Last week I was led to read Roxane Gay’s think piece on Halloween and blackface, which was published in 2013. The preface of the piece, provided by Gay herself on Twitter, was that the piece was “STILL RELEVANT” (her emphasis). After reading it, I didn’t feel that way. Though I am a fan of Gay and I think that she regularly says and writes interesting things, the article felt expired, like Halloween candy in July. The main points of the article – don’t wear blackface because it’s offensive, demeaning and unncessary – were paraded out ceremoniously and opaquely as if they are self-explanatory – which they clearly aren’t if the article is being written to explain them. Even as someone who does oppose race as costume, I really didn’t like this article.
My first impulse to this negative reaction was to question myself. Perhaps I had just read too much about blackface and Halloween and I now thought the argument was passé. After all, it really is a perennial conversation. If some sarcastic entrepreneur were to publish a calendar of annual American conversation topics, “Is Blackface Wrong?” would fit right in with other staples like, “What are we serving for Thanksgiving?” and “What are we doing for New Year’s Eve?”
I was pretty satisfied with this answer until I remembered that I regularly read rehashes of the same argument. For example, two of my favorite blogs, Native Appropriations and We Are Respectable Negroes, frequently make the same arguments as they encounter American racism in its infinitely varying guises. I have no issue with this because their arguments are routinely qualified, anchored to specific incidents and explicit ways of understanding those incidents. In fact, by repeating their arguments and accumulating more and more evidence to support them, these blogs make their arguments even stronger.
Gay’s piece and think pieces at large, I think, do not do this. Think pieces float in time, barely attached to their subject matter or to each other. They are timestamped by time, but not history. They have ambitions of old age, but they perish before they even learn to crawl. They are fated to be stillborn. In other words, they have no lasting value. Their expiration date and their publication date are simultaneous. Think pieces are intellectual H&M.
Of course, many things on the internet and in publishing are immediately disposable and I’m okay with that, but think pieces draw my ire specifically because of their will to be discarded. They are frequently written without references, without establishing context and with a strange air of superiority, as if the writer is greatly inconvenienced by writing this, but it must be done because this opinion is just that pertinent. These traits upset me because they prevent writing from having any lasting life, resulting in pieces that are self-contained, insular and effectively unshareable. Think pieces are direct messages posing as tweets.
Academic knowledge and technical knowledge are also largely immobile and contained, but they differ from think pieces in that they don’t aim for wide circulation and they are invested in their readers’ time, so they [ideally] qualify their arguments. Think pieces aim for wide circulation, but they don’t value that potential readership enough to do even the minimum amount of baseline explanation. I’m tempted to call this practice of writing en media res sheer laziness on behalf of the writer, but I don’t think that calling these writers lazy quite captures what is happening here. Many think pieces are actually very sharply written, despite their opacity, so I think this opacity is an aesthetic feature of think pieces. In other words, think piece writers aren’t lazy: think pieces are a lazy way of presenting an argument. Think pieces traffic in alleged self-evidence, “obviousness,” which, in practice, allows writers to skirt over details, the most important part of any argument. Seriously,the entire point of writing at length is to use that additional space to build an argument. An old philosophy textbook I have actually defines an argument as an “inference made explicit.” Every argument starts with an inference, but it ends with an explanation. At best, think pieces are inferences never made explicit. At worst, they are explanations of nothing.
In the end, I think that think pieces are ultimately wastes of space and effort. I have no problem with watching people think out loud nor with watching people working themselves into a corner and giving up. In fact, I love those things because I see the thought happening, I see the process, the inference becoming explicit. I also realize that the time, space and knowledge to see an inference to its logical end are luxuries, especially in an age where many writers are writing for free and the writers who do actually get paid are constrained by deadlines, word counts and lack of resources. I get that. That said, think pieces upset me because they presume that these things can’t be overcome or worked through and accordingly circumnavigate the entire process of making an argument, building a case. Think pieces are Law and Order with only the opening scene and the judge’s sentence. They inherently devalue the topic, the writer and the argument. And in a world where many kinds of topics, kinds of writers, and kinds of arguments are devalued just because (I’m talking about writers of color, women, LGBTQ folks and poor folks), it is piss-poor policy to accept that devaluation just for a few clicks.
Caveat: Despite different etymologies think pieces and op-eds are basically the same thing, so op-eds can die too.