Tuesday, November 16, 2010

'Oh yeah? Well, tell me something I already know!'

As an addendum to recent posts on free speech and my profession, I want to belabor the obvious by noting that the modern social climate is especially onerous to journalists and would-be authors who are trying to "play it straight." Today's polarized, serve*-the-audience marketplace has an inherent tendency to curtail the free expression of ideas, as editors will not publish (and often will go out of their way to marginalize, if not suppress) content that they think their readers don't want to read. Try to sell Parents magazine an article about how the tiny inadvertent things we do in raising children may damage them forevermore. I'm not saying that that's true or that I believe it to be true; it's just a hypothetical. Ergo, let's suppose for the sake of argument that there's new research strongly suggesting that it's trueor maybe that you've written a personal essay about mistakes you made in raising your own kids that, decades later, still haunt you or show up as crippling personality defects in the kids themselves. No such article will ever see the light of day in Parents. If anything, the magazine will mobilize to counter and/or debunk that research, perhaps in part by publishing another essay that showcases a less pessimistic, more "uplifting" view.

try to get an article in Ms. showing that, in truth, women now have the upper hand over men in terms of career advancement. Won't happen. Even if it's true, it's not allowed to be. Or try to get an article in Esquire or Playboy that has a decidedly anti-male lens on divorce, date rape or some other social currency. The editors will laugh at you, right before they purge your name from their database. Again, they're simply not going to confront or offend their audiences in such a manner.

Of course, the larger point is that we're no longer willing to be offended. By and large, we will not read or seriously consider material that challenges our respective assumptions, world-views, and narcissistic conceptions of our place in that world. Earlier and earlier nowadays, we think we've got it all figured out. We don't want the "two sides" that supposedly exist with any story. We just want the side that confirms our beliefs. And we want it again and again.

Example 1: Let's assume one believes that a nation, especially a relatively well-off one like the U.S., has a formal obligation to care for its poor. That's a basically Leftist argument. At the same time, it also seems true that if you take care of people, to some inevitable degree you make them lazy and dependent; that's just human nature, and it brings us back into Republican territory. So the issue becomes something of a catch-22 whose solution requires a skillful balancing act, not shouted sloganeering.

Example 2: A determinist lens on life (like, say, mine) presupposes that none of us can help the things we do, which obviously absolves even the worst criminal offenders of any kind of personal blame. That's an argument for greater leniency, or at least less judgment, and is more of a fit with the "bleeding-heart liberal" mindset. Yet there's also no denying that even in a determinist framework, corrective action becomes a large part of what impels people to change, to become rehabilitated (or at least to stop committing antisocial acts, if only for fear of further punishment). That's more of a get-tough-on-crime argument and is clearly a better fit with the right-wing agenda.

How many of us are receptive to hearing (and fairly considering) both arguments in these examples?

This is also why I get apoplectic about TV pundits like Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann, who are opposite sides of the same coin. To listen to Beck, nothing good ever happens in liberal America; if Obama were to donate his entire personal fortune to charity, Beck would speculate that he's using counterfeit money. Olbermann is just as bad, if not worse, for he couches his remarks in a kind of smarmy, clannish intellectualism, implying that "really smart people" cannot help but see life through a Leftist lens. Bill Maher
and I love the guy, at least from an entertainment standpointdoes the same thing.

For all of these reasons, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for writers to examine issues thoroughly (and/or get paid well for it). In other words, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to perpetrate what we used to call, in college, "critical thinking." And that's a damn shame.

* which is to say, pander to.


RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, while I wouldn't begin to argue with your assertion that highly polarized opinions have to a great extent replaced reasoned, objective dialog, I believe that a significant portion of the responsibility lies with the very writers who bemoan the degradation of our dialog. Attempt to bring the thesis/antithesis to a point of synthesis, and all too frequently, another writer/spokesperson will mark you as a "flip-flopper," unable to commit to an idea. As a result (or is it the cause?), most writers choose a "side" in an argument and defend their chosen perspective to the death rather than consider anything resembling compromise. Our current political environment shows how well that kind of approach works. We've all seen evidence of the dichotomy, which takes the form of either blindness to one's distortions of the truth or downright hypocrisy.

And yes, it is evident across multiple spectrums, be they political, spiritual, or cultural. We've observed radical religionists whose idea of acceptable - even divinely inspired - behavior bears absolutely no resemblance to their religion's image of a god. By the same token, we've observed self-proclaimed atheists who are no less rabid zealots than the radical religionists they condemn, insisting upon accepting their "beliefs that are not beliefs" with a vehemence no less rabid than that of a would-be suicide bomber.

Similarly, we have the "conservatives" who rail against the "tax & spend, nanny-state" liberals, even as they distribute favors of infinitely greater value to their contributors. The other side of the coin, of course, are the "compassionate" uber-liberals who would level the socioeconomic playing field to the point where there was no game left to play, while still raking in their own treasure and paying lip service to those whom they claim to support.

So long as that "balance" is perceived as weakness, and compromise is perceived as capitulation, the outlets for the expression of ideas will be appropriately marginalized and myopic. And there will always be a throng of writers willing to perpetuate the illusions of either side of an argument, so long as it means a paycheck and some degree of recognition for them.

I would personally prefer that we endeavor to be *reasoned and reasonable* thinkers, rather than *critical* thinkers. The former implies (at least, to me) that one is willing to look for the value in seemingly opposed perspectives, while the latter has too often come to mean that one diligently seeks the weakness in any given idea. Might seem like semantics, or worse, a regression from intelligence into woo, but the fundamental truth about any kind of query/quest/research/debate is that you're most likely to find whatever it is you're looking for. If our endeavors are to be tinged by the potential for self-fulfilling prophecy, wouldn't it be better for us to seek the best possible outcome, rather than focusing our efforts upon seeking the worst of what others have to offer? Not to ignore flaws in another's ideas, mind you, but to relegate the search for those flaws to a less-than-primary objective. To find the answers we need, rather than striving to damn the questions others might ask.

Whew... too much coffee this morning!

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: Look, you do an excellent job of sketching the "pan-cultural" extent of the problem; the mentality infects every precinct of latter-day American life.

I would beg to differ with you about where the ultimate fault resides, however. I don't know how much writing you do (or attempt to do) under your own byline for mainstream publications--which are, of course, the highest-paying publications, and thus the only markets from which a writer can reasonably extract a living wage. But I can tell you as someone who fights that fight on a monthly basis that the markets for what we used to call "think pieces" are just...gone. They've dried up. Take a look at even the great oracles of modern-day thought, e.g. Harper': With occasional exceptions, the magazine has become the house organ of the intellectual Left; that transformation really kicked into gear during the Bush administration and is now complete. The nichification of thinking and the need to tailor one's content to one's likely market base has produced a situation wherein a piece that examines a topic with nuance and depth will be attacked as "formless" and "unfocused." Unless, that is, you want to write it for an airy, 40-page journal with a title like Zephyr of the Ephemeral Unconscious, which probably pays in copies or maybe, maybe 10 cents a word, if you're lucky. Who can live on that?

Or take my case. I can say any damned thing I want here on SHAMblog, but if I wanted to cover similar topics for media that would actually pay me, I'd have to rein myself in and cover subjects in a far more pedestrian, orthodox manner. If you want to demonize conservatives, you can write it for Nation or, usually, The New Republic. If you want to demonize liberals, you can write it for National Review or American Spectator. If you want to write something in the middle, you can write it for no one except yourself, pretty much.

Market forces are simply squeezing out critical thinking. It's that simple. And there's not much we lowly writers can do about it except adapt or perish.

RevRon's Rants said...

I think where we really differ is that you seem to be looking for "fault," where I simply see a cultural phenomenon, in which we all participate.

Our (Connie's and my) focus as writers has never been upon the world of periodicals; we primarily do books, along with ancillary and promotional elements for our clients. We've all seen how the same kind of topic/viewpoint selectivity you describe has literally taken over the traditional publishing model - "write what the market has already displayed a preference for, or we won't look at it." And on the morning and the evening of the eighth day, he created self-publishing, and saw that it was chaotic...

One-time patrons of the literary arts and promoters of progressive thought have been edged out by CFO's, and acquisitions editors have been taught to look to the bottom line, rather than the copy. The resulting flight toward greater democratization of publishing has created a virtual mountain of poorly written and ill-thought-out material. Hopefully, there is enough cream to rise to the top.

The great magazines of the past have suffered the same fate as the trade publishers. No longer led by "thinkers," their priorities have been established by accountants and financial analysts, and they serve the solitary master of demographics. Just as the evolution of traditional publishers has given rise to the self-publishers, so has the evolution of the periodical industry given rise to bloggers. And like the self-publishing industry has begat a lot of highly democratized crap, so has the blogoverse given rise to a flood of poorly written and ill-conceived swill.

The whole point is that we can bemoan what has happened to the world we knew, or we can accept that it has changed and redirect our own efforts to make the best of those changes. Sure, it's tougher to earn a living. When I started freelancing for the oil industry, it seemed that there was a contest to see who could throw the most money at the creative weirdos who wrote the ad copy. Those days are passed. I wish they weren't, but ... well, I won't launch into my standard Vonnegut treatise on wishes. :-)

Tyro said...


I agree with your central thesis that many issues are nuanced and require a balancing act. Not all issues are like this but many political ones are.

But holy crap, you so lost me on the Olberman is worse than Beck argument! Maybe Olberman is smarmy but Beck is batshit insane and seems to be openly contemptuous of the truth and reality in general. He happily espouses racism, anti-intellectualism, demagoguery and whatever kooky ideas will get him more air time. Some people say that the left does some fear-mongering but Beck is actually a spokesman for this gold coin scam which prey on the poor, ignorant and scared by lying to them in order to drum up more fear. I have said that fear can be a useful thing to harness but when it comes from intentional lies that's crossing a very clear line.

So yes, let's all look for nuance and see that simplistic, absolutist ideas may not always work out but this doesn't mean that both sides on an issue must be equally wrong.

Incidentally, I think that many newspaper & magazine writers try too hard to present false balance and drum up false controversies. Where there is scientific fact or an overwhelming preponderance of evidence, it is deceptive even lying to present both sides as if they are equally valid. This happens in politics, health, and even science reporting when a decent reporter should be trying to illuminate by presenting facts instead of hiding behind quotes from some of the lunatic fringe.

Steve Salerno said...

"Ty": You remind me of something Bill Maher said on his show just last week: that "even-handedness" doesn't mean that insane/wacko/lunatic-fringe ideas need to be put on an equal standing with documentable truth. I agree with you that Olbermann isn't as far-out-crazoid as Beck; that said, I find him just as objectionable in his own way, with his nonstop sarcasm and--especially--his near-constant implication that anyone with half a brain can't possibly be a conservative. That's precisely the kind of rhetoric that leaves no room for compromise.

Jenny said...

Well, I came here to comment on one thing and another one pops up. So be it. The phrase "false balance" caught my attention because I was frustrated by an instance of it recently in the local (Dallas) paper. A regular columnist was writing about the new Bush library here and said something like, "he is one of us." I bristled and thought, just which "us" is he talking about? Living in the same neighborhood or city doesn't automatically make people allies. (Some of the racist comments I've heard by people on my block come to mind, things spoken in a conspiratorial "you know what I mean" way.) But the gist of that piece of writing was to say, basically, let's hope the Bush library really becomes a place where true debate and dialogue is practiced. So, it seemed a partisan person was encouraging nonpartisan participation. I don't know, something about the language used just seemed like the guy was currying favor with a crowd called "us" while the rest of us felt like he was talking to someone else.

Okay, that was the tangent. Now here is the other thing I wanted to mention, about what dialogue means and how it differs from other types of communication. A dialogue-friendly conversation has a center, not sides. "It is a way of taking the energy out of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before. It lifts us out of polarization and into a greater common sense, and is thereby a means for accessing the intelligence and coordinated power of groups of people." (From Dialogue and the art of thinking together, by William Isaacs)

Tyro said...

Steve - I'm of the opinion that implying that reason and intelligence should guide you to an opinion (even if it's wrong) is far, far better than implying that anyone who disagrees with you are Nazis. Some in-group flattery is objectionable but perhaps excusable but Beck takes it to crazy extremes and that isn't excusable and it certainly isn't comparable.

Mike said...

Hi Steve. Mike Z here. You know I write for mainstream mags as well and the fight for pages is intense. In essence, you have to pitch ideas that are more attractive than all the other ideas being pitched. And that means appealing (pandering?) to readership. There's a palpable terror in editors' offices that a subscriber may cancel because he/she isn't getting what they've paid for. I won't name names in the following example, but a big mag I write for recently published a story with a very provocative title. So cool was this title, it made me instantly wish I'd written the piece. I'm thinking, "Finally, something with teeth." So I dig in and read it. And with each passing paragraph I go from excitement to dissappointment to utter rage at how watered-down, expected, and in the end pandering and useless the story actually was. Now...I know the guys behind this story. And I know they work from a position of fear (of making waves, of losing readers, revenue, and eventually their jobs). And I now find myself in the morally ambiguous position of depending on a magazine I can't bear to read for income. How did I end up HERE? (I know how -- I was too stupid to go for a law degree). So is it nobler to gut out mediocrity to support your family, or maintain your integrity and/or sanity by doing what you believe (and losing your house)? It's funny: Writers have to compromise every day to remain writers; readers never have to compromise a thing.

Steve Salerno said...

Mike: Thanks for adding yet another valuable angle that too often gets forgotten in all this theoretical moralizing: the pragmatic one. Still, you're being victimized by the same phenomenon I describe in the piece: the fight for market share/subscriber base/newsstand reach.

It's funny, too: Notwithstanding all the gloom and doom about how poorly the U.S. is doing in the global race for educational supremacy, there's no question that we live in highly literate times, at least based on stats: More people are attending college than ever before (70% of HS graduates, an all-time high, in 2009). And yet we seem increasingly disinclined to keep learning--to keep an open mind about life. We simply don't want our personal "givens" challenged and don't want to be confronted with uncomfortable facts, to the extent that we'll even pick news oulets (Fox vs. MSNBC, the NY Times vs. the WSJ) that cater to our respective mindsets. I say it once more: This is terribly sad to me, especially as someone who began writing back in the early 1980s, when consumers trusted magazine editors to "present me with the info I need to make informed decisions."

Dimension Skipper said...

On the subject of the business side of writing fiction John Scalzi has done what ended up becoming a mini-series of blog posts which may or may not be of interest to you, Steve (or others). Just thought I'd toss the links in here in case they are:

The Man in the Frey Flannel Suit
(Nov 13)

An Open Letter to MFA Writing Programs (and Their Students)
(Nov 15)

MFA Programs and Commercial Publishing
(Nov 17)

Dimension Skipper said...

(Sorry, I know this is way off the original topic, but I didn't know where else to stick it. And please don't make any creative suggestions either!)

More on the business of writing, but in a very specialized sham way which I think you will find both interesting and nauseating at the same time. This is the sort of article that I so desperately want to disbelieve (or believe that it's greatly exaggerated), and yet I just don't know...

The Shadow Scholar: The man who writes your students' papers tells his story
By "Ed Dante" (pseudonym) at The Chronicle (of Higher Education)
November 12, 2010

I actually found the link to it in this much shorter piece commenting on one particular aspect of the long article...

Recommended Reading: The Shadow Scholar
By Sascha Vongehr in his 'Alpha Meme' column at Science 2.0
November 20, 2010

I guess I can believe that it happens, but a company of 50 people or so churning these things out? Is that a legal business, reporting wages to the government and everything? With maybe healthcare benefits? Or is it as illicit as, say, drug dealing? I strongly suspect it's all under the table, but with a little creative paperwork and bookkeeping, I don't know. If anyone can enlighten me, I'm just curious.

Silly me, what school learnin' I done was slogged threw by my own self. Uv corse I dont no this sorted thing existed then neither.

Dimension Skipper said...

P.S. There are almost 500 comments under that Chronicle piece by "Ed Dante." I only skimmed a few here and there, but it looked like there could be some interesting points being made if anyone has the time and interest to browse.

Dimension Skipper said...

Not really on topic, but in keeping at least with the post title I thought this was interestingly skimmable re things we as humans "knew" for so long, except maybe not...

Thaler's Question
By Richard Thaler (Nov 23 at Edge.org)

I found out about it through this shorter piece highlighting some bits...

Big Scientists Pick Big Science’s Biggest Mistakes
By Jennifer Welsh (Nov 23 at Discover Magazine)

Just seemed like it might be up a deterministic SHAMblogger's (and some SHAMbloggees') skeptical alley.

Happy Thanksgiving (*) to all U.S. citizens who lurk here, including our gracious host.

Safe travels to those who travel. Safe eating to those who eat.

(*) Assuming you even acknowledge the holiday in any sort of traditional sense of giving thanks to some sort of deistic Creator(s) / Controller(s) / Instigator(s) of our universe and lives, but such is not the explicit intent of my wish and it should not be taken as an insinuation of belief on my part in YOUR beliefs along such lines.


Dimension Skipper said...

Don't know why, but lately I seem to be coming across lots of things like this which seem tangentially SHAMbloggy...

Another item about something specific we "know" and yet don't really, thus possibly spawning unintended or even oppositely intended consequences:

Scared Straight? Not Really
By Jamie Hale at PsychCentral (Nov 26, 2010

On a really "out there" personal note, these are the sorts of things that erode my general trust in..., well, everything. All of these things we "know" are "known" because they seem right and get repeated over and over and over both in the media and as part of peoples' own assumptions and life philosophies. People go around making casually declarative statements about many things as if there simply can be no denying the Truth they are spouting and yet they have no clue as to where it comes from.

This air of personal doubt about almost everything I'm told may start with hyperbole and sensationalism in commercials (which for me render 99.9999% of commercials void of any meaningful relevant info), but now it permeates everyday non-sensationalistic life even in very mundane matters. And it's much worse imo where people surround themselves with like-minded friends and thus a lot of mutual patting of backs occurs, fueled by much "preaching to the choir" generating positive feedback.

Then when, against all odds, someone finally dares to disagree (even a little bit) that's when the name-calling and vitriol reflexively comes out, rather than actually listening to an alternative viewpoint to consider whether there might be something to it.

Hmmm... Or perhaps that's all just a turkey-induced delusion on my part. Not sure if any of that even makes much sense or if I'm expressing it right. Oh well.

Tyro said...

Funny story confirming Steve's argument that Beck is in no hurry to appeal to intelligent (or sceptical) viewers: http://www.boingboing.net/2010/11/26/glenn-beck-believes.html