If one were to read/re-read JA Baker’s beautifully written 1967 classic, The Peregrine, one is reminded how distinct it is from most of contemporary writing. Baker’s writing so carefully and completely excludes the writer. His prose, in fact, does the opposite; the author seeks to become one with the birds he watches, never once corrupting that world with anthropocentrism.
It’s a useful lesson and helps one stay honest. The standard template of modern writing in non-fiction, one that The New Yorker seems to fancy, is the opposite. Where the use of first person singular and thrusting oneself into what one is writing about are virtues. The obvious problem with this is obvious: it’s more susceptible to error and conflict of interest. But what is even more worrying is the problem this technique engenders when it succeeds. It tends to reduce thought to the proponents of it. Or, at least, associate the two closely.
Twitter, at least the Indian instance of it, is the extreme example of this going wrong even when done right. The need and the comfort of belonging to a group – be it feminist, liberal, conservative, funny, cool or whatever else – seems to triumph devotion to thought from first principles. And that, one could reasonably hypothesize, is an effect of thrusting the person ahead of thought.
The atrocious examples of it, when the bigotry is obvious, are hardly interesting. What is though is when well meaning groups use this shorthand; such as dismissing the human condition of the rich/privileged because they are rich/privileged. Or, academics justifying themselves to justify their work’s conclusion or possible bias. Or, politicians being expected to embody the virtues they espouse on behalf of their electorate.