The Debris Shovellers

A Short Essay

Here’s something I think about a lot.

There’s a job, which a person can have, and the only significant task this job asks of that person is to have opinions on virtually any given topic. Having opinions on anything put in front of them is not part of their job, it is their job. On a regular and predictable schedule they are told to look at the world around them and then whatever it is they think of it is published or broadcast to an audience. They have no more information on the issue they're dealing with than the average person — often they have less, because their job of having opinions about things and writing down those opinions or saying those opinions out loud by necessity precludes them from looking into anything for a serious length of time — but they still have to have an opinion on the issue, because that’s their job and their livelihood depends on it.

If you think about this for even a moment, you’ll realise that it is a completely insane state of affairs. If it doesn’t seem insane immediately, that’s just because these people have always been there. For as long as we’ve had mass media, we’ve had some version of this job, and if they didn’t have a good reason to be there, well, they wouldn’t be there, would they?

I should probably at this point define what I mean when I talk about professional opinion-havers. I specifically mean someone whose job it is to produce regular opinion, on a schedule. Not because they have anything particularly interesting to say on the events of a given Tuesday, although they might, but simply because it is a Tuesday, and Tuesdays are when they’re paid to stuff their own particular brand of media seafood extender into the maw of the monster that eats content. The reason I distinguish between these people and the occasional essayist or columnist is not just to avoid this essay being immediately sucked into a black hole of irony, but because the particular brain malady I want to describe here has to do with prolonged and regular exposure to the fumes in the opinion mines. That’s not to say that someone who, to choose an example at random, produces a topical comedy sketch once a week for a news and current affairs program on a public broadcaster and also writes a newsletter once in a while, doesn’t have some version of what I’ll go on to describe here. Of course that hypothetical person does, and it’s probably getting worse with each passing week. But it’s the lifers in content prison — your regular columnists, your talk-back hosts, your panel show mainstays, your freelance peddlers of fine and rare takes — that I’m really interested in, because it’s in these people that we see most clearly the erosion of the mind and soul that I’m arguing is more or less inevitable when you build your life and career around responding with fast, reactive takes on a range of issues. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the role of professional pundit should be viewed in similar terms to those workers who had to shovel debris at Chernobyl. No one should do it for very long, and ideally, no one would do it at all. 

There are a few reasons that constant, scheduled, opinion writing sends people mad, and the first is that you can’t really observe anything for a very long period of time before your vision of it skews. This one isn’t universal to all opinion writing, it but applies to the inside-baseball political analysis that has become the bread and butter of media outlets everywhere.

Think for a moment about the political pundit. Their job is to, every day, look at what politicians say and do and give those statements and actions some sort of concrete meaning, in order, they hope, to help a reader or viewer better understand Why Things Are How They Are. Straight away we’ve run into a problem here, because the overwhelming majority of communication from politicians is meaningless. This isn’t a “clowns in Canberra are at it again” riff; the meaninglessness of modern political communication is by design. And what truths and insights can really be wrung from the same agreed talking points, slightly modulated for different speakers and mediums, but ultimately amounting to the same thing? Every single day? In The Brain Dead Megaphone, George Saunders describes the constant content churn of cable news this way:

If someone has to lecture ten hours a day on a piece of dog crap in a bowl, adjustments will need to be made. To say the ridiculous things that will need to be said to sustain the illusion that the dog-crap story is serious news… distortions of voice, face and format will be required. 

This isn’t to say that political analysis must be shallow because the politicians themselves are. This is to say that virtually every statement or manoeuvre from a modern politician is stage-managed to the point of meaninglessness, and while this is apparent to anyone who spends even a little time watching politicians talk, it is not in the interest of anyone who writes about these people for a living to acknowledge this obvious fact, or at least not particularly often. To be fair, there are columns, increasingly frequent right now during the pandemic, where a political pundit throws their arms up in the air and seems to say what the fuck are these people even talking about? Am I going crazy here? But these moments are rare, and so far more often, the regular political pundit ends up churning out copy that reads like this, day after day:

It is a truism in Canberra that he who fells the tree must also pay the piper, an aphorism that the PM would do well to remember this week. The government has a simple problem, and it is that of the novel coronavirus. Is the virus serious? Of this there is no doubt. Are people catching it, in increasing numbers? Again, there’s very little room left for debate over whether people are catching the coronavirus. They are. What remains to be seen, and what political watchers are eagerly anticipating, is what is to be done about it. 

There’s nothing inherently malicious about prose like this, but the effect, over time, is huge. The kind of milquetoast copy that regular political writing requires obscures a truth that should be shocking or at least urgent: that we are governed, in the main, by a group of inept psychos who are broadly making things up as they go, operating in a system that’s fundamentally rigged in favour of the powerful. There’s a good reason the political pundit can’t write a column saying that every single week: they’d sound demented. But more than that, if that premise is even a little bit true, then the insider-focused, horse-race style of most modern political reportage begins to appear not a little grotesque.

Which is all by way of saying that when people say that politicians and pundits are secretly in league, they’re sort of right, but not in the way they think. It’s less about secret trips to Rupert Murdoch’s private leisure volcano and more to do with the fact that it is in the pundit’s interest to treat politicians and the system in which they operate as broadly coherent and worthy of po-faced analysis in the minutiae, rather than a deeply broken collection people oscillating between states of smug complacency and free-falling chaos.

Again, it’s worth stressing that this isn’t to advocate a nihilist retreat from political analysis; it’s to say that a person who needs to churn out regular, reliable opinion on our political system is almost inevitably going to start accepting a lot of faulty premises on which that system is founded. And they’ll do this, not because they’re mates with a lot of people they’re covering, although many of them are. Rather, they’ll do this because, to continue with Saunders’ theme, if all you have to cook with is in fact diarrhoea, it is probably not advantageous to advertise this to your patrons, regardless of how good a diarrhoea cook you are.

The second reason why professional opinion-havers’ brains eventually boil inside their skulls has to do with feedback. Think about the last time you expressed an opinion to someone. Maybe they agreed with you, maybe they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t say anything at all. Either way, there’s a good chance that it was an unremarkable enough exchange, or if it was unpleasant, these sorts of interactions are rare for you. What’s very unlikely to have happened is that they told you that you were brilliant, spot on, hit the nail right on the head, that you’re the only person who really sees the truth and that they so look forward to hearing what else you have to say on any given topic. Equally unlikely is that they said they disagreed with you so much that they thought you must be an idiot made in the image of the devil, and what’s more, that they were going to figure out where you lived and kill you there. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that these are the two dominant kinds of feedback available online. There are a lot of reasons for this. One of them is that a great many people are unwell and on the computer. Another is that the platforms on which pundits receive their feedback incentivise this exact sort of extreme posting, one way or the other. And finally, it’s just not how feedback from strangers has ever worked, even before the internet came along and made us all properly insane. No one read Bleak House and thought “I simply must fire off a letter to Dickens telling him that I thought this was basically fine”, and why would they? You only really go out of your way to respond to something if it moved you in some substantial way, whether positive or negative. 

Now, anyone who creates anything for a living will know that this is just broadly how unsolicited feedback goes, but for most creators, this sort of thing is fairly spaced out. It’s an occasional trip into a strange land of manic assessments of your work, and occasionally your worth as a human being. It’s an elating and/or unpleasant place, but it’s not where you live. For pundits, it’s a land in which, at the very least, they have a holiday home.

This isn’t any way for a normal person to exist. Someone being told on a regular basis that they are either brilliant or a big stupid piece of shit, and very little in between, is a scenario that B.F Skinner would invent to test the upper-most limits of the human psyche. And yet, here we are. 

Finally, and this is sort of related to the previous point, if you spend enough time opining about virtually anything you choose, and keep being published or broadcast, the inevitable conclusion you will reach is that you are somehow right about a lot of things. This gets things backwards. Most likely, the reason that these people are published or broadcast is precisely because they feel they can opine on virtually anything they choose. That’s their strength. For the people paying them to opine, considerations about the merit or veracity of what actually gets said come later, if they come at all. But the idea that you are paid to essentially fill the air with noise until we can cut to an ad for a non-slip shower mat is not a nice way to see yourself. Far better to believe that you are employed because, through some miracle of your brain, anything you have to say on a topic is correct.

To believe this is to believe, at least somewhere in your heart, that you are blessed with powers of perception fairly close to that of a deity. It might take a while for the full-time pundit to come around to this way of thinking, but stay on the surface of pundit-Chernobyl for long enough, and it’s where you’re very likely to end up.

I’m not saying that’s the case for every single person who fits into my definition of a pundit, but I am saying that finding yourself inflicted with the type of madness I’ve described is most certainly the path of least resistance. What I’ve been driving at for two thousand odd words, is that to be forced to do this frequently, in regular, deliverable chunks, takes the world and makes it small and distorted, and in doing that it shrinks and distorts the world of the people who listen to what you have to say.

I feel qualified to say all of this because even in my job at the news-chucklefactory, I can feel it. Whenever we do big capital-S Satire for any extended period of time, I can feel myself becoming stupider. Less curious. More unwilling to even try to understand the world in any meaningful sense.

Because really trying — even trying and failing — to make sense of the world is one of the the only worthwhile things we ever do. I read something the other day that said that all art is, when you boil it all down, is someone saying this is how I think things are. Is this how you see things too? I really like that. This instinct is the cornerstone of all creativity. Making a career churning out opinion with a literally stupefying regularity kills that instinct. It makes the world we’re all trying to understand small and distorted.

Or maybe it doesn’t. I dunno. 

The title artwork for this essay was by Simon Greiner.

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