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What Don't You Know?

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I'm over the flu bug now and feel fine, but for three days I was laid up on the disabled list and unable to do much except sleep, do some navel gazing, and think.

Yesterday I came across this New York Times editorial piece by Tim Kreider called "The Power of I Don't Know." And of course that made me think. Several of Kreider's statements resonated with me as a writer and an analyst and as a blogger (those are three different professions I've come to realize).

Confident authority is an appropriate tone for straight reportage, Kreider writes, but it’s become the default of columnists, essayists and bloggers, one that’s so reflexive that some of them seem to forget it’s a pose. To some extent this is a deformative effect of the space restrictions within which most of us work; in a thousand-word essay you can’t include every qualification or second thought that occurs to you or you’d expend your allotted space refuting your own argument instead of making it.

Very true, especially for blogs.

This voice is trained into us early on, back in high school or Comp 101, when we’re taught to make our arguments as succinct and cogent as possible, omitting wishy-washy qualifications like "in my opinion." You’d think these disclaimers could go without saying; every piece of writing includes the tacit caveat: Or I could be wrong. And yet quite a lot of readers respond to your personal observations with wounded outrage when they fail to reflect their own experience, as if you were proposing your idle speculation as totalitarian law.

I'm continually surprised about how personally readers take things sometimes. I used to think that this was just an artifact of writing about sports since people are emotionally attached to their teams and players, but it is apparent that this phenomenon impacts all subjects.

I especially like this:

The one thing no editorialist or commentator in any media is ever supposed to say is "I don’t know" admit to ignorance, uncertainty or ambivalence is to cede your place on the masthead, your slot on the program, and allow all the coveted eyeballs to turn instead to the next hack who’s more than happy to sell them all the answers.

And this:

The more someone knows about any given subject, the likelier he is to include a lot of boring, hard-to-follow caveats, complicating factors and exceptions in discussing it.

So this is the dilemma of blogging and punditry.

We're supposed to have strong opinions, and sometimes we do. But the more a person actually knows and understands a subject, the more likely they are to see the shades of gray, to be aware of the exceptions, the caveats, the problems. This can create a tension between writing something that's bold and interesting and writing something that is honest.

I suppose that is where the craftwork of writing and blogging comes in, doing all of those things at once.

Back to Kreider:

Real life, in my experience, is not rife with epiphanies, let alone lessons; what little we learn tends to come exactly too late, gets contradicted by the next blunder, or is immediately forgotten and has to be learned all over again. More and more, the only things that seem to me worth writing about are the ones I don’t understand. Sometimes the most honest and helpful thing a writer can do is to acknowledge that some problems are insoluble, that life is hard and there aren’t going to be any answers, that he’s just as screwed-up and clueless as the rest of us. Or I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.

I've been studying baseball for over thirty years now and if anything, I'm increasingly aware of what I don't know.

What don't YOU know?