ColumnA comment on commenting.
In a burst of condescension so brilliant my lady-brain almost didn’t catch it, a follower on Twitter labeled our recent article about nuclear energy as stupid and ignorant. He then admonished us both there and on Facebook to be “ashamed.” Our readers deserve to know “the truth” of which he is evidently the arbiter.
I publicly acknowledged the one constructive point he grandly offered (I had loaded the piece with a deck referencing Japan’s nuclear “meltdown” which, 10 days out from the disaster, is at best totally accurate and at worst, no different from a similar usage by the New York Times). I did resent him mussing my hair with his virtual pat on the head, though. You see, the author of the article, Stephanie Rogers, has the misfortune of cultivating greenery in her backyard while simultaneously not being a nuclear scientist. In other words, despite her long list of environmental writing credits and the piece in question having 13 straight paragraphs of citation after citation, fact after fact, she is clearly not up to the task of considering the topic of nuclear energy because she gardens. That green thumb belongs nowhere near the red button, much less the Publish button.
Coincidentally, this is a subject that’s been on my mind. Class, it’s time for a little lesson called Stop Being So Shallow, You’re Hindering Actual Dialogue, You Insecure Nit.
If Stephanie Rogers, a professional journalist and blogger whom I happen to know as one of the more thoughtful and prolific green writers working these days (her articles have been syndicated by numerous print media during her tenure at EcoSalon), cannot write about the nuclear energy debate that’s been revived in light of current events in Japan because she has an affinity for growing tulips, that’s fine, but we’ll have to be consistent. Let’s just get this out of the way now: Sorry, President Obama, reading a memo here, talking it up with your science people there, does not entitle you to pontificate to the citizenry on nuclear energy. You’re simply not an expert, babe. Nice speeches, though.
In all seriousness, I think the only person who shouldn’t be talking about, writing about or otherwise bloviating about nuclear energy right now is Kenny from South Park, because we know how that ends up. For everyone else, there’s the readily available internet and the mere fact that The Nuclear Option affects us all – and I’m not just talking about nuclear power. I take our editorial responsibility seriously, so here’s me letting the cat out of the bag: we are professional writers and editors, but it is true that we are not nuclear energy “experts.” Few journalists are. Does this mean we cannot discuss one of the most compelling topics of our time?
Most readers are savvy enough to understand that every piece has its limits, if for no other reason than screen size, and are able to air their disagreement or call out an error without resorting to insults. But the world of new media is a Baker’s dozen: for every 12 mindful, sincere readers you get, there is the inevitable reader with a bleeding chip. Such readers react first – they take the nuclear option – and remember we’re all in this together second. And that’s fine. They do not trust their own positions very much, for they are hotly put out by ours. (Even more so when the writer is a woman. Somehow I doubt that Graham Hill or Mike Lieberman or any other green guy would face tweet-shaming for sharing a few well-sourced points about nuclear energy – at least, not because of a fondness for his homegrown tomatoes.)
But sexism is as old as the internet, and who cares? The truly tiresome thing about the not-an-expert slam is that it is so beside the point. Imagine a world where only experts were allowed to comment on a given topic. It would certainly take care of that little cocktail party problem known as Falling Back on the Weather (unless it’s a Weather Channel company party, obviously). The cable TV punditry would soon go extinct. An undeniable upside.
But there might be a few downsides. We wouldn’t be allowed to talk about our cars stalling, our flights being delayed, our computers freezing up, our cell phones dying, our teenagers refusing to shower, our neighborhood recycling program or the origins of thin-crust pizza. That is, unless we’re mechanics, pilots, programmers, engineers, psychologists, municipal administrators or culinary historians (for which there must be a program at Yale). Oh, we could recount these things happening, but analysis and debate, input from friends, indeed Googling would be off limits…even to professional writers. What great fun. The whole of human existence lived as a fourth-grade book report.
If there’s one thing we learned from Gandhi, it’s that change starts with you, and Gandhi? I am so going to be that change. Here at EcoSalon, no writer will be allowed to write on any topic unless he or she is a proven expert in said topic. Confirmation of expertise will be determined by a jury of your Twits and verdict will be rendered in 140 characters or less.
But wait, there’s more! Just think of how much value you will not contribute to your personal life. I won’t be able to offer insights to married friends because I am single, for example. The silver lining is that all this free time not being allowed to do or say anything because I’m no expert should give me plenty of time to become one. With any luck, perhaps I can even become a know-it-all. Better yet, a know-nothing! Sadly, I can never become a man, at least not without better health insurance.
It’s hard work actually thinking through the merits of what someone says instead of reacting based upon what box you’ve got them in, but every day, intelligent adults in possession of a heart do manage it.
Every day, good journalists can and do credibly contribute ideas and information to topics they may not be career “experts” in. But that’s not what it’s about, is it? It’s about a chick. And so some readers will resort to their lizard brains, reacting to their biology as fast as they possibly can to smother the itch, salving themselves with ad hominem.
How expert should we be when discussing topics that matter to us all? There’s a fairly wide field between being peer-reviewed in the International Journal of Nuclear Energy Science and Technology and being an imbecile. Pretending that isn’t the case is dishonest and counterproductive. And coming back with a know-nothing defense – and it is always this defense – such as “I’m no expert either, which is why I don’t write on this topic!” is no comeback at all.
Abortion, war and technology, fertility, fast food, feminism, divorce, drugs, vegetarianism, porn, Peta, trashion, fur, ecosexism, sex, sex in advertising, death, things we want versus things we need, celebrity, nuclear energy: All topics allowed, all consciousness considered, all hyperlinks included, no green stone unturned.
If you’ve got a leg to stand on, stand on it. But if you’re going to take issue with a writer’s proclivity for raising oregano, we’re going to consider the source, as well. And we’ll take a gardener over a troll any day.
This is the latest installment in your editor’s column, The Insider’s Guide to Life, exploring topics such as media, culture, sex, politics, and anything else. Cheers and spellcheck!