Anatomy of a Bad Take
Let’s dissect a piece of malicious clickbait and see how it ticks
1. The Dias Scale of Bad Take Intensity
This is the Dias Scale of Bad Take Intensity, a model for categorizing bad takes by the depth of their badness.
A Category 1 bad take is an error in judgement. It’s an argument that’s not quite airtight, a column that misses some key facts, an opinion that’s not quite calibrated to reality. We all have our personal blindspots and bugbears; we all have some Cat-1s in us, and the only thing really standing between me and publishing one is that I’m fortunate to work with exceptional editors. There but for the grace of God go I.
A Category 2 bad take is an error in judgement so grave it reflects poorly on the writer. It leaves the reader to wonder, awestruck, at how the author functions in the world with such a dramatic misapprehension of it. For some writers, a Cat-2 would be a career-terminating mistake. For guys like David Brooks, a Cat-2 is Tuesday.
A Category 3 bad take is an error in judgement that reflects poorly on the publication and its editors, maybe even more so than the author. Cat-3s are weak thinking allied to malicious sensationalism. A Cat-3 isn’t trying to make a good argument and failing; it’s trying to make a bad argument to see how many hate-clicks you can get.
A Cat-1 needed more time in the oven. A Cat-2 needed severe rewrites, or should have been rejected. A Cat-3 should never have been pitched.
2. That Fucking Game of Thrones Column
That Fucking Game of Thrones Column, TFGoTC or “tah-fuggahthuck” for short, is a gods damned Category III if I have ever seen one.
Now, obviously, this piece is written to elicit hate and rage from readers and thus give The Week a flood of attention from people who don’t read The Week. That’s a pretty trite point to make, blah blah blah, don’t read the take if it’s bad, we all know the drill.
But I thought it would be instructive to analyze how it does that; there’s a calculation at work here that’s frankly pretty despicable. So let’s open this sucker up and get our hands dirty.
Game of Thrones is unquestionably the most acclaimed and beloved show on television.
Here we see the first clear indication that this is a Category 3 Bad Take. Any decent line editor doing their job would have nuked this statement from orbit. It’s just not true that Game of Thrones is “unquestionably” the most acclaimed and beloved show on television. In raw viewership numbers, Netflix original content and CBS procedurals do better. In terms of critical acclaim, there is a litany of other shows that are similarly well-regarded. It’s a premium cable show that does exceptionally well by the standards of premium cable, and which critics generally like. But writing something measured like that doesn’t tee up the bad take.
This may seen like nitpicking, but for me it really highlights a bad habit that people develop in culture writing: puffing up the importance of what you’re writing about before writing about it. This is a bad look especially when writing about things that are big and influential, like Game of Thrones. You don’t need to exaggerate here, but you still did. Things don’t have to be important to be worth writing about; a lot of the best writing about games out there is about games that didn’t really find an audience and weren’t all that influential. But if you have nothing really to say about something, making it seem like it’s the mainline of the monoculture will inflate the apparent importance and validity of your nonargument:
What does it say about our culture and the state of the souls of millions who participate in it that anyone could find any of this even mildly diverting[…]?
You see how the earlier false statement — Game of Thrones is the most important television show — feeds into the later argument about how its content is reflected in the entire culture.
Two decades ago, watching it would have gotten you shoved into a locker.
They met, by their own admission, while playing a Lord of the Rings-based roleplaying game on the internet. Imagine that!
Popular culture in the English-speaking world is in the grips of a downward nerd-driven death spiral.
The average video game player is more than 30 years old.
This is where it gets truly bad. “It’s a sign of our moral degeneration that Game of Thrones aren’t shoved into lockers.” Having a relationship that started in an online game is shameful or laughable. Playing video games past the age of 30 is pathetic. Those are transparently bad ideas, notions that have no real currency in the culture any more.
Nerds aren’t oppressed! There is no vast injustice against people who like Warhammer 40K miniatures, there is no systemic discrimination against Magic: the Gathering players. What does exist, though, is a contingent of men with little perspective and bad judgement who do think that they are oppressed for their hobbies and media taste, and those guys have been making gaming, comics, and other related pursuits unpleasant for the rest of us for a long time. By embodying the bugbear of the elitist nerdophobe, the author is tapping into that deep well of resentment to get attention, and in turn, feeding on how that resentment harms actual people trying to exist in those spaces. That’s pretty bad.
But more importantly: The thrust of his argument is that “nerd culture” has infected and overtaken the mainstream, consumed it. At the same time, the only language he has for the people who participate in that culture is that of condescending disparagement: nerds are weak, pathetic, laughable.
So the thing to understand about this dissonance, first of all, is that the author (Matthew Walther) is a rightwing hack.
I went and got the receipts. He also writes for the National Review, a publication so revolting they were publishing pro-apartheid screeds in 2015. He’s also worked as an editor on the American Spectator, a rabidly conservative Catholic outlet. There, Walther wrote and published a 2014 piece about Chelsea Manning that is so vile in its aggressive transphobia that I won’t link to it.
What clued me in at first was that he’s deploying a standard tactic of rightwing discourse: liberals are weak, stupid, and fragile cowards, and they’re also an all-consuming conspiracy that is taking over the culture and threatens Western Civilization; cf how condescending “safe space” and “snowflake” discourse can coexist with rabid calls to buy guns and defend western civilization from islamo-antifa fifth columnists. Nerds are a novel target for this trick, but it dates back to the fascistic rhetorical antecedents of American movement conservatism.
And, of course, Walther’s empty moralizing is transparently hypocritical in view of his past writing; he’s willing to go and attack a real person in a way that generates real harm, but now he’s here clutching his pearls at a television show.
There is a deeper sense in which the old problems that were the hallmark of realist fiction and drama — the old stand-bys of morals, manners, marriage, and money — are simply not interesting to people who are not emotionally mature enough to engage with them.
Emphasis mine. This is a fantastically stupid sentence, because Game of Thrones is about morals; questions of morality, and the value of morality in a world where the structures don’t support morality, are central to the show. This doesn’t mean that it’s well-executed, but it’s absolutely operating in a thematic tradition with long antecedents in Western fiction.
Walther is again making a badly thought out argument that conflates the fantastical with the frivolous; Game of Thrones has dragons in it, so it can’t possibly have anything to say about conventionally important dramatic themes. This same standard would rule out a bunch of Shakespeare plays, the Iliad, and Animal Farm too.
I could go on, but here’s the thing: Game of Thrones isn’t necessarily good. There are points to be made about how Game of Thrones’ depictions of sex, violence, and particularly sexual violence are exploitative. There are a myriad criticisms to make. That Game of Thrones is good, or even defensible, is not a hill I plan to die on.
What makes this bad take a bad take, then, is not the general thrust of its ideas but the tactics that it deploys in supporting those ideas.
You start out by exaggerating the import of what you’re writing. A typical culture writer has restraint, sometimes even timidity; you are careful not to overstate your case, not to make a grand sweeping argument about the culture as a whole, or even about a genre or medium as a whole. Because those big sweeping arguments end up with holes you could drive a semi through. Writing a grandiose piece like that demands research, care, and the attention of a great editor. The hack, on the other hand, writes a narrow and obtuse piece and then starts it out by grossly overstating how much its subject matters.
Then, you insult your own audience. Who’s gonna click on a headline titled “Game of Thrones is Bad?” Game of Thrones fans. The rest of humanity doesn’t care enough. You know this, and you use it to your advantage. It’s not enough to criticize a thing: You have to make it known that the people who like it are dweebs and losers.
Again, notice the dissonance. Game of Thrones fans are pathetic and also they’re overtaking the culture because Game of Thrones is the most beloved and acclaimed show on television.
Those internal contradictions are key to the dubious art of the bad take. Not everyone has my particular issues; not everyone is going to sit and analyze this bad take to death. But people aren’t stupid; on a subconscious level, you can tell when something doesn’t make any real sense. And that’ll make you mad, because it’s frustrating when things don’t make sense, because it’s upsetting to get the sensation that you’re being lied to. A category 3 bad take is designed to elicit anger in the same way a horror movie is designed to elicit dread.
Arguably, the only right response is to ignore those people. When it comes to bad pop culture takes — sure, okay. But though those columns are born out of malice, it’s pretty harmless malice, and frankly, if we’re being honest, a lot of us get a perverse enjoyment out of hate-reading very stupid opinions.
The reality is that bad takes propagate not because we hate them, but because we love them. We love their stupid incoherent arguments, we love their painfully out of touch ideas, we love their ignorant affirmations. I think a cynical observer would say that it’s because it makes us feel superior. You might feel kind of foolish sometimes, but at least you’re not the guy who thinks stracciatella is the reason poor kids can’t get into college.
But I don’t think that’s it at all; I think it’s the anger itself that appeals. Bad are an invitation to catharsis. Because our frustration at a bad pop culture take can be resolved in a way that many of our day-to-day frustrations really can’t. You can Get Mad Online and explain, at length, why that guy who writes for The Week is so painfully wrong about everything. And then, having been right about something, you can have the satisfaction of righteous rage realized into action.