Why I'm Right and Everybody Else is Wrong
Recently, I’ve been reading lots of Op-Ed pieces, both professionally written and not, and I’ve noticed a trend. It pops up in all sorts of pieces all across the spectrum, and I find it troubling. It’s the arrogant prose that pervades many pieces which reflects the authority with which an author writes. This happens in the New York Times (I’m looking at you, Thomas Friedman), as well as in the Commentator, and I’d like to address this frustrating style as both a reader and a writer. I want to then conjecture as to why I think it might be prevalent now, and argue why this is ineffective thinking and writing.
Let me start with an example from the latest issue of the Commentator. There was a piece entitled “Regarding the Building of Bridges” which talked about being unafraid to shun academic ideas such as documentary hypothesis in YU’s academic Jewish Studies classes. I’m not super interested in tackling the issue itself or the arguments he presented - the author is more than entitled to take this stance regardless of how I feel about his arguments. However, what bothered me tremendously was the manner in which it was presented.
At one point, the author brought up, what in my mind, is a totally valid counterargument. He said, “I have heard people claim that Judaism does not require its adherents to believe in any specific doctrines or creeds. I have heard defendants of this claim point out that medieval rabbis sometimes strongly disagreed about which principles should be considered core beliefs of Judaism.” At the very least, it’s an interesting claim to make which requires a counterargument. However, the only sentence the author wrote in response was, “Setting aside the clear fallaciousness of this argument (in fact, a precondition for this type of dispute to arise is belief on both sides in the importance of doctrine), the example itself demonstrates the difference between our mindset and the medieval mindset.”
This tactic is both counterproductive and, quite frankly, mean. What he’s done is claim that the question is so stupid that it requires no comment. In effect, he’s just sidestepped the entire argument entirely without any reason for doing so. What exactly is the clear fallaciousness of this argument? More importantly, why is any fallacy clear? It’s obviously not clear because I don’t see it. I’ll concede that this line of reasoning assumes that I’m at least intelligent enough to reject obviously foolish arguments - which is an arrogant assumption to make. But, this is exactly what bothers me about the piece. The author, by backhandedly rejecting a line of thought, has insulted me personally. He has condescendingly marginalized any counterarguments that I may bring because I’m too stupid to see the “clear fallaciousness of this argument”.
I don’t think the author intended to do this. I don’t think he said, “Etai is definitely not worthy of entering this debate at my level”. But, that’s the problem. It’s one thing to take a stance. It’s another thing entirely to take an absolute stance. It’s a whole other level to take the stance that anybody who disagrees with you is a moron incapable of discourse. This intellectual bullying is just not good writing.
Another example of this type of writing came from a recent New York Times Online piece entitled, “The First Year College Reading List”. In it, a few different people from different backgrounds offered their opinions of what should be on a freshman reading list. One of these people studies at Columbia. Her opinion was entitled, “It’s Not Just the Books, It’s the Discussion”. In it she argues that in the name of reading all of these classics her voice is being lost. She wrote, “I quickly found the discussions were centered more on the preservation of old ideas than the progression of new ones. I was discouraged from asking the most difficult questions, especially when it came to the role of women and working people in the literature.”
This is a very legitimate question and debate, and I concede that her voice may very well be lost in academic discussions which are framed in white male dominant history. However, she throws around the phrase early on, “The euro centricity and misogynistic nature of Columbia’s infamous core curriculum came as no surprise to me.” She then goes on to cite, “I knew that Genesis would tell me Eve was crafted from Adam’s rib, and that "Pride and Prejudice" would conclude with wifedom as the greatest feat a woman can achieve.” This blase rejection of classics is a problem.
Here are texts that have spoken to people for centuries. Whether it speaks to you or not does not reflect the importance both literarily and otherwise that these texts present. Furthermore, as soon as you use these sweeping reductionist claims of “euro centric” and “misogynist”, it’s like you’ve removed any and all merit from the works. It’s frankly hard to take anything else seriously.
Please do not think that I reject her argument wholly. I think she, like the writer of “Regarding the Building of Bridges,” has a valid point. I’m just very irked by the style in which they chose to present it.
Here comes the most conjecture filled part of the whole piece (and I’m well aware of that fact). I think this writing style boils down to two mistaken assumptions. Firstly, it relates to a current “me-centric” obsession that has taken over. There’s this prevalent “you do you” mantra that is barked about in this strangely cultic fashion. The one thing that this mantra doesn’t take into account is that “you doing you” totally disregards the existence and importance of other people. If you only “do you”, then you’re just being selfish. You’ll live in this weird solipsistic life where you don’t care about other human beings and their wants and needs.
I like not “doing me”. This is what allows me to function in normal everyday society. If I just did what I wanted without any regard for anybody else, I would be (a) a jerk (b) a weirdo. These societal norms and conventions are not only helpful, but really important for coexistence purposes.
This could come back to Facebook and Twitter (and I know, I sound like a crotchety old man bemoaning the youth of today) which continue to reinforce the idea that you matter. People follow your everyday activities and emotions granting your life some weird unreal intrinsic significance. You get likes and shares and retweets which seem to validate all of your intelligent thoughts that nobody has ever thought before.
But, here’s the thing that nobody wants to tell you: you don’t matter. There are seven billion plus people today. There are millions of people graduating this year with the exact same hopes, dreams and fears as you. There are billions of people who all feel the same emotions as you. Hell, as much as I hate to admit it, I don’t matter. At least not intrinsically. There’s a key part of the phrase missing. You matter only inasmuch as you’re doing something for a cause greater than yourself. But, this is always missing from the popular idea.
This brings me to the second point. Writing is a very introspective process. When you’re writing, you’re typically not thinking of others. You’re (and, in this case, me) just putting your own thoughts on paper and basking in their obvious brilliance. There’s no way to think that your words are engaging in a larger discourse because they’re just yours. But, the written word has been, and will continue to be a very powerful tool for at least the foreseeable future (and probably the unforeseeable also, but, by definition, I can’t say anything about that). Your writing and your opinion are simply one more link in the chain of discourse. Therefore, it’s easy to reject out of hand any counterarguments as there’s nobody present to offer them. But, just because it’s easy doesn’t make it right.
I’m not writing because I think the rest of the world is wrong. I’m not writing because I feel like getting up on my high horse and telling you to become a better writer. I’m writing this because reading these pieces makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t like being told that my thoughts and opinions are not as valid as yours. It not only makes me feel bad as a reader, but it undermines your whole point. I stop reading when I get the sense that you think you’re better than I am. When I open up the New York Times now and see that a piece was written by Thomas Friedman, I don’t read it because his prose are unbearable to get through. It’s like sludging through a parade of condescending quips masquerading as intellectual novelty. Reading should open up the world. At the very least, reading should be fun. And, when you’re saying things in this ‘holier than thou’ way, it’s not fun at all to read. It’s frustrating, annoying and worst of all, self indulgent.
Here’s my plea to those of you writing an opinion piece: take a second and read over your thoughts. Are you writing to have yourself and your potentially valid opinion heard? Or are you writing to enter a larger discourse? If it’s the former, stop. Seriously, stop. Because I don’t care about your opinion. I don’t care what you have to say. I don’t care how many likes, comments or shares you get on Facebook. I don’t care how many psychological experiments or statistics you bring to make your piece seem less like an experiment in indulgent self-expression. I only care about the larger discussion.