Private Troubles and Public Op-eds

March 7, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post was about an op-ed by criminologist James Alan Fox that suffered from lack of data. That’s an occupational hazard for op-ed writers, though social scientists writing op-eds should know better. At least Fox didn’t try to pass his own views off as those of “the country” as some editorialists do. A post I did back in 2010 (here) showed David Brooks projecting his own concerns onto “the public” and “the country.” Brooks is far from alone in that. Many columnists conflate their own views with those of “America.”

When the topic is politics and policy, the lack of data just means that the author might be wrong. But when a writer does the same thing about less political and more personal matters, it can feel downright embarrassing. 

David Brooks opened his Monday column with this: “So much of life is about leave-taking: moving from home to college, from love to love, from city to city and from life stage to life stage.”

The rest of the column was about the leaver and the left behind.  It featured “facts”  without evidence
to be around college students these days is to observe how many parents have failed to successfully start their child’s transition into adulthood
 moral prescriptions
The person being left has to grant the leaver the dignity of her own mind, has to respect her ability to make her own choices about how to live and whom to be close to
and thoughts about how technology has changed break-ups
Communications technology encourages us to express whatever is on our minds in that instant. It makes self-restraint harder. But sometimes healthy relationships require self-restraint and self-quieting, deference and respect.
If you knew nothing about Brooks, you could shrug it off or take it to heart, whatever your personal experiences, opinions, and situation might warrant. But if you knew even a little about Brooks’s personal life, you might have wondered if you really should be reading this.  As cartoonist Tom Tomorrow tweeted:

Tomorrow could have tweeted the same thing in late January when Brooks wrote (here) about the difficulties people who meet online face in their transition to in-person relationships.

I found myself reconsidering a Brooks column from 2009 that I sometimes use for teaching. The class exercise is to turn data-less assertions into testable hypotheses. The Brooks column, about online dating, was good source material. But the content now suggests something in addition, not just theorizing about technology but personal hopes and experiences. Online dating, Brooks says, can impose “structure” and “courtship” on romance – exactly the sort of things an old-fashioned, values-oriented conservative guy might be looking for. The pronoun “I” does not appear even once in that column. But now I wonder whether that column too was autobiographical.

Any good therapist, listening to a client talking in generalities about “people” will hear the unvoiced first-person pronoun. That’s the therapist’s job. But as an op-ed reader, I’d rather have at least a thin layer of actual data between me and the writer’s personal problems.


Anonymous said...

How many times have I been reminded of this Onion classic?,421/

Jay Livingston said...

I think it's more often true of journalists since they are unconstrained by the need for some semblance of real evidence. Which is more or less the point I was trying to make in the post.