essential abilities.
If we really had to, we could build our own homes, but it usually serves our interests to entrust that task to carpenters and plumbers instead. The skills involved are, for us, secondary. The style of the house and its interior decoration are, however, another matter. The sense of beauty is a distinctive quality of human beings, which we cannot abandon without diminishing ourselves. Certainly, we may consult an architect or a decorator, but if we give over all decisions to them, we condemn ourselves to being strangers in our own home. We run the risk that no one, children or visitors, will ever truly feel at home. The bird creates its nest. Living creatures leave their mark on the places and spaces to which they adapt themselves. A love of truth and the consequent desire to know and to pass on one’s learning are other essential qualities; therefore, adults who completely renounce their own capacities in this regard in favour of the experts – experts in the media or experts in schools – effectively mutilate themselves psychologically, reducing thereby their ability to create deep connections with others.
The closer these capacities are to the heart of our humanity, the more we diminish ourselves when we delegate them to the experts. People have always known how to console those who are sick or unhappy, helping them not only to survive their particular troubles, but to be enriched by them. Clearly, in all of these essential activities, they exercise their capacity more or less well; they are dependent on the quality of the culture in which they are rooted. But this capacity, this ability, it is supremely important that they exercise it themselves. They may be awkward about it, but in this order of things, a clumsy gesture that is real, offered by someone actually engaged in the situation, is preferable to the skillful, competent act of an expert who is not really involved. Human beings have always known how to explore the mysteries of love, and they prefer “the timid spontaneity of caresses” to a studied correctness. Such correctness is obviously indispensable when circumstances demand a certain expertise to get something done effectively and without danger to anyone. We don’t expect airline pilots or bus drivers to abandon themselves to spontaneity!
These examples show two worlds that must never be allowed to encroach on one another: the world of cold, mechanical precision and the world of human warmth – in this latter world we are present to others in order to be in communion with them and we “absent” ourselves, that is, we empty ourselves, on behalf of others in order to better serve them, under the shelter of the feelings that infuse our humanity.
If we distinguished these two worlds and avoided the encroachment of the second on the first, we would benefit, both financially and, even more, in terms of belonging. The exercise of the capacities and abilities tied to our humanity enjoy the great advantage of coming for free. At the rate at which transfers of capacity are being effected in this area, no society could afford to provide for its needs. From the moment a baby is conceived – something that is more and more often achieved with the assistances of experts – right up to the last second of medically supervised agony, the number of costly consultations never stops increasing, nor does the list of professionals involved.
If professional services have assumed such importance, it is evidently not only because professionals need to heighten their capacities or because people have no wish except to defer their own abilities to those of the experts. It is also because natural social ties having been broken, in order to avoid the worst a professional must be called in to substitute for the neighbour who is no longer there. It is an infinitely complex question; however, that it is such doesn’t change the fundamental problem. The loss of our essential abilities, whatever the cause, makes of our interior being the equivalent of what remains of a flower after its petals have been plucked: a bud with no interest in itself or in others. How much of a sense of belonging could be sustained in such circumstances? And the loss is more critical and replete with consequences on this level than in relation to finances. The various abilities with which we are endowed simply because we are human beings effectively reinforce our identity and our aptitude for maintaining deep and varied relationships with our own kind. The importance attached to the notion of “empowerment” in the Anglo-Saxon world arises from this fact. To restore the hair stylist’s confidence in her ability to console is to see to it that her salon continues to be a place of genuine belonging. The same may be said of the majority of the small trades where our humanity and our belonging are played out on a daily basis. Caught up in concern for efficiency, if we reduce the waiter or the cashier to the technical aspects of his or her work role, we strip them of their essential capacities, we undermine their integrity, such that a place that might have been convivial becomes merely functional.
When a flower wilts, it loses the colour and colours of its life. To be stripped of our essential capacities and abilities has the same effect on human beings. Happily, it is possible to prevent this wilting: Dialogue. Since the transfer of skills toward experts is inevitable, we can at least take steps to see that it remains only partial, which implies conversation, exchanges among equals. People are, in principle autonomous beings. What could be sadder than their taking medication that does more harm than good simply because they believe they must obey the doctor, to whom they would never dare say what they think or feel? On his or her part, the doctor must establish and maintain the dialogue as that of one equal to another, must help the individuals – note I did not say the “patients” – to maintain, or find anew, their essential capacities and abilities. Since there is no equivalent in French to the word “empowerment”  (and perhaps that’s a good thing), one would say instead that it is necessary to help those who are fragile to retain their colours, which are the signs of their capacities. We cannot give back to living creatures the abilities they have lost; only resilience can do that. What we call empowerment, in these conditions, risks being reduced to adding a prosthesis, leading to an even greater alienation, because we are substituting essential capacities for external enhancements. To escape this trap, we must surround our interior being with the same kind of measures needed by the most fragile plants. We are living creatures. If we cannot find, within ourselves, the requisite resources to console another in a time of trouble or sadness, it is not necessarily because we have forever lost our humanity, it is perhaps because we suffer from a wearing out of our nerves and our emotions, as a result of too much work or stress in an urban environment where the machine constantly imposes its presence and its rhythm. As recent studies have demonstrated yet again, certain urban settings offer a brutal test to the human psyche.
1-Ivan IIich, the writer who has contributed most to the reflection on this subject, would no doubt disagree. He sees a connection, a logical progression from the dispossession of elementary abilities, those we are labeling secondary here, and dispossession of abilities we would consider essential. In the beginning we stop walking, the car now being charged with this function of transport, and we end by not being able to console someone close to us in a time of difficulty. See Ivan Illich, Complete Works, Vol 1, Fayard, Paris 2003.
2-In French, the academic/technical term “autonomisation” is sometimes used.