On opining

I’m giving opining a rest.

A few years’ back, it got into my head that I could make enough money, at least to make ends meet in the developing world, as a writer. I have had a fair share of stuff published since that time, on a mixture of NZ and US politics and, in one recent instance, in the question of Rwanda.

I have struggled from the outset the “who the fuck do you think you are” problem inherent in opinion writing. I am not an expert on many things, and I often find myself ditching drafts mid-para when it dawns on me that I don’t possess the requisite expertise to express myself usefully on the subject at hand. To give you an example, I used to write extensively about the Trump Russia probe. But while I follow the story with almost monomaniacal obsession, and know more useless details about US politics than anyone should be weighted down by, I decided against adding my voice any further. Why? Because I concluded that, for all my amateurish enthusiasm and decades long hobby-like interest in the broader subject matter, I do not bring any value to the discourse. When it comes to pontificating about elections and electoral politics, I won’t hold back — I know that shit — but there are simply countless people better positioned, with the right professional backgrounds and access to sources, to help explicate this complex and consequential story of a Trump and Russia. Unless I can add something to the discussion of substance and consequence — and not just reheated versions of arguments mounted better elsewhere — I’m just a letters to the editor windbag, a social media loudmouth. (That said, I will opine on these matters as the mood strikes on social media, purely as a news consumer).

The 700-800 word oped is a deeply entrenched form that allows controversial arguments to be made succinctly in newspapers and their electronic versions. For issues well understood by the readership, the oped form can be quite useful. For the writer, it provides the discipline required to make a brief but persuasive case to that audience.

But the oped form is hopelessly inadequate when it comes to dense and complex subject matter about which the readership concerned, through no fault of their own, don’t grasp an iota of  essential  context. Such opeds reliably miss their mark, creating yet more unhelpful noise.

I’m afraid I’m guilty on this front.

You will never persuade me the ICTR defence weren’t a collection of ratbags who used the Tribunal as a means to relitigate the politics and culpability of the genocide. This is an opinion I share with almost everyone I know who knows anything about the ICTR — and that is literally hundreds of people who, without exception, know heaps more about it than the randos on Kiwi Twitter who couldn’t care less about Rwanda or international justice but wanted to attack me. Even the people who really wanted to agree with me were flailing about with insufficient knowledge.

It was my fault. I should have known the arguments were way too complex to convey in two rushed opeds (in both cases, written at the request of editors and not pitched by me). If I wanted to do justice to the issue, I should have breathed through my nose and penned a lengthy detailed feature piece. Or I should have shut my fat face. All I achieved by trying to fit a round peg of an argument — that Golriz was phenomenally unwise to partake in the ICTR, something I will believe with all my heart to my dying day — into a square peg of an oped format is to increase net ignorance around the subject, and give partisan hacks the chance to play silly games and engage in dishonest name calling. It debases the discourse, dishonours the real life suffering of many — and, rather than uplifting our collective understanding of a terrible period of history, it turned it into just another political shitfight to give partisans the visceral pleasure of dehumanizing, misrepresenting and flagrantly lying about anyone with which we disagree.

Never say never and all that, but I will keep my opinions to myself from now on unless I feel my contribution is sufficiently well informed to make a useful contribution, and won’t simply trigger another unhelpful round of substance-free nastiness. I will still tweet, mind you. Any idiot can do that. If the urge to write in a longer form strikes, I’ll read a book by someone I disagree with instead.