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On Columnists

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. – Confucius

The papers I read on Saturday are different to the papers I read on Sunday; on each day, I try to read media from two different parts of the political spectrum. I don’t do as well, wilfully, online, but at least the unpredictable provenance of information from blogs and Twitter increases the likelihood of an encounter with something beyond my comfort zone. We are often at our best when we approach things with an open mind – we learn more, as we’re more able to connect disparate dots in our mind than when we try to categorise everything into right/wrong, true/false clusters. This is harder than it seems -even with social networking enlarging the circles of information we’d usually encounter, this becomes circulate and self-serving: the same links circulate around the group, breeding similar rather than groundbreaking content creation, and reinforcing social silos. There is still a need to actively try to encounter new, unfamiliar, perhaps unnerving points of view.

Columnists are not the answer to this. Columnists, and to some extent any op-ed piece, are intended to pad out the newspaper or magazine with witty or emotive insight that tangentially relates to the ‘real’ news, perhaps on the same day or a couple of days after. Some columnists write very well and can play a role in exposing bad practice (Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column is one example), but many fill their pages with groundless, vacous comment that nevertheless wields great power over the reader, slowly changing opinions and aligning the masses. This isn’t to say that columnists should be obliterated – they just need to evolve. If their opinions were backed up with justification, scientific or philosophical, then a column can form the bedrock of a fruitful conversation. If their opinions are revisited, revised or reversed when new information comes along, and if they are honest about their mistakes, we might begin to see a society which snipes less and commends more.

The main reason for creating this website was a moment of introspection when I noticed I wasn’t speaking as optimistically or constructively as I perhaps used to, and that the throwaway snide remarks were building up into a bigger bundle of negativity, the impact of which would be much greater than the one-liners. I have no grand vision or theme here other than to try to explore the good. Not everything is zero-sum.

The astute and cynical will note that this post fits the form of a columnist’s output well, and stinks of self-involved hypocrisy. Perhaps – but at the moment, this post serves as a signpost for the path we don’t want to travel down on this conversation; I’ll try to keep things on track.

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