How Not to Become a Caricature: A Guide for Opinion Writers
When it is your job to give your opinion, and help others form theirs, you start to see things as absolutes. Here’s how to avoid this.
Some years ago I used to regularly write columns for newspapers in the UK, and as I am also a lecturer in journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London, I would often find myself talking to students about opinion writing, and analysing my own trade. (Note for American readers — in the UK we use ‘Professor’ for senior academics who have been appointed to specific posts that carry the title, and most academics are referred to as ‘lecturer’).
One of the things about writing a column, where you give your opinion on whatever subject you are covering, hopefully also weaving in research and anecdote and a bit of moral highground in order to create a compelling read that either changes your readers’ minds or reaffirms what it was they were already thinking, is that there is very little room for sitting on the fence. Opinions have to be black or white in order to be clear, and your readers would soon tire of your writing if you were to say ‘on the one hand this, but on the other hand that’ every time.
So it came to be some years ago when I was pitching columns weekly, that I was discussing with my mum how not to take this need for absolutism too far, and how to ensure that even while producing firm opinions week after week, you avoid becoming horribly intolerant and stop your opinions becoming caricatures of themselves. And my mum, who is a brilliant thinker, sent me a list of rules to prevent this happening.
I looked at it again this week as I have started to post online and to think about resurrecting my journalism career now my youngest child has started school, and, although it is several years later, I still think it is an excellent blueprint for column writers. In fact, for teachers, parents, marketers and most people in most jobs as well. So with my mum’s permission, here is her ‘how not to become a caricature’ list.
1. Keep it real, innit!
I mean, make sure you meet real people as it is not so easy to slag off asylum seekers etc if you know a few.
2. Would you say it to their face?
Ask yourself how you would feel expounding the grumpy old fart stuff to the face of the person you are slagging off.
3. Don’t be starry eyed about people/ideas to start with, then they won’t disappoint so much!
But remember no-one (or hardly anyone) is as bad — or as good — as you might once have thought.
4. Don’t work for publications or write for slots that expect you to be grumpy
What else would they want but grumpiness, for heaven’s sake!
5. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Once you start to believe your own hype, it is the beginning of the end.
6. Don’t wear a severe hairstyle, wire rimmed glasses etc.
Or you’ll have to live up to it.
7. Don’t confuse grumpiness with realism
Of course as one gets older one gets a bit more circumspect and that’s fine, but it is still possible to be optimistic about a better world even if it appears to be a longer and more arduous route than one first hoped
8. It is fun to fulminate, but that doesn’t make the fulminations appropriate.
Find other ways to have fun. Get a life.
9. Imagine you are trying to justify your grumpiness/bitterness to Nelson Mandela
Younger people may need to choose a living symbol of peace and forgiveness in order to truly get to grips with this, but Mandela, who died in 2013, was alive when my mum first gave me this list.
It’s hard to pick a favourite — they are all so good. Though I think she saved the best for last with her suggestion about Nelson Mandela. And while I hesitate to tell any woman what to wear, and there surely is a place for horn rimmed glasses for those who wish to wear them, I think she is right that if you create a particular public persona you end up having to live up to it. We have seen this with all kinds of public figures, especially politicians — think President Trump in the US or Jacob Rees-Mogg in the UK, or for an example from popular culture, Simon Cowell in talent shows both sides of the Atlantic.
For my own journalism students though I think it is perhaps her first point that is the best, that it is only by meeting people that you can start to understand them, our differences and, more crucially, our similarities. This isn’t a new idea — the concept of breaking bread with strangers is a biblical one. But it is harder during the pandemic, when we can’t really meet people by accident, only in planned online sessions. Nevertheless it is something we should seek out where possible, and to which we should aspire. to ensure we remember that our own experiences are just one life that could have been lived, and that no person’s experience is inherently more worthy than another’s.