The End of Something that Counter-intuitively Should Have No End: Everything you thought you knew is completely the way it has always seemed.

Most of the worlds conflicts are fundamentally the same kinds of power struggles that humans have always prosecuted. Yet, the media entertainment culture and the social-climbing nature of the blogotwittersphere conspire in a few ways to make sure we don’t talk about these conflicts in the dusty old language of power and history.

One of those ways that occurred to me today, is the oft-decried tendency of Slate-type journalism to employ some kind of entertaining, counter-intuitive hook. The secret of the success of this method often goes unmentioned. though: shock provides an easy impostor for information for the lazy news outlet, pundit, or publisher.

To present Middle East conflicts to an audience as if they an old fashioned story of powerful people seeking to secure and increase their own power – boooring! Do that, and no one will come to see you perform. You’re saying the same things other people have said before, and no matter how informative or factual your presentation is, you’re nothing but an old fuddy-duddy at best. Or worse, you’re an irritating, idealistic naif, far too unserious to be taken seriously by serious people. You’re some kind of save-the-whales Occupy slob.

But come up with some kind of counter-intuitive hook that shocks people, and Then You’re Serious. No one wants to read a book called “Education is good for you, so you should probably go to College if you can.” Snooze. No one’s going to feel informed by that book. But, if you’re Ross Douthat and you’re willing to write a book about how college sucks, then you can be an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, and list your Harvard education in your bio. (Harvard…that’s a college.) And if, like Ross Douthat, you prove to be absolutely incapable of writing coherently about an issue as simple as gay marriage, it doesn’t matter. Because you can just write something else counter-intuitive like “Why Moderates Should Like Paul Ryan” and it doesn’t matter how stupid the piece is, people will click on it and feel like they’ve been exposed to a “new idea”, or some such.

I’m not, ironically, saying anything new here. But the insight I wanted to share was the way a journalistic narrative can use counter-intutitiveness as a sneaky substitute for actual information. People click on it, or “like” it, or sit through an ad to see it, because they are looking for some kind of new insight, some fresh new angle that maybe they can use to impress their friends or to genuinely feel informed. Some glimpse through the keyhole of How Things Really Are. (Because things being just the way they seem is boring. It’s not entertaining. And that’s the kiss of death in the private media of corporations and young social-climbing journalists.)

Once you’ve made someone say “wow, you blew my mind” then they feel like you informed them – even though those are two totally different things. You can declare “The End of History” and people will feel like you are informing them, even though you’re merely entertaining them with the tingly sensation of what it must feel like to become informed.

UPDATE: A few minutes after I finished this post, I saw several headlines about the “fiscal cliff”. Shock, pretending to be information. The 2012 equivalent of “<—Click here now!”

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  1. Tom on December 3rd, 2012 3:38 pm

    So, so true.

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