Confessional Journalism, Mammals Speaking, and Piss on the Bed

I remember being terrified the first time a reader said I should be fired in the comments of an article I’d written for IGN. I was still the new hire in an office of internet quasi-celebrities and everything struck me as overwhelming. I used to feel a nauseous vertigo when I guided my mouse cursor over the publish button in the backend tool. I was worried that my clattering thoughts were going to send advertisers out the door and destroy the ten years of branding that everyone in the company had built up before I got there. When an angry reader gave voice to those worst fears I remember looking over my shoulder at my boss, secretly hoping that he didn’t read article comments.

I also remember having been a reader looking in through the window at IGN. So much of what appeared was a blank and impersonal wall. But there were small windows through which could be seen the artifacts of human activity. There were signs of life, though it was hard to reconcile with the monolithic frame through which all of those little scraps of personal creation were sent. And through that window, the most urgent impulse was always to throw a rock and shatter it.

When I started writing for Nerve I found myself indulging my narcissistic imagination a few hours of whimsical backward looking every night. Feedback was often similarly aggressive.

I prefer disagreement to agreement. I don’t expect a chorus of approval from the crowd when I share a thought or an experience. As I wrote last month in Gamasutra, I don’t think of what I do as a didactic espousal of objective truth. When I write I think of it as a framework for interaction. In the same way that a game designer chooses the inputs and actions to allow in their world, my personal filter chooses ideas, experiences, and feelings to send out into the world to see what weight they might have there.

I don’t approach anything I’ve ever written as a document of truth. I write confessional journalism. Everything I put forward is impeachable. I’m less interested in consensus than I am discovering the reasons someone has for disagreeing with me. In that exchange, that confrontation of ideas I learn something. I become better. I gain something I didn’t have before, in the same way I hope that someone reading something I’ve written can walk away with some new thought or momentum that wasn’t there before.

Christopher Hitchens once implored his readers to think of all experts as if they are mammals. It seems, on first glance, to suggest a kind of Glenn Beck-ish derision for the “idiots” that surround us on all sides. But it’s more a reminder that we are all idiots. There is nothing that cannot be legitimately argued against. Our truths are not objective, nor are they final. They’re the resting place of the last best effort of someone wrestling at the edges of their own ignorance.

I recently helped Clive Thompson research an article about Duke Nukem Forever for Wired. The day the article was published he posited an idea, borrowed from a friend, that the great problem with journalism was the posture of “knowing.” We have all become experts, impossible to educate and unwilling to allow for hypocrisy or legitimate contradiction.

What this says about the audience alarms me the most. Grappling with my limits, articulating my own shortcomings, is one of the true joys I’ve found in life. Feeling the weight of my own existence, flung over my shoulder, packed in a duffel bag, flown around the globe, collected into a few indemnable paragraphs and sent out before the anonymous audience with its teeth permanently gnashed in a sneer. Expecting incompetence at every turn, while yearning for absolute truth in every word.

Being called names blows, as does having one’s livelihood publically urinated on. But it’s not intolerable. A lot of things blow, and I’ve publically urinated on lots of things, both literally and metaphorically. Like for instance one night in Bangkok when I pissed on my friend P’s bed while he was out shopping because I was spectacularly drunk and thought it would be hilarious.

In the old days confessions were anonymous, and they were guaranteed to lead to absolution. Now confessions can be broadcast for a massive audience and prostration is inevitable. Not even the New York Times can escape the sneering derision, the knowing cluck of the tongue that suggests we know so much better. All the sins of our fellow humans we have surpassed, and we look down on them when they make their best guesses, begrudging their attempt at moving forward the boundaries of their own ignorance.

If our writers are mammals, can anything different be said of their audience? Let it stand, then, that in the now mature medium of interaction we must both push forward the limits of our mutual ignorance and hypocrisy. And the first step must necessarily be a confession. Not to declare victory or trumpet some great discovery, but to share in a common experience and follow the particular affects of its branching path back down the vine to the irretrievable seed from which it sprang.


6 thoughts on “Confessional Journalism, Mammals Speaking, and Piss on the Bed

  1. Very good post. Things get dangerous whenever anyone thinks what they believe one way or the other is unquestionable truth.

    It can be hard for people to remain humble and resist condescending attitudes. I plenty of problems with that myself.

    That said, while Everything I believe is assailable, I also believe that some actual, solid truth exists.
    I just can’t be certain that what I believe is that truth.

    Of course, that is in itself a belief.

    This could continually undercut every statement I make, as every statement is based upon belief.

    Which is why, at some point, we have to place value in believing something at all.

    Sorry, totally random thoughts there at the end.

  2. Am I mistaken, or does that graffiti in the bathroom say “Womb Ripper”? Intense stuff. Sort of like your writing. (With less internal harm. I think.)

    I share your concerns, about the inability of people to see past their own beliefs, etc. The fact that objective truth is so rarely “objective” seems almost obvious, but many have difficulty subscribing to anything uncertain or in the middle, just to feel secure. If more people indulged in the sort of self-aware and inevitable hypocrisy you’re talking about, it seems that there’d be less need for confrontation, both on a personal (domestic violence?) and global (WWIII?) scale. (Not to mention the dissolution of cable news pundits and their 24-hour scream-a-thons.) But then, we’d lose what is valuable to the kind of discourse you strive to attain- the ability to disagree in order to foster understanding. A very circular problem…

    • Perhaps there’d be less violence, but I’m not so sure that it would be so much less as you might think. People find strange justification for what they do, even when they admit to themselves that it is merely justification.
      It might make the violence a little more honest at least…

      When any ideal (including mine) says “they’d stop fighting if they followed my prescripts(or philosophies/whatever)” I think, “Well, duh.” It is the equivalent of saying, “If you were me you would stop fighting.”
      It’s like shouting at the wind. “They would stop killing each other if they just stopped killing each other!”
      No matter how much we understand one another we can only be ourselves, and if someone wants to fight, they will.

      The problem goes a little deeper than flat beliefs, philosophies and dogmas. If they don’t care about others, it doesn’t matter how much they understand them. If they do not love others, human brotherhood and kinship have no bearing.

      Just my opinion, though. 🙂

    • You are definitely right about mom broeggls being a unique group of women! I have been blogging 5 years and have really enjoyed getting to know and learn from other moms out there. I really value the input I receive. Good luck in the Blissdom contest!!Ruth recently posted..

  3. Doesn’t accepting the statement “There is nothing that cannot be legitimately argued against” make one a nihlist – in that it means you don’t believe in anything (We don’t belive in anything Lebowski, when we come back we cut off your Johnson)?

    What does it mean to believe in something if you accept the fact there are legitimate arguments against it – not plausible arguments, or good arguments, or interesting arguments, mind you – but legitmate arguments?

    And isn’t it a contradictory statement, i.e. the statement itself admits it is not true because the statement falls within the category of things that can be legitmately argued against (all statements), and therefore the statement is not true – if it was, there would be no legitimate argument against it.

    In any event, I do think that if we all approached life with the attitude that it is our job (and our joy) to move the boundaries of our own ignorance further out, people would be more tolerable and interesting.

    Anyway, hope you don’t find this post to be a futle attempt to push my own limted boundaries, ha ha.

  4. Well, it’s certainly got a kernel of contradiction, though I would say that I wouldn’t argue for the absolute truth of anything I’ve ever written. It’s really just an attempt to document my own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. I try and include reference to my own fallibilities and personal frame in everything for just that reason. Hypocrisy and contradiction are definitive qualities, not necessarily negatives.

    For the legitimacy argument, I’d say you don’t have to look very hard for examples, they’re abundant everywhere. I support abortion, but I don’t have absolute certainty in its moral correctness. There world is filled with gray zones where fact and anecdote can only take us so far, the last bit requires a leap of personal conviction. Likewise, the idea of peer review in science is founded on this idea that every statement for the positive should be subject to a vigorous inquiry into the ways in which it might be disproved. Our notion of the sun being the center of the solar system is still, technically, a theory. Allowing room for future discovery and reclarification of old assumptions is not nihilism, it’s just acknowledging our inherent fallibility. Every positive assertion ought to be argued against and we ought to acknowledge and welcome those willing to make legitimate arguments against for the dialectical richness it provides.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s