"Hair-pullingly frustrating to read"

1 minute read

Greg Downey and Daniel Lende ponder the rhetorical evils of NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman and why anthropologists should be better writers: “Thomas Friedmans Lessons for Anthropologists”.

The basic dictum of writing Show, Dont Tell is a good illustration here. Writing professors exhort their students to illustrate action and ideas and social situations and so forth. Rather than telling the reader what is happening, they show the reader. But anthropologists often dont follow that maxim. Its tell, tell, tell, as if that will really show the reader the truth of the world. In the meantime, the readers eyes are glazing over, and they start wishing for something like Friedman. And thats what they find Friedman. Because the anthropologists arent delivering in this space.

I have heard similar complaints from all different kinds of academics. The “public intellectual” space is choked with airheads who don’t understand science and technology. But I would sound like an airhead if I argued that people would better understand complexity if only scientists could write more like Thomas Friedman. The problem isn’t that the 800-word NY Times column lacks content. That’s foreordained. The problem is that longer-form pieces, the 4000-word New Yorker variety, have become the province of formula writers like Malcolm Gladwell. Long-form gives space to actually explore a complex idea, but mainstream media has blinkified the format. For now.

In an aside, I appreciated this passage:

In the end, anthropology has some basic points culture, power, evolution, variation. So it can employ the same kind of well, there are two possible explanations approach that Friedman uses.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these basics this summer, as I was teaching our majors course in anthropological theory. I shaped my course around five “big ideas” of cultural anthropology, and it’s heartening to see four of them here. My experience teaching the course has become the core of a manuscript I am writing on teaching cultural anthropology from the biological perspective. I’ll share that article here when I have brought it closer to completion.