The Mind-Reading Style In American Journalism

And why it's bad

Let’s pull a couple quick excerpts from two recent articles in Vox, shall we? In “Liam Neeson’s comments show how racism and denial work hand in hand,” Alex Abad-Santos, explaining why it was problematic that Neeson admitted in an interview that he had once fantasized about finding and murdering a black man after a friend of his was raped — even though he made it explicitly clear he is now deeply disgusted with and ashamed of his mindset at the time — writes:

One of the most pertinent moments in Neeson’s follow-up interview with [Robin] Roberts came when he confidently asserted that “this was 40 years ago” and stated that he isn’t racist.

Despite Neeson also saying that he worked to get rid of his racist feelings, his reminder that decades have passed since this incident might be interpreted as a declaration that racism and bias are problems that go away with time. If that were true, racism wouldn’t exist today.

The phrase “might be interpreted” is doing so much work here! Who, exactly, would interpret Liam Neeson saying of an evil and embarrassing personal moment “this was 40 years ago” as him meaning to make the much broader and less personally focused claim that “racism and bias are problems that go away with time”? How is this a good-faith interpretation of the plain text of his statement? It doesn’t feel like one. (Sort of a side point, but also: In a certain sense racism does gradually, generally, and with exceptions “go away” with time, even if hitting the zero mark is, of course, impossible; both explicit and possibly implicit prejudice have diminished over the years, setting aside the issues with the implicit association test.)

Now let’s jump over to Jaya Saxena’s article, “The knitting community is reckoning with racism,” which covers the online discussion (or pileon) that followed after the white knitting blogger Karen Templer “blogged excitedly about her upcoming trip to India.” Her language choices caused quite a stir: “Karen, I’d ask you to re-read what you wrote and think about how your words feed into a colonial/imperialist mindset toward India and other non-Western countries,” wrote a commenter named Alex. “Multiple times you compare the idea of going to India to the idea of going to another planet — how do you think a person from India would feel to hear that?” (From context, we can safely assume Alex is definitely an Indian guy presently living in India.)

Here’s what Saxena had to say:

As someone who is mixed-race Indian, to me, her post (though seemingly well-meaning) was like bingo for every conversation a white person has ever had with me about their “fascination” with my dad’s home country; it was just so colorful and complex and inspiring. It’s not that they were wrong, per se, just that the tone felt like they thought India only existed to be all those things for them.

So Saxena herself doesn’t seem to disagree that India is colorful and complex and inspiring and fascinating (“not that they were wrong, per se”), but rather has a problem with the tone with which Templer expressed those sentiments. Something about it suggested to her Templer believes “India only exist[s] to be all those things for [her].”

The phrase “the tone felt like” is doing so much work here! What was it about the tone, exactly? It’s unclear. But whatever it was, it was bad enough so that Saxena read a description about India she more or less agreed with it and determined that buried underneath that cheery and reasonable exterior was a deeply insensitive sentiment.

I’ve noticed that this sort of writing — writing which relies heavily on constructions like “X could be implied as meaning Y,” where Y is something most readers would disagree flows naturally from X — is more and more prevalent. This mind-reading style, as I call it, entails a lot of head-scratching claims, and is usually geared at generating anger or outrage.

What’s going on here? If I’m right, why is this happening? I’ve got a couple ideas.

I should point out that I’m not the first to have noticed this sort of thing. Back in 2015, the writer and academic Phoebe Maltz Bovy, who has since authored the excellent book “The Perils of ‘Privilege’: Why Injustice Can't Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage,” wrote in The New Republic about what she called “The Rise of Feelings Journalism,” which “involves a writer making an argument based on what they imagine someone else is thinking, what they feel may be another person’s feelings,” she wrote. “The realm of fact, of reporting, has been left behind.”

As Bovy pointed out,

There are structural reasons for the popularity of feelings journalism. News… begets opinion pieces, and those pieces beget more arguments, which beget news stories about the “brewing controversy;” and every step of the way, countless outlets are trying to be first. Thus, the “take,” the shallow but hyper-timely articles that have become ubiquitous. … This is not only about time, but money. Especially in feminist journalism, low-paid essays that take a personal or provocative stance are the norm. If a publication can get at least as strong a reaction to a piece that cost $50, as one that took hundreds of dollars to report, why wouldn’t it encourage the former? Unlike outright fabrication, feelings journalism doesn’t necessarily cross an ethical line, just one of good sense—and, perhaps, of good writing.

I think “mind-reading style” points to something slightly broader, but Bovy’s diagnosis is definitely correct and related. Feelings journalism/The mind-reading style requires nothing but [gestures vaguely] feelings. I feel that when you said “Dogs are mostly not yellow,” what you were really thinking was that “No dogs anywhere are yellow” — that that whole Dogs are mostly not yellow shtick was a cover for your dumb true feelings about no dogs being yellow, which as we all know is a ridiculous and offensive position, and which, as soon as I hit Publish on this, will gain me attention for having called you out on your asininity. All without me having had to pick up the phone, send an email, or learn anything new about the world!

So that’s part of it. But there’s also, I would argue, an ideological component: a movement within certain segments of the left to downplay the importance of intentions more generally. This tendency is just about everywhere — the modern study of racism, for example, has shifted almost entirely from intentional acts and thoughts to unintentional ones (PDF) — but Michelle Goldberg nailed it in her classic 2014 article in The Nation, “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” a piece so on-point and prescient that I want to pour acid into my eyes every time I reread it and begin to reflect on how much worse everything has gotten online since it was published.

Goldberg’s piece is an exploration of certain deeply toxic corners in online feminism, and part of that exploration involves explaining those communities’ rather dysfunction- and infighting-promoting norms.

Similarly, there’s a norm that intention doesn’t matter—indeed, if you offend someone and then try to explain that you were misunderstood, this is seen as compounding the original injury. Again, there’s a significant insight here: people often behave in bigoted ways without meaning to, and their benign intention doesn’t make the prejudice less painful for those subjected to it. However, “that became a rule where you say intentions never matter; there is no added value to understanding the intentions of the speaker,” [the feminist sociologist Katherine] Cross says.

It’s good that Goldberg pointed out that there is a strong case to be made that sometimes the intention to not have hurt someone isn’t enough. This is a point worth lingering on for a moment rather than blowing past — of course it’s true that “I didn’t mean to” isn’t always a wholly exculpatory utterance.

But it’s also obviously true that intentions do at least matter somewhat in many situations, and maybe more than somewhat when we expand the discussion past whether someone intended to be offensive and into the realm of whether they even intended to mean something very specific. I don’t think Neeson intended to imply that racism always goes away with time; I don’t think Templer intended to imply India is some sort of Disneyland East that exists solely for Western amusement.

There’s power, though, for some people, in promoting a norm in which writers can interpret in such a fast and loose way. It opens the door to all sorts of wild, imaginative interpretations of what figures — usually controversial ones the internet is eager to dunk on — said or meant. It opens the door to ever more takes, to ever more outrage.

As fun and liberating as that must be for the individual writers who partake, we should fight this tendency. It makes us dumber and distracts us and weakens the institutions of journalism and criticism by rendering us journalists and critics less trustworthy-seeming, less good-faith in our dealings with the world we are covering. Maybe Neeson’s interview was problematic, but it seems unlikely, based on what he actually said, that it was problematic on the grounds that he was claiming racism automatically diminishes over time. Similarly, maybe Templer’s description of her India-excitement was problematic, but it seems unlikely that it was problematic on the grounds that she views India as Disneyland East.

The solution here isn’t complicated: Writers (and editors) should give themselves a bit less license to mind-read, to interpret acts of speaking and writing in overly imaginative ways. That isn’t real criticism or journalism, anyway, and writers should want to do real criticism or journalism.

Questions? Comments? Explanations of what I really meant, implicitly, in this post? I’m at, or on Twitter at @jessesingal.