Actually, Hot Take Culture Is Good

Actually, Hot Take Culture Is Good

“Hot take” is among the most withering of insults available to describe a piece of opinion writing these days. We are told that the proclivity to author such “takes” is a symptom of frivolity or cynicism. Beyond their not-so-hot quality, the quantity of “takes” is also supposed to be a major concern—we are flooded with them, “drowning” in them—and this is attributed variously to dysfunction in the media industry, increased ideological polarization, or other causes.

My take (sorry): Such griping about what I’ll call “hot-take culture” amounts to little more than snobbery, and the snobbish gripers are implicitly longing for a gated-community approach to public discussion. I will argue that hot-take culture is an important and valuable part of the liberal democratic order.

Haste and vacuousness

Explanations and criticisms of hot takes can seem as numerous as the takes themselves. Elspeth Reeve defines hot take as “a piece of opinion journalism hastily written in a scolding tone, often by older men.” She quotes Simon Maloy arguing that takes are “a piece of deliberately provocative commentary that is based almost entirely on shallow moralizing.” Alex Pareene describes them as “the online media phenomenon wherein nearly every single outlet that produces ‘content’ finds itself compelled to produce some sort of content related to some sort of news (or pseudo-news), despite having no original reporting or intelligent analysis to add.” As often as not, “hot take” is simply a blanket term of abuse against pieces deemed low-quality and attention-seeking.

Pareene in particular conflates hastily written responses to news events with fluff, and even with user-generated content such as Buzzfeed lists. This conflation is quite telling – “hot take” as invective is presented as a matter of form but in practice is indistinguishable from judgments of substance. Behind John Herman’s humorous analysis of media industry dynamics is a sharp distinction made between “real reporting” and “the Takes.” Pareene likewise talks about “incisive analysis” as opposed to the “exceptionally dumb take” written by “poor 20-something(s)” paid only a “pittance” for their labors.

The problem is that hot takes are hardly the sole purview of professionals, and so professional pressures only take us so far as an explanation. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and all manner of social media are awash in takes, with (non-professional) users giving their responses to the takes of other users that they share, retweet, or reblog. Social media gives us cause to wonder whether man is not the rational animal, or the political animal, but the animal which gives hot takes.

The disdainful attitude toward hot takes is mirrored in the attitude of media professionals towards what Jay Rosen calls “the people formerly known as the audience.” As the Internet took media from a pure one-to-many model to the possibility of many-to-one and many-to-many, the practice of journalism went through a rough adjustment. As Rosen put it in a critique of Newsweek and Leah McGrath Goodman’s response to their critics:

Salmon calls Goodman ‘a proud journalist, who gets personally offended whenever anybody raises questions about her journalism, her techniques, or her reporting.’ Sorry, that was 25 years ago. Today when someone raises questions about your reporting there’s almost an equal chance that a.) they know a great deal more than you, and you will have to listen carefully because your story may turn on it; b.) they’re a troll causing trouble because they can; c.) they’re completely naive on the subject and just coming to the story. Finding out which of these is the case can be difficult. But if you’re offended at having to sort a.) from b.) from c.) you are in the wrong business.

He continues:

Show your work. Don’t tell us how much work went into it. You publish your story, you know it’s going to come under attack, you prepare for battle and when the time is right you release the evidence you have. Instead: ‘Goodman feels that she should be given the respect due a serious and reputable investigative journalist, working for a serious and reputable publication.’ That’s not ‘show your work.’ That’s, ‘You didn’t hear us. We are Newsweek magazine.’ They heard you. They don’t care. And they know that Newsweek sold for $1 a few years ago.

It is true that a small army of troublemakers and the ignorant are always at the ready to express their opinion of your work. But it is equally true that there is a small army of people who understand the subject of your work as well or better than you do, and care enough about it to tell you so. These people hold professionals accountable in a way that they never could have before the Internet and social media.

And one important way they do that is by writing hot takes.

Journalists have argued that these outsiders to their profession, who are often both amateurs and openly partisan, undermine the valuable service that professional and disinterested journalists provide for democracy. To the contrary, I’m going to argue that disinterestedness in the outcome of democratic politics is no virtue, and partisanship in public discussion is no vice.

Liberalism’s beautiful disunity

A common complaint leveled at liberal democracy in the 20th century was that it lacked the unity required to get anything done. The strongmen who swept Europe in the 1930s and 40s did so with the promise of ending squabbles and getting results. Mussolini famously had the reputation of making the trains run on time.

Communitarian critics of liberalism such as Alasdair MacIntyre go further and argue that liberalism lacks the theoretical unity necessary to arrive at rational consensus. Instead of rational adjudication, liberals must rely on persuasion, “by adducing whatever influences or considerations will in fact be effective on this occasion.” The “standards of normative rationality” are discarded in favor of cynical manipulation.

Deliberative-democracy theorists, on the other hand, are liberal, but still seek an untenable unity of a sort. This is the unity of the public space or sphere—an ideal set of conditions under which citizens openly deliberate and are open to being won over by superior arguments. This ideal in practice becomes a cudgel against the systems of public argument that actually exist in real democracies. The deliberative-democracy theorists’ project can be dated back to Desiderius Erasmus and his colleagues’ quest to end the discord of the Reformation through reasonable colloquy. As Teresa M. Bejan puts it:

This all-too-human intuition that disagreements limited only to those one views as reasonable, open-minded, and sincere are more likely to be productive explains, perhaps, why Erasmian colloquy remained a popular genre of philosophic fiction… These idealized dialogues were invariably elite affairs, with the participants always the souls of piety, sobriety, and erudition—and, most crucially, always open to persuasion and the unforced force of the better argument.

A ”genre of philosophic fiction” is exactly right. Whether it’s Erasmian colloquy, deliberative democracy, or communitarianism, all critics of liberal disunity seek superior rationality through greater exclusion. It is the logic of the gated community, or even worse, that of would-be philosopher-kings.

There never was a conceptual unity of the sort MacIntyre envisioned. His own histories are accordingly devoid of it, yet it is the standard by which he judges the present. The past simply had drastically lower literacy rates, and drastically fewer people, period. The very tiny class of writers did engage in heated disagreements, and those disagreements provided the theoretical resources which later generations relied upon. Rather than the sudden explosion in theological and ethical disunity MacIntyre makes it out to be, for example, the Reformation began as the institutional and political expression of an already existing disunity among partisans in theological disputes that existed within the Catholic Church.

Communitarians like MacIntyre speak of pre-liberal institutions with the rhetoric of unity, but paper over deep and contentious disunities, much as nationalism and related romantic ideologies do for present-day institutions. In contrast, Liberals from very early on sought to embrace disunity and find ways to either channel it to productive ends or at least minimize its potential to do harm. More on that in a moment.

We are comfortable acknowledging that science advances through vigorous criticism and innovative thinking. Though most of today’s cranks will remain cranks tomorrow, a few will overcome crankishness and become creative scholars. The openness of science to the participation of cranks, even if by nature and necessity highly discounted by the conventional core, is valuable, possibly essential, for its long-term improvement.

We are less comfortable acknowledging that academic disputes look recognizably partisan. Even the hardest of hard sciences have schools of thought, positions staked out within controversies. Tenured professors cultivate students on “their side” of these disputes, collaborate with those students, and otherwise help them get their careers off the ground. And why not? If you believe that one side is more accurate than the other, why wouldn’t you encourage newcomers to accept it? Why wouldn’t you work with others to demonstrate its correctness, and to demonstrate that alternate theories are erroneous?

The most scientific and scholarly of fields do not look like an Erasmian colloquy or deliberative democracy. Their discourses carry on more politely than do arguments on the Internet, mind you, but they’re still contentious. Conflict, rather than grand theoretical edifices or disinterested discussion, is what generates insight and what MacIntyre refers to as the “resources” available within a theoretical framework.

William Clare Roberts, in defending his book Marx’s Inferno, argued that too many of Marx’s interpreters think of him as a grand theorist who had to simplify his framework to present it to a general audience. Roberts proposes instead to think of Marx as an “arguer” who did not “have a fully-worked out theory in his back pocket. […] Instead, he is oriented by a set of disagreements with the classical political economists, and with his fellow socialists, and is working out, in Capital, as full-fledged a response to those disagreements as he can.” In short, the resources Marx draws on for his argument do not come primarily from his own framework, but from the specific disagreements which oriented him. And his response to those disagreements provided resources for others in turn; those who agreed with him as much as those who disagreed with him.

Which brings us to partisanship proper, often at the forefront or not very far in the background of hot-take culture. In a time when “motivated thinking” and “confirmation bias” are the highest of evils, another person’s having clear pre-commitments is an acceptable reason for dismissing anything that person might have to say. Nancy Rosenblum dissents from that attitude, in the strongest possible terms:

Partisans drive deliberation. Not some abstract ideal of impartiality or good citizenship but partisanship and its challenges is activating, even if it is aversive to some. Deliberation is likely to be interesting and urgent only when it is about choosing sides.

She warns that “disinterested citizens may be uninterested,” a notion supported by data on all kinds of political participation. The conflict necessary to generate fresh theoretical resources is pursued, in the political arena, almost exclusively by partisans. Out of a sense that their side is more trustworthy and therefore probably more often correct than the other one, they try out a variety of arguments to make that case.

The model we should have in mind is not the colloquy but the trial attorney advancing a zealous defense. With long-term political goals in view, or with the heat of the moment making us stubborn, we pick a side and dig in. Motivated reasoning pushes us to see through arguments we might otherwise have hedged on, and to grab for others we might not have considered. The arguments are rarely decisive in the moment; it’s unusual for partisans to concede defeat to superior reasoning. But later, in a private moment, they may go over the arguments again. They may explore the new avenues discovered, looking at the weaknesses more candidly than they were able to during the exchange. Sometimes they even change their minds. More valuably in my estimation, they may develop responses to their interlocutors that they couldn’t think of in the moment.

This, along with the pressure to produce novel arguments for attention and professional advancement (known in science as the “file drawer problem”), spur a process that is creative and oriented towards discovery. If it produces orders of magnitude more mediocre and terrible arguments than good or great ones, that’s hardly surprising. The question is: What other process could possibly be superior for generating high quality insights? Certainly not Erasmian colloquy; that simply involves excluding nearly everyone from the start. If we could guess who had the potential to come up with great arguments ahead of time, it might work, but we do not live in that world. Nor do we live in the world that deliberative-democracy theorists wish we did, and we never will.

You may mourn the relative unpopularity of sophisticated and disinterested arguments available to the general public, but I say let them eat takes.