#11: Bad Thinking Requires Bad Writing
And Twitter, The Random-Gyan Generating Machine
In my writing course, I often invoke Orwell to speak about the link between clear writing and clear thinking. The connection between them is a two-way one.
The first one is obvious: being a clear thinker makes you more likely to write clearly. But it also works the other way. Forcing yourself to write in clear language also forces you to think deeper about the subject.
If you want your writing to be understood by everyone, you can’t hide in vague generalisations or abstract jargon. And you have to make an effort to understand the subject yourself. If you are making an argument, you are forced to understand and fill the holes in your argument. If you are telling a story, you learn to tell it better because you want to hold on to the reader’s attention. Writing can sharpen your thinking.
The great Joan Didion, who died recently, once said: “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”
The reverse of this can also be true. Bad thinking and bad writing often go together because shabby thought needs to be covered up in some way. Writing that sounds sophisticated because it contains big words and jargon and complicated formulations is the perfect tool of the poor thinker.
An example of this comes from a calendar issued by IIT Kharagpur, which PKR | প্রশান্ত | پرشانتو tweeted about recently. One of the images he tweeted is below, but visit his tweet for all four.
This is such a classic illustration of bad thinking that requires bad writing.
Twitter, the Random-Gyan Generation Machine
One of the things that irritates me about Twitter is how random people give random gyan on subjects they know nothing about. If Isaac Newton tweeted about discovering gravity, some gyani would no doubt say that just because one apple fell down doesn’t mean that others would also fall. Had he tried throwing others? What was his sample size?
Another gyani might well argue that even if gravity applied to apples, maybe it was different for oranges. You can’t compare apples and oranges. (I can see this going viral with 8000 RTs.)
I don’t want to give real-world examples because I don’t want to pick on specific people, but you get the drift. If you’re a Twitter regular, no doubt many examples will come to your mind. Now, the big question here is this: Why is Twitter an optimal medium for generating such random gyan?
I see two possible answers.
One, Twitter’s format makes it easy to appear wise. Aphorisms tend to be pithy, Twitter forces pithiness because of its 280-character limit, so anyone can say anything that sounds aphoristic without needing to make a full argument. There is no scope to go deep on Twitter anyway.
Two, much of the gyan is actually posturing. By saying something that appears profound, or by snarking on someone else with a quote-tweet, you can signal either virtue or wisdom at zero cost.
Such signalling does not come for free in the real world. To be considered virtuous, you have to do virtuous things. (The horror!) To be considered wise, you need to show a manifestation of that wisdom somewhere. On Twitter, you can just give random gyan.
People with true virtue do not need to signal it. People with true wisdom don’t enter the posturing olympics on Twitter, if they are there at all. For that reason, it is safe to assume that anyone signalling X on Twitter lacks X.
If I may be permitted a gyani aphorism of my own, those who signal the most virtue possess the least.
‘Let Me Interrupt Your Expertise With my Confidence’
My friend Shruti Rajagopalan had once posted this superb cartoon from the New Yorker. It is so apt in the context of Mansplaining, but it can also stand in for so much of the discourse on Twitter.
Don’t be this person. Read books, listen to audiobooks and podcasts, chase expertise and embrace humility.
And don’t be a Twitter gyani!
Next week: The Creator Economy
In my last post, I’d promised that this post would be about the creator economy. Let’s do that next week. I have two big episodes out on that subject on January 3 and January 17, and I can’t wait for you to hear those. The next post is a good companion for the first of those.
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