McArdle’s Iron Law of Commentary

Sometimes I post things here as a bookmark for my brain, for example, a reminder of a good writing tip that I can look up later. Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle wrote the following in a column about the refugee crisis (but really the column was about how to convince people that your argument is the correct one). I think about this bit of advice often, especially when I’m reading an opinion piece that’s more tribal signaling than useful insight.

It took me years of writing on the Internet to learn what is nearly an iron law of commentary: The better your message makes you feel about yourself, the less likely it is that you are convincing anyone else. The messages that make you feel great about yourself (and of course, your like-minded friends) are the ones that suggest you’re a moral giant striding boldly across the landscape, wielding your inescapable ethical logic. The messages that work are the ones that try to understand what the other side is thinking, on the assumption that they are no better or worse than you. So if you are actually trying to help the Syrian refugees, rather than marinate in your own sensation of overwhelming virtue, you should avoid these tactics.

Of course, tribal signaling feels really good, so it’s no surprise that people do it so often. For the sake of better public arguments, though, I wish more people followed McArdle’s advice. I think it would make them more interesting. It’s like, how long can you keep playing the same note on the piano before anyone who is not tone-deaf or who appreciates good music finally just tunes you out? Not only that, but being able to understand, articulate and then properly criticize an argument you disagree with seems like a way to differentiate yourself as a writer. Which is perhaps why, in a topsy-turvy media landscape, McArdle has been able to blog for a living since 2003.


Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles

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