Pinched from the unimaginatively but informatively named Language Log (see blogroll)
'Decades ago Robert Warshow wrote an essay on "The New Yorker" that explains what Pinker is grappling with in trying to understand their need to create a false dichotomy in which they are the side of the Prescriptivists/Angels and Civilization itself, as well as their inability to understand that you can describe reality, recognize operative rules, and still acknowledge there are standards of usage that are useful and socially significant although entirely arbitrary from an linguistic point of view.
"The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately."
[(myl) Thanks for pointing to this essay, which I had not read. The citation is Robert Warshow, "E.B. White and the New Yorker", originally published in 1947 in Partisan Review under the title "Melancholy to the End", and reprinted in a 1962 collection Immediate Experience. It's a review of White's collection of essays on world government, The Wild Flag. I discussed my own encounter with The Wild Flag here.]'
This is very well put. It articulates the sense of hopelessness, of swimming through treacle, that I experience whenever I try to discuss anything remotely controversial, or anything at all connected with economics, politics or what we might call general morality with almost anyone at all. I only tend to do it with the sort of people who throw in their own opinions on such subjects, uninvited and often unwanted, with the obvious assumption that a) whatever they just heard on the TV news is a complete and accurate analysis of the subject, and b) no reasonable person could possibly disagree with them.
The reasons for this are probably not hard to find. There are many subjects on which people feel they should have an opinion, indeed they may well feel that they are defined by their opinion on certain matters, and the more such subjects there are, and the more rapidly they appear and disappear as fashionable topics of conversation, the more difficult it is to do any real thinking or research. People take their opinions, their identity, off the peg from the sources they find at hand.
It doesn’t mean they are always wrong, just that they are not capable of having any real discussion, or of going deeper into the subject. They think they are arguing, but in fact their responses tend to be random dogmatic assertions, which they make no attempt to defend, other than by shouting, and most of the time seem to not even understand.
As you’ve probably guessed, I got drawn into an argument about the Spanish economy a couple of nights ago. And the quote I came across sums up the reason I should not have bothered: the media, or others with the help of the media, give people little bags of opinion, decorated with sequins of apparent explanation. People grab them gratefully and believe they have understood a difficult subject, when all they have done is adopt a second-hand attitude towards it, because it happens to fit their prejudices. The range of subjects to which this applies is enormous.
The response of most people to anything new- be it an idea, a person, a culture, an object, a practice, a place…- is defensive; they want to know if it will hurt them. Then they want to know how they can make it old as painlessly as possible, they want to know how it fits into the stuff they already know. It’s much easier to dismiss it as bad than to try to understand it, and if they feel that they must understand it, they have the New Yorker and a thousand other publications to tell them that they have understood it, without going to all the trouble of thinking about it. Once they are persuaded they have the orthodox attitude to it then they can relax and life for them can go on as before. The New Yorker and its brethren provide an invaluable service.