On commenting

Everyone has an opinion. There are countless aphorisms based on this, countless weary comments from people who despair of reading them. Writing a blog, of course, requires a large degree of narcissism – you think that you have something worth saying and think that people will be interested in it. It goes without saying that these beliefs are more often than not delusions. However, as self-satisfied as it sounds, the desire to write a blog and update it regularly has given me quite an insight into the media commentariat. That small group of people who basically give their opinion for a living, writing columns in newspapers, popping up on Sky News to ‘review the papers’ and being wheeled out on Newsnight when the booker has been particularly unimaginative. A cursory glance at our newspapers would tell you that many (most?) of these people haven’t reached their lofty status due to the novelty of their thought. Yet in having a weekly audience of at least hundreds of thousands of people, they clearly have a powerful platform.

So what insight do I speak of? Well, when you wish to regularly update a blog, sometimes a week or so goes past and you realise that you haven’t written anything. You realise that you don’t particularly have much to say at that particular point in time. Yet instead of thinking ‘oh well, I’ll write when I have something to say’, the strong temptation is to start scrambling around for things to write about. Things to have an opinion about. Given that the commentariat make their living by doing this, the need for them to invent opinions about topical issues is enormous. And so they do. This has never been more clear than with the Julian Assange affair in the past two weeks. Pretty much every newspaper columnist in the UK (and every second blogger) has given us their opinion about this. What’s been very clear, however, is that the vast majority of them have no particular insight into the situation. People have spent a couple of afternoons on Google, written a few hundred words and cashed their cheque. What is most noticeable, and most damning, is the certainty with which people write about a deeply complex situation. Everyone has suddenly become a lawyer, a politician, a jury, all because they’ve read some things online. This is the bread and butter of the commentariat. 

If you take a minute to think about these people who dominate our media, their positions are utterly ridiculous. It’s a matter of common sense that one individual is not going to be most informed and most interesting on subjects ranging from Syria to the Olympics to Assange. And yet this is exactly the premise which our media operates on – look no further than the quite hilarious range of subjects which Owen Jones is wheeled out to discuss. 

What is most sad about this is that the writers undoubtedly tend to buy into their own image. They become convinced of their right and, most worryingly, their superiority, in giving us their opinion on every subject which comes along. Almost without exception, they treat the internet as a personal fan club, basking in praise for their work and being remarkably patronising and intolerant when it comes to serious criticism. It’s a circle – they have a platform from which to give us their opinion and more often than not, this opinion is completely unchallenging and uninteresting. So many people praise it and wish to be associated with it, feeding the ego of the writer and making them convinced of their right to have the platform.

The Assange affair shows just how pernicious this circle is. If you had spent more than five minutes looking into the situation, it was very quickly obvious that most of the writers who knocked out columns about it, and spent days moralising about it on Twitter etc, had nothing to offer the discussion beyond a moderate skill with Google. And yet they not only felt entirely convinced of their invented opinion, they felt superior to everyone else. I’ve seen few things on Twitter more sickening than Owen Jones tweeting that women had had a bad week and imploring men to step up and help them with the hashtag #menagainstrape. Quite insanely patronising and nauseating, a glimpse of an ego out of control, and yet it did spread relatively far and wide. Because people become convinced of the superiority of the opinions of these people – usually because they are about flattering the egos of the readers rather than actually making them think about what they believe.

It’s for these reasons that I’ve avoided writing a blog about the Assange business. I don’t think that I have much to offer which hasn’t already been said. Yet I know that if I was paid to write blogs, I would definitely have written something about it. It would have been the easiest thing to do. And I’m pretty sure that I could have written something about definitions of rape, or the meaning of liberty, or the division of the left, which many people would have applauded. But what would it have added to the wider discussion beyond a further reason for some people to feel convinced of their own opinion? Absolutely nothing. It’s a problem which is constantly in my mind when writing a blog and I try to not write about a subject unless I feel I have something particularly novel to say. Of course, this is entirely subjective and undoubtedly I delude myself. I only wish that our media would exhibit the same concerns and begin to move away from the silly model of commentators being paid to give their opinions about our world.

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