Need We Condescend to Readers?
Tibor R. Machan
Since the fall of 1966 I have been writing columns for daily newspapers. Most of these were published by one newspaper group owned by a family now in its fifth generation but many have seen the light in various other national dailies from the East to the West Coast. Over the years some of these columns amounted to short essays, as lengthy as 1500 words, but most of them have been of the size one finds on the Op Ed pages of many newspapers, roughly 700 words long.
As such, the most one is able to touch upon is just a few salient points of a topic, rarely address anything in full detail. So I have come to think of these columns as mind teasers, maybe able to attract some readers’ attention and simply suggest how some topic might best to grappled with, at least as I understand it. And some have, frankly, been minor rants, when something in the culture is simply too upsetting not to speak up about.
Of course anyone who puts pen to paper has to have some gall. Why should his ideas merit attention? There have been and continue to be many, many individuals, sometimes of vast learning and brilliance, who chime in an the various topics of interest to people, so to think that one belongs among these is somewhat arrogant. Yet, even to be out there and forge a life for oneself involves a bit of pushiness, doesn't it?
By training I am an academic philosopher, with a Ph D in the field, who has taught university level philosophy courses and written scholarly books and papers on philosophical topics. Thus some of my columns aim to bring to newspaper readers, in an accessible form, what I take to be a valid approach to subjects that have been deemed important in my field. And here is where some editors consider it a bad idea to do this.
Quite often these editors consider what I write a bit highfalutin. They believe my topics—say on free will versus determinism, the nature of justice, or globalization—and my treatment of them are too heady, abstract, over the readers’ heads. And I completely disagree. Not that everyone will have an interest in tackling the topics I dwell on in the terms I find suitable. Of course not. But that’s not the same as to believe that readers are unable to handle these topics the way I present them.
Whenever one comes upon a new group of students in a college or university classroom, one finds that about 80 percent of them need to be brought in kicking and screaming; they are not that interested. Especially after twelve years of public education, where hardly anyone cares about what students want to know but treat them mostly as clay to be shaped, bottles to be filled with what the administrators and teachers insist everyone needs to learn, when these young people come to college, they tend to focus on other matters than academics. So not only must a teacher teach but also to market the subject, ever so gently.
So a skill of teaching has to be to bring topics to the attention of students in terms that are reasonably accessible and only slowly raise the bar, introduce more and more complicated concepts as the development of knowledge of a field requires.
Readers of newspapers aren’t one’s students, of course, but they, too, need some marketing for them to become interested in something that may not be on their minds just at the time when they run across one’s writing. But it isn’t at all that they are ill equipped to grasp what one is writing, or very rarely so. Sure, they may not wish to grapple with a topic, or with a certain way of looking at it. But that’s different. That isn’t as if they were too inept to understand, only not much involved and busy with other matters, probably.
All in all, I do not believe most people have a problem with the level of writing I and other columnists coming out of the academy produce. And of course now and then a columnist is going to make an effort not merely to cater to readers’ existing interests but to introduce topics he or she considers important. And that can easily misfire. Not, however, because readers lack the intelligence but mostly because they have their minds on other matters and don’t want to lend it to those the columnists wishes them to pay attention to.