COLUMBIA — Some of the funniest parts of an Esquire magazine appear in the section featuring readers’ letters. Besides the normal comments, here are select excerpts from a few letters appearing under the title, “Context-free highlight from a letter we won’t be running.” An example from the January issue: “I woke up at 6 A.M. just to brush my teeth.” We don’t know who said it or why, and there in lies the entertainment.
Now, these miscellaneous blurbs are completely innocuous, but what’s rather disturbing is that the moniker “context-free” could easily be used to describe the entire past decade, or at least the way society is trending. Look no further than the ubiquitous end-of-the-year/decade lists and retrospects currently plaguing the Internet.
Although their purpose is to encapsulate the zeitgeist of 2009 or the entire aught decade, they, in all of their arbitrariness, are actually the past decade in a nutshell. We are a nation that thrives on lists, blurbs, slide shows and headlines. Whether they be for entertainment or news, from these, too many people glean just enough information to over-confidently base their more-often-than-not hollow opinions. Seeking out in-depth analysis and context is so '90s.
The turbulent state of professional journalism is the greatest indicator that context has taken a back seat in our society — and at the worst possible time. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism outlines nine principles of journalism, the first being to the truth: “As citizens encounter an ever greater flow of data, they have more need — not less — for identifiable sources dedicated to verifying the information and putting it in context.”
Primarily, Webster’s defines context as “the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning.” Although this certainly is correct, the secondary definition is a little broader and applicable to a larger conversation than just the words in a sentence and the clues surrounding them. This definition presents context as “the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs.”
To this end, the majority of professional journalistic institutions still aim to — and often do — provide context beyond the dramatic headlines, pop news, partisan rambling and other textual garbage that has entranced our society. David Brooks' past two columns noting excellent examples of long form magazine journalism are two good references. But these examples are merely drops in the bucket when it comes to what is available.
Ironically, the Web is both the curse and the cure. Opportunities to educate oneself and become informed are more prevalent than they have ever been. It’s just that the appetite for such contextualization is what has waned as infotainment becomes the norm and the spastic nature of the Web chips away at our attention spans. (See the Atlantic’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”)
What has become especially detrimental is that this apathy towards context and understanding is coincided by another startling movement. Also in the January issue of Esquire, Stephen Marche explores our fascination with shows such as “American Idol” and “Top Chef” and discusses the allure of passing judgment.
The fad has permeated our society so much that passing judgment feels mandatory. Combined with the way we consume our media, this is very dangerous. We are a nation that has completely bought into the most foolish of idioms: “You’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.” But the impetus to stand for something and pass judgment when people don’t fully understand the issues has become a pox on America.
The mere fact that we know the name Orly Taitz is evidence enough. Or how about those death panels? These two claims were debunked time and time again, and yet, they not only persisted but also garnered fairly large followings. Why? Because informing oneself requires a little brain juice. Making cursory judgments based on bad or limited information is the new American way.
And this is why these “best of” lists and trips down memory lane are so telling. Not only do the majority of them pander to our preference for information lacking actual cognitive sustenance, but they also allow us to do what we do best: judge. Their appeal lies not in reading an authoritative list or learning anything new, but as we glance through the selections, whether we agree is all that matters.
Andrew Del-Colle is a former Missourian reporter and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.