Paul Signac, Cassis — Cap Lombard (1889, detail)

The many virtues of condescendence

or how Frenchmen write inspirational stories

Recently, you wrote about a depressing afternoon spent browsing inane posts on Medium (“5 things productive people do to get the most out of their day”). They angered you, you felt they sounded hollow, you compared them to the emotional transport you felt when reading a good novel, and found a world of difference. The bottom line is that these are personal stories: they might be about nothing, about something you care about, but in the end they are written to share a personal experience, to convey personal views.

As such, they are nothing more than examples. Isolated examples of things that have happened to very specific people in very specific circumstances. Generally, they also try to carry some form of positive energy: in addition to many a success story (“How I won my battle against porn addiction”) stories of so-called “life failures” abound, which serve as an excuse for the author to share their newly acquired wisdom (“How my coffee business failed and what you can learn from it”).

Despite their exemplary nature, the factual content of these stories can actually be quite meagre. Sure, they contain a lot of factoids, events, ups and downs, but if you boil it down to the essential, the “life lesson” that is the main selling point of all this prose, you are often down to one or two surprisingly bland sentences. The rest is down to chance, or depend on circumstances that are entirely foreign to you. Worse even, you will have no trouble finding these life lessons in any book of famous quotes or ancient proverbs. And there’s how “The early bird catches the worm” becomes “How I became a morning person following these 5 simple steps”.

“They are the contemporary, dumbed-down incarnation of the romantic novel, the ultimate source of generational identity and angst.”

Why then do we seem to indulge so much in this DIY version of the traditional folk tale? In traditional bedtime stories (the same goes for aphorisms), the person telling the story plays no active part, they are nothing but a vessel, a temporary recipient of a piece of common wisdom. Telling a story requires a certain dose of humility: the bulk of the psychological impact of a folk’s tale is borne by the recipient, the one who discovers the story. Not so with the Medium post: effectively, these stories are written as much for their authors as for their readers. They attempt to turn the author into a role model, a figure that belongs to the same age, the same generation as us, to whom we can relate and look up to. They would have us ask ourselves: “If they did it, why not me?”. This process is mutually beneficial for the author and the reader: the author feels good, because this sort of publishing opens the door to a kind of niche stardom, the reader on the other hand feels that they have gained a new piece of knowledge. On a more abstract level, these stories function as a kind of social glue: by giving us figures that we can identify ourselves with, they give birth to a sense of community, a reassuring thought that tells us “no, you are not alone to face these questions”. They are the contemporary, dumbed-down incarnation of the romantic novel, the ultimate source of generational identity and angst.

“Even for someone wanting to use these relations as a starting point for an actual constructive debate, the options are limited”

If we look at these stories under the prism of argumentation and debating however, the picture looks very different. Since they derive from personal experience alone, the arguments conveyed are essentially unassailable, because any attack on them is de facto turned into an argumentum ad personam. You cannot separate the argument from the person anymore, because the person does not explicitly engage in a debate with you. It’s just an opinion piece, you should take it or leave it. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. For a medium that aspires to replace traditional paper-based information, this approach is singularly limited: a newspaper contains far, far more than opinion pieces. It contains actual, general facts about world affairs, facts that do not depend on the person who reports them.

Even for someone wanting to use these relations as a starting point for an actual constructive debate, the options are limited, because these stories simply “expose” circumstances or arbitrary deductions made by arbitrary people, but don’t actually set out to rigorously conduct any kind of argumentative or informative task. This turns the debate into a war of character, where personal world views collide in sterile “comment battles”.

In particular, three central aspects of any information report are impossible to assess or discuss openly: the generalisability of the story to a wider audience, the personal circumstances of the author, and their credibility. It has never been very clear to what extent an Indian entrepreneur’s success story, or the travel impressions of a twenty-something upper middle class American are relevant to the average European reader. The background, education and world view of these two people are radically different, and yet the fundamental biases introduced by these unconscious forces are largely unaccounted for in their writings. Don’t get me wrong: I value cultural exchange as a major sign of progress and civilisation. The point here is that there can be no real exchange between two different world views if we don’t acknowledge that there is a difference in the first place. Finally, the certain rhetorical quality of some of these writings should not hide the fact that most of these pieces are actually written by nobodies. In fact, as we saw, the main drive of their success is that they are written by people “like you and me”. Where then do you draw the line? Which story do you let yourself be inspired by? In other words: if they are so much like myself, do I trust, do I respect this person enough to let them inspire me?

“There can be no real exchange between two different world views if nobody acknowledges that there is a difference in the first place.”

The last issue with this type of inspirational writing is that it is easily the subject of overinterpretation. Since their take-home message is so simple and often disappointing, we tend to assimilate specifics of the story to their more general message. The stories then become models for what you should do or think, and some of them actually state this very clearly (“10 things you didn’t know you were doing wrong at work”). By definition, they don’t make you construct a response of your own to the situations they present. They suggest that the situation you’re in, the problem you’re facing has happened before exactly as it is, and that there is a simple pattern for you to follow in order to maximise your chances of success in life or otherwise. To me, not only is this plain wrong, it is also the contrary of what inspiration should be. Inspiration challenges you, provides you with feelings or arguments that get you thinking. It sets a complex reasoning machine in motion, starts a movement that leads you from questioning to soul searching to that final “inspirational spark” that best pushes you to true innovation.

What of it then? Should we all, as a generation, just shut up and worry more about our debating skills? We certainly would benefit from learning again the virtue of silence, but there is actually another way we could reduce the noise we see on modern content sharing platforms. And that answer is not esoteric, it is not even new or particularly hidden, just terribly difficult to master. It’s the French “literary essay”. The dictionary is misleading: an “essai” is not an “essay” in the English sense of the word.

Foreign readers often wonder at how much French essays can seem pretentious and condescending. They are always written in a non-personal, non-engaged way. They speak of abstractions of the highest order, without even pretending to relate to real world facts. A counterexample does not harm their argument in any way, instead they seem to strengthen it: “to every rule, there is an exception”. Isolated facts are frowned upon and are quickly turned into philosophical concepts, even when the author has no tangible expertise in philosophy or the social sciences. The general always has precedence over the particular, individual specificities are dwarfed by broader sociological observations. These pieces are written in an academic style that can seem completely out of place if you look at who actually writes them. The English reader will look for references, quotes from established researchers in the field to support the author’s conclusions: they will find none. An “essai” does not seek its legitimacy in previous works, because that would mean that the argument is too weak to support itself. With this apparently preposterous remark, we touch to the core principle of this type of medium: the ultimate judging criterion for the quality of an “essai” is its rigorousness, the elegance of its deductive process. This form of communication speaks for itself, the logical structure of the comment is obvious, and it is only through the analysis of their thought process that you reach the author’s actual persona. It naturally invites a debate on substance, even on values. You know you have written a good “essai” when someone else writes an essai to contradict it.

I must confess, I am biased in this matter. I never liked inspirational stories. I never felt comfortable with how blunt they were about how much better they were going to make you feel: to me, this pretentiousness always felt inelegant, almost vulgar. I only ever found inspiration in enlightening thoughts, beautiful demonstrations and salient counterarguments that shook the beliefs I took as granted. But then again, I probably wouldn’t be French if I didn’t.

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