I spend a lot of time on the Internet reading people’s opinions about things going on in the world, whether it’s some of my favorite bloggers in the blogroll on the sidebar, or some articles featured on Real Clear Politics, or a scathing editorial that somehow slips into the Google News feed. Some of these commentators have their own websites, but many of them have syndicated columns in major newspapers – I read Paul Krugman’s posts from the New York Times website, or Ezra Klein’s from the Washington Post.
The most popular of these commentators have the privilege of having their posts read by thousands if not millions of people every day. You might expect these famous editorialists to be full of remarkable insight, but I often finish an opinion piece with disappointment, closing my tab in frustration. Here are the 3 ways that commentators irritate me the most:
1. Partial Truth. We live in a complicated world. Fortunately, the Internet is full of information to help us make sense of everything. Unfortunately, there’s so much information that it’s impossible to grasp it all. As a result, it’s very easy to focus on the part of the information that fits our pre-conceived notions about a topic. I doubt that it’s usually intentional, but commentators do this all the time. Somebody rants about Texas’s unemployment rate not looking very good, with a bunch of facts and figures, and somebody else raves about Texas’s jobs numbers actually looking incredible, with a bunch of other facts and figures. When it comes to millionaires paying taxes, somebody says they disappear when there’s a recession and somebody else says they’re missing the point (and I say they’re missing the point). From global warming to raids on guitar companies, everybody’s got plenty of facts to throw out, but it’s hard to know if those facts are the important ones, or what context might be missing. And when you do know enough about something to know that a commentator is leaving out some very important parts of a story, it lessens the credibility you give to other arguments the commentator makes about stuff you don’t know much about, regardless of what partial facts he or she may have to support it.
2. Arrogance. The proliferation of partial truths wouldn’t be so bad if everyone was humble about it, and we could work together to combine our partial truths for a more truthful whole. But all too often partial truths are compounded by terrible arrogance. Columnists confidently assert that their partial truths prove something beyond a shadow of a doubt. (Hurricane Irene IS proof of Global Warming! Broken windows DO increase wealth! And anybody who disagrees with me IS AN ARROGANT TOOL who is willfully ignorant of all logic and reason! They’re lazy and they hate successful people. Or they’re racist. Or whatever. I’M RIGHT.) This arrogance is probably one of the biggest things that turns people off to political discussions of any kind.
3. Vacuous Conjecturing. Even the proliferation of partial truths compounded by arrogance wouldn’t be so bad if commentators merely arrogantly stated their opinions about things that were happening. Once you learn to recognize the arrogance you can see through it, pick through the different facts presented by the different points of view, and often get a feel if one is closer to the truth than the other. But commentators don’t just state their opinions about things that are happening. Their partial truth and arrogance leads to an endless barrage of inane and vacuous conjecturing about things that are going to happen in the future, and they will happen because my arrogant interpretation of my partial truths proves it beyond all doubt. Whenever anything happens everyone feels like they’re qualified to tell the world exactly what it means for the future.
That’s why we’re treated to such nonsense as the post-2008-election analysis about a coming “permanent Democratic majority,” and the post-2010-election analysis about how long the Republicans might keep a majority in the House. Self-appointed prophets see an impending collapse of the country brought about by either the Tea Party on one side or the “drunken sailor” spending of the government on the other. Instead of pervasive discussion about the policy proposals of various presidential candidates, we are treated to phony meta-analysis about who is or is not electable, based on paragraph after paragraph of Gallup poll result drill-downs or interesting historical anecdotes. And after a few years of watching these copious conjectures from overconfident commentators collapse into complete irrelevance, I read new conjectures and feel like I am completely wasting my time by taking in more. All I learn is that so-and-so thinks such-and-such group of people will do such-and-such, but why should I care any more what they think about the future than they would care what I think when we both may end up being wrong anyway?
All of these thoughts bring me back to the reason commentators exist in the first place. I think people listen to commentators – whether from a newspaper, talk radio, an op-ed column, or a blog – because they expect the commentators to add value to their understanding of the world. In our modern division of labor and interests, the average person may read the news but not have time to get to the bottom of everything or know what’s most important out of all the facts available to him, and he may seek out a commentator’s opinion on something because presumably that person has gathered enough facts and simmered them with enough honest thinking to form a qualified opinion about the topic at hand. But when these opinions are muddled by partial truths, arrogance, and vacuous conjecture, they lose their value.
I’ve been commentating on the world since I first learned about blogging sofware, and I’ve been guilty of all three of these mistakes. About four years ago I wrote a fierce post for a now defunct website expressing my confidence that Barack Obama was going to lose the primaries and become Hillary Clinton’s pick for vice-president, based on the progress of the Democratic primaries at the time, the latest polls, and the insight that I thought I had about what would happen next and why. What value did these assertions have for the dozen or so who read that post? Wouldn’t I have been better off humbly discussing some facts about either of the candidates and what kind of leader I thought that might make him or her, instead of wasting time telling people how I thought the masses were going to vote?
Arrogance is fun. Bold, sensationalist statements have shock value, but it’s a value that fades very quickly for me, and I suspect for many others as well. Every time I add bytes of text to a public server, I try to avoid drawing conclusions from partial truths, speaking arrogantly, or making vacuous conjectures. I don’t always succeed, but I think I’m getting better, and I challenge you to strive for the same. Then maybe, just maybe, we can all make the world a better place.