Thursday, 9 July 2015

On certainty

In a previous life, I used to write a newspaper column. And here's the thing: I used to hate it.

I used to hate it not because I hate newspapers columns per se. There is nothing wrong with a well-expressed opinion, a well-crafted argument, a piece that makes you think about the world a different way.

There is nothing wrong with a column that tells you something you didn't know. There is nothing wrong with a column that makes you happy, or sad, or angry, or whatever.

Neither did I hate it just because I was particularly bad at it.

No; what I hated about writing a column - and what I often dislike about columns I read - is the presumption of moral certainty.

For it isn't enough that columnists write as if they are correct on all relevant ethical or political points. Oh, no; they also have to write as if they quite obviously correct, and that only a particularly stupid person would fail to see it. It is why so many columns are written in that annoying, smug, semi-exasperated tone of a parent explaining to a small child why eating too much chocolate is bad for you, or why you shouldn't poke your fingers into a plug socket.

And yet, this is all wildly implausible. When it comes to ethical and political judgments, I daresay none of us get things 100 per cent right, 100 per cent of the time. It's like that weird fiction always and for ever accepted in party politics: that in any and every argument, our guy is absolutely on the side of right, and their guy is absolutely on the side of wrong. Because our guy is a saint and their guy is evil. (This came up recently during the Budget when some commentators, talking about the  Conservatives' decision to mandate a living wage, pointed out it was a 'curveball' that Labour would find 'very difficult' to respond to. But why? Why couldn't Labour, and Labour supporters, just say: "Yep. This bit - paying people more money - is good.")

A lot of ethical issues are really quite complicated. That's why - unlike the sum of the internal angles of a triangle or the best technique for the high jump - we are still disputing them, passionately and with no clear resolution. Like abortion, say. Or euthanasia. Or animal rights. Or the limits (assuming there are at least some limits) on freedom of speech.

I have opinions on all those things. But they are complex opinions that don't really lend themselves to the traditional column structure. No one wants to read a column along the lines of "Euthanasia? Dunno. It's complicated." And yet maybe they should. It's probably a much better way of approaching such issues - with an open mind, a readiness to think hard and change your mind, and a sense of humility about what kind of conclusion you are after. The world is a complex place full of complex issues. Like it or not, they can't all be solved conclusively on deadline, in exactly 500 words.

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