The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

He’s So Much Smarter Than You!

Posted on | February 2, 2011 | 12 Comments

If there is anything I can’t stand, it’s a writer who begins with the presumption that his readers are infinitely ignorant:

In the jargon of the field, this is called “cognitive dissonance” — the psychological mechanism we all use to justify our choices and beliefs and preserve our self-esteem.

That’s from a HuffPo blogger, writing about a study that analyzes how parents reconcile the unpleasant aspects of parenthood with their desire for personal happiness. Smitty in the Kabul bureau e-mailed me the story as blog fodder, and I was brought up short by that phrase, “In the jargon of the field . . .”

Really? I mean, really? Do you really think that someone who owns a computer and has Internet access and uses this technology to search out stories about psychology is so ignorant that they are unfamiliar with the phrase “cognitive dissonance”?

Excuse me for thinking that at least 90% of Huffington Post are college-educated and remember enough of their Psych 101 class to recognize the term. Or else I would suppose that people might grasp the meaning from context and, if they lacked sufficient contextual information to do so, would be prompted to use Google to look it up.

That show-off clause “In the jargon of the field” is just the writer trying to impress us with his own expertise, but I’m probably not the only reader who is insulted by such things.

One of the old-fashioned rules of journalism, of course, is that a news story must be self-explanatory and comprehensible to the average reader, who is imagined to have a sixth-grade literacy level. So when you’re writing a newspaper article about the House passing a bill, you find some way to fit into the story the fact that the bill must be approved by the Senate and signed by the President before actually becoming a law. But you don’t do this clumsily, as if instructing a child; rather, you work this explanatory material into the article smoothly, so that it doesn’t obtrude in the reader’s mind as you telling him something that he obviously should already know.

The HuffPo writer’s show-offy explanation is a thumb in the reader’s eye: “I know this ‘jargon of the field’ and you don’t, you morons!”

Furthermore, as those of you who remember your Psych 101 have been screaming for the past six paragraphs, the HuffPo writer got the definition wrong!

Cognitive dissonance is not a “defense mechanism.” Rather, cognitive dissonance is the ordinary feedback mismatch between our self-concept and reality. Defense mechanisms are the mind-games we play with ourselves to resolve cognitive dissonance, to wit:

Everyone likes to think of themselves as physically attractive, yet most people are no more than average looks-wise, and some of us are decidedly below average. Therefore, the aethetically challenged are likely to overinterpret a smile from a stranger — “Hey, that chick really digs me!” — and to interpret rejection as motivated by something other than their deficiency of attractiveness.

(Thus the popularity of feminism among ugly women, who convince themselves that men aren’t interested in them because men are “intimidated by strong women.” And thus also attractive women’s instinctive standoffishness toward geeky guys; attractive women learn early in life to recognize the kind of dweebs who routinely misinterpret mere courtesy as a signal of romantic interest.)

Our attempts to block out negative feedback, to protect our self-esteem through rationalizing mind-games, are all defense mechanisms, our means of coping with cognitive dissonance, rather than cognitive dissonance itself, as the HuffPo writer wrongly informs the readers whom he insults.

Did you notice that I just insulted dweebs and feminists? I did that on purpose, consciously and specfically, which is how insults should be made. The HuffPo writer, by contrast, accidentally and casually insults every reader who is intelligent enough to realize he’s being talked down to. What kind of person would do such a thing?

Wray Herbert, Award-Winning Journalist! Well, listen up, pal: In the jargon of the field, this is what we call “the blogosphere,” and we’re not impressed by your awards. Paul Krugman has a Ph.D. and a Nobel Prize, and we slap Krugman around on a daily basis just for the fun of it.

Oh, and I’m also an “award-winning journalist,” which proves — if it proves anything at all — that journalism awards are a dime a dozen. Hell, I’d probably be using journalism awards for doorstops and paperweights if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve never had much appetite for wasting the time it takes to fill out those silly application forms.

Let me further point out, for the benefit of Wray Herbert and any other Award-Winning Journalists who are thinking about trying their hand at this blogging stuff, that in the jargon of the field, this is what we call “the Internet.” People who use the Internet don’t just randomly find stories they aren’t capable of figuring out on their own.

So this Award-Winning-Journalist attitude that assumes readers are ignorant clodhoppers won’t get you too far as a blogger. It makes a lot more sense to think that your readers arrive at any given subject with a basic familiarity, and aren’t in need of any lectures about stuff that is (or should be) well-known by the typical college sophomore.

And one more thing, Wray Herbert: The fact that you won some journalism awards doesn’t mean that people actually like you. In fact, the other bloggers at HuffPo — the really hip ones, the popular bloggers with lots of traffic who get invited to VIP parties with Arianna — are almost certainly laughing at you behind your back.

(That’s what we call “suggestion,” in the jargon of the field.)


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