What if thinkpieces actually a good thing?

angry baby

The year is 2028. From his base on the Moon, Lord Doom has descended to Earth accompanied by his massive robot army, with only one goal in mind… total world domination. As the UN panics and squabbles, billions of Earth citizens are displaced from their homes; in all major population centres, those that remain are submitted to the sort of blind and artificial brutality that only a killer robot programmed to do evil is capable of. People are dying in huge numbers, Lord Doom’s robot invasion manifesting on our planet with all the effects of one great rapidly unfolding natural disaster.

But as the supervillain sits victorious on a pile of human rubble, perhaps what is most interesting – from our perspective here at least – is that the world’s press is still, to a relative extent, going strong. Despite the upheaval, Doom’s final revenge on the planet that long ago shunned him has been reported in all the world’s major news publications: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, Die Zeit, Le Monde, The Times of India, The New Zealand Prendergast, Xinhua News Agency, you name it. And of course, the reaction has, almost universally, been one of stunned, solemn horror.

But then suddenly, a sole, brave freelancer, writing for the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section, pipes up with a daring hot take on the recent terrible course of global events: what if, 23 year-old political blogger Heston Waterson dares to ask, Lord Doom’s brutal conquest of Earth is actually a good thing?

Tens of thousands of retweets. Two million facebook shares. The comments section has to be closed.

Nowadays, whenever anything in the world happens at all, there are always two reactions to it: first there is the straightforward, intuitive reaction, which almost all psychologically normal people will share. And then there is the thinkpiece reaction, which takes the standard reaction and turns it on its head. If everyone thought the event was a good thing, the thinkpiece will ask: what if it was really a bad thing? And if everyone thought the event was bad, the thinkpiece writer will inquire: what if it was really – not like you thought – actually something good that happened?

OK, in some ways this is probably a gross oversimplification, but it’s certainly broadly speaking as sure a formula as any for tossing off comment pieces that are going to get hits: take some event or thing that people are, broadly speaking, in agreement about the value of, and tell everyone that they should actually think the opposite. Your argument doesn’t even need to be convincing: you just need to say it. So recently one could have read thinkpieces arguing that Sepp Blatter’s reign was really good for FIFA [; that the Tories are in fact not a malicious blood-cult dead set on emptying the nation of all its saleable assets; or that the British obsession with tea is actually a grim manifestation of our repressed pinings for Empire. Even I once tried to convince everyone that cupcakes are fascist, although in my defence this is (still) something I genuinely, sincerely believe.

At first glance then, we might think: thinkpieces are a bad thing. All they offer is a cynical, shallow sort of naysaying, targeted at generating clicks and shares on social media and earning its author about 200 quid. But stop: thinkpiece! What if thinkpieces are actually a good thing?

As ever, it is helpful to think about things in Hegelian terms here. In Hegel, the world-spirit – which for our purposes here, we can gloss as something like ‘human progress’ – unfolds dialectically. And how does the dialectic proceed? Quibbling among Hegel scholars aside, the dialectic is typically held to proceed by means of the triad Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis. Some initial proposition, the Thesis, is negated by its opposite, its Antithesis; the two are then brought together in a Synthesis, in which the best elements of each are preserved. For instance: early on in Hegel’s Logic, Nothing is found to be the negation of Being; they are then united in Becoming. Or in the Philosophy of Right, Civil Society is the sphere of recognition that negates the Family, but the two are supposed to be somehow united in the State.

Thus, it is possible to argue, the proliferation of thinkpieces is playing a direct role in the progressive development of our society and culture: the author of thinkpieces continually supplies the Antithesis to the Thesis of the initial public reaction to any given news event. Once we’ve got in view how we might have been wrong about everything after all, we can then proceed from our initial, intuitive ignorance to the possibility of being right. This might well not involve discarding everything we at first thought was good – we might continue to drink tea, and eat cupcakes, and hate Sepp Blatter – but when we continue to do these things, we will no longer do so just because it had never occurred to us that they might be Imperial, or Fascistic, or Good For The Game. Rather, having examined our views, we will now know exactly why they are not – or are not exactly – any of these things. And so we will have all, if only incrementally, become oriented a little bit more rationally towards our world.

But wait a minute: thinkpiece about the thinkpiece. This isn’t actually how thinkpieces, in the real world, work. I mean, we really are talking here about articles that are written primarily to get clicks and shares on social media. The thinkpiece is not an insightful, considered attempt at a contribution to human reason. It is rather much more typically the product of a writer short on ideas but desperately needing something to write about for coins. Kneejerk controversy is the path of least resistance. You don’t even need to be serious about the things you are saying: precisely the point is that most people will disagree with them; they will share your writing out of hate, but for all that, it will still be shared, and maybe then you will have earned your next meal. It’s just like in the Middle Ages, where there was a certain class of people, known as ‘Journey Lesters’, who used to earn their living being kicked and having rotten vegetables thrown at them in the marketplace. After a while, these people started to pay attention to and write down things that people were saying in between pelting them with fruit, and so the modern press was born.

So when in 2028 Heston Waterson writes the very successful viral thinkpiece that will call into question whether the complete subjugation of the planet Earth to the whims of an evil lunar dictator was really such a bad thing after all, he will not in doing so have contributed anything to the rational development of humanity. He will not have made us any better as people, he will not have helped us to see anything we couldn’t see before, he will not have made the world any more a home. All he will have done is something trivial and self-serving that will only cause us to become angrier and more confused.

For reading a thinkpiece cannot help us think through and solve a problem together. All it ever does is open up to us the mere possibility that we’re wrong about Sepp Blatter, or the Tories, or Lord Doom. It thus produces in us entirely the wrong sort of moral uncertainty: one that we do not have a forum for resolving. When faced with it, we are not motivated to examine and debate our views. Rather, the age of the thinkpiece (which is identical to the internet age) is marked much more by a closing of dialogue, in which people retreat to their own increasingly small social bubbles, where they can be continually assured of having always been correct, against the impositions of those clowns in the Comment section who are very definitely completely, laughably wrong. Lamentably, this idiocy even spreads to the sort of people who want to ‘debate’ everything ‘fairly’ and ‘openly’, who if they were really at all open to reality would realise that we are not in an 18th-century coffee shop, and such a thing is just not possible right now.

But why? Why does the thinkpiece fail to serve a dialectical function? In short, my theory is this: the thinkpiece typically presents its argument in a flat, direct way that the reader is invited only to reflect upon by agreeing or disagreeing with. In order to become anything more than a Bad Thing, the thinkpiece needs to evolve into the sort of writing that one can think and reflect on in a productive way, inviting the reader to submit its content to imaginative scrutiny.

Probably the best thinkpiece I have read recently is that Joel Golby tea piece that I’ve been referring to already throughout this article. In fact, I want to suggest that it is something of a model for all future thinkpieces. This is because, while posing as a comment piece that is baiting its readers into thinking the author wants them to stop drinking tea (how dare he? Doesn’t he know anything about tea? He’s obviously been drinking it wrong! I better share it and tell him in the comments.), it is actually, upon closer scrutiny, a piece about our inability to reflect about why ‘we’ (as a nation) like tea without turning into angry, stupid babies. So, it baits its audience into behaving like angry, stupid babies while acting as a critique of angry, stupid babiness. This is, relative to the standards of the thinkpiece at least, pretty fucking dialectical. Structurally, the piece invites reflection on all of its arguments. It is that rare thinkpiece that thus provides an occasion for real thought.

Also, tea is shit.

One day, just over a decade from now, the killer robots will descend upon us and force us out of our social media bubbles into reality in the most brutal way imaginable. We cannot do anything about this: Lord Doom is too powerful, and even if we had any possibility of challenging him democratically, the British people would probably vote for him anyway. But until such time, we deserve a better standard of thinkpiece. Do not let Heston Waterson’s shallow reflections become humanity’s final contribution to viral content.

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