an unbalanced and negative page

Back when I had my email address printed on every page, I used to get a fair amount of mail about this site -- mostly from people sending me their fascinating TV show ideas, philosophy grads agreeing with my Matrix review and lonely middle-aged men wanting to be friends. So when an email on a different topic arrived it usually aroused my special interest. One day I got a no-subject mail which told me, in a single unpunctuated lowercase sentence, that I came across as "unprofessional" and that my essays were "unbalanced".

Now, I'll gladly admit to the first of these charges (I don't get paid for this stuff -- ask the Sunday People!) and while I'm at it, I'll gladly admit to the second too. A lot of the articles here don't even try to be balanced, and guess what? They don't have to be.

Many people, based on a few half-heard and misremembered snippets from English class, leave school with the misconception that the hallmark of good essay-writing is balance. For them, every essay should be like the scales of Libra, in perfect equilibrium. For every argument in favour you should have one against, for every yea you should have a nay, and what you give with one hand you should take away with the other, so that you finally come down on the side of nothing at all.

For a personal website, this is obviously absurd. I'm not here to answer 'compare and contrast' questions. When I'm writing an essay I'm arguing for something, or more usually, against something. Before the essay has begun, I have already taken sides; in the essay, it's my intention to show why I have taken the right one. If I hadn't taken sides, I wouldn't be writing in the first place. Why would I write about something on which I had no opinion? Like I said, I'm not getting paid for this stuff.

If I'm arguing for something, I'm going to show why my side's arguments are correct, and why the other side's arguments are wrong, irrelevant or otherwise dismissible. In other words, I'm going to spend all the time arguing my side of the case. If I was to spend half the time or even 10% of the time arguing the other side, then that would weaken my case, and weaken the essay. If it's my intention to trash Pearl Harbor in a review, I'm not going to spend five paragraphs rhapsodising about the special effects. Instead, I'll keep the balance tipped 100% in my favour.

Many of those who insist on balance are under the misapprehension that there are two equally weighted sides to every argument. I run into this attitude quite often in the correspondence for skeptic sites. The sad truth is that in many arguments there's only one side a thinking person can take. There are almost no rational arguments in favour of creationism, homeopathy, multi-level-marketing, or using Internet Explorer, for example. On a different note, would anyone morally sane insist on a 'balanced' view of the Holocaust?

A totally balanced essay is not just undesirable, it's impossible. Everyone brings their own biases and preconceptions into an argument, which always affect the way it is presented. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar. It's the reader's job to approach every argument with her bullshit detector out, to see if the bias is warping the logic. It's the reader's job to read far and wide to see if key information is being omitted. The writer's job is only to get the facts right.

You hear a lot of complaints about unbalanced media reporting, but media reports are necessarily unbalanced, so that can't be a problem; the problem is that most people haven't been taught to recognise that they're unbalanced. Most people don't realise that 'The News' provided by Fox or CNN or the BBC is really just one media outlet's selection of possible current affairs stories, told from one perspective. (The problem is compounded by the fact that there are only a handful of major media outlets, whose views are often hard to tell apart.) The solution is not to strive for more 'balanced' reporting, but to reform education systems worldwide so that critical thinking is in the curriculum from day one, so that it eventually becomes a reflex, an ingrained part of the way people exist.

I suspect my correspondent only cried 'unbalanced' because somewhere I said something disrespectful about one of his idols. It's unlikely that he would have detected the same problem with a 100% positive page. He didn't want balance, he wanted wall-to-wall gush. He'd have been better off looking elsewhere.

I admit that there is a bit too much negativity on these pages, though. A lot of the time here I like to play the devil's advocate, but more often all the carping represents my honest opinion. On a lot of topics, I'm afflicted by binary thinking -- I either like something or I don't, and I usually don't. If something doesn't thrill me, I often don't have a single good thing to say about it. I don't see much point in distinguishing the bad from the merely mediocre. They're both a waste of my time.

And then it's easier to be negative. The language seems primed for complaints. Anagram programs always turn up ten times as many insulting phrases as compliments: there are simply more words with negative connotations. This is probably because when people enjoy something, they want to experience it rather than natter about it. But whatever the reason, the result is that it takes a lot less effort to be snarky. Praise, unless you put a lot of work into it, tends to get dull and a bit samey.

Praise also makes you vulnerable. Negativity is like a shield: you can keep throwing barbs at things without ever exposing yourself to attack. But praise is different. It's difficult to like something a lot without investing some of yourself in it, and without it becoming part of you. To praise something in writing is to reveal some of yourself, and face the possibility that there isn't much to reveal. And to praise something in public is to risk the ridicule of people with snarky websites.

To avoid being upset by negative criticism of things you like, you perhaps shouldn't invest so much of yourself in them. But sometimes life isn't about avoiding upset. Why not be passionate about things and take the highs and lows? It's too easy to live a monotone.