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The Chattering Class That is All of UsThe Chattering Class That is All of Us

The Chattering Class That is All of Us

Whenever "ordinary" people (what, in the United States, we refer to as "real Americans") want to dismiss the incessant pontifications of journalists, columnists, and so-called public intellectuals, they can avail themselves of that biting epithet: "the chattering class." The chattering classes are those educated elites who dominate public discourse, commanding op-ed pages and national magazines, reviewing one another's books, commenting on one another's proposals, largely sequestered in what Charles Murray calls "super zips"—those regions of North America where the overly-educated are concentrated, creating the echo chambers that the rest of us are privileged to overhear. Take any event X (where X might be the Newtown massacre or the election of a new pope or a Supreme Court decision about gay marriage or just the latest episode of Girls); Provide your (usually entirely predictable) analysis or commentary on X (which might include a harangue or heartfelt plea, a poignant affirmation or an ironic deconstruction); Cycle through the ripple-effect commentaries on your commentary, including the (equally predictable) ironic denunciations and subsequent defenses; when we start getting ironic defenses of the ironic denunciations, then you know it's time for a new X. Repeat incessantly for all new Xs, while nothing changes.

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Topics: Elites, Discipline, Pontificating
The Chattering Class That is All of Us March 28, 2013  |  By James K.A. Smith
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Irony alert: herewith a blog post worrying about the idle chatter of the blogosphere.

Whenever "ordinary" people (what, in the United States, we refer to as "real Americans") want to dismiss the incessant pontifications of journalists, columnists, and so-called public intellectuals, they can avail themselves of that biting epithet: "the chattering class." The chattering classes are those educated elites who dominate public discourse, commanding op-ed pages and national magazines, reviewing one another's books, commenting on one another's proposals, largely sequestered in what Charles Murray calls "super zips"—those regions of North America where the overly-educated are concentrated, creating the echo chambers that the rest of us are privileged to overhear.

The "chatter" of this class, I take it, is the constant din of commentary on everything: the need to analyze, dissect, explain, and predict ad infinitum. The formula is easy enough:

  • Take any event X (where X might be the Newtown massacre or the election of a new pope or a Supreme Court decision about gay marriage or just the latest episode of Girls);

  • Provide your (usually entirely predictable) analysis or commentary on X (which might include a harangue or heartfelt plea, a poignant affirmation or an ironic deconstruction);

  • Cycle through the ripple-effect commentaries on your commentary, including the (equally predictable) ironic denunciations and subsequent defenses; when we start getting ironic defenses of the ironic denunciations, then you know it's time for a new X.

  • Repeat incessantly for all new Xs, while nothing changes.

It might be fun to foist this description on some distant "chattering class," attributing such navel-gazing to "them." But in the age of the internet and social media—when any of us can pontificate on our blogs and Twitter feeds—pretty much all you need to join the chattering class is a solid liberal arts education and some decent 3G. When the chattering class becomes the twittering class, then the epithet starts to hit a little close to home.

Even more of us are constant consumers of such chatter. Those of us in "creative" and white collar professions can leave our Twitter feed open all day long, ready to consume the next analysis, the next ironic takedown, the next "Christian perspective" on X, Y, or Z. (Here it can be instructive to simply have friends who have what I still consider to be "real" jobs—the sort of jobs where you shower after work, not before. When you work with your hands, for example, you're not tempted to check your RSS feed all day simply because your hands are working, not doddling on a keyboard or touchscreen.)

No doubt we tell ourselves that we are staying "informed." But the situation of incessant commentary and distraction begs for Pascalian analysis: we have Twitter feeds to hide from the disturbing questions of existence. Or one could imagine a somewhat Marxian take: the blogosphere is a way to spend hours and hours interpreting the world rather than labouring to change it. The expansion of the chattering class seems to accord well with the status quo.

I am reminded of James' stinging criticism of those who are hearers but not doers of the Word—who see themselves in a mirror only to go away and immediately forget what they saw (James 1:22-25). Is the blogosphere like that mirror, capturing our attention while leaving us unchanged?

Don't get me wrong: I think there is a place for commentary (and certainly a need—now, more than ever—for careful journalism). Obviously this is a blog post. The question is: what is all this commentary for?

As a writer, blogger, Tweeter, and magazine editor, I keep asking myself this question. This isn't just a matter of pragmatism, as if we need to see "practical" outcomes for everything. Learning to think critically about our world is itself a virtue. But such reflection should serve—and shape—our practice. Otherwise we become simply consumptive hearers rather than transformed doers.

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to be part of a retreat at Laity Lodge near Kerrville, TX. Nestled in a canyon in the Texas hill country, Laity Lodge is an idyllic space of beauty, seclusion, and Christian hospitality. I came away changed because of it—not least because of the simple fact that I was unplugged from my smartphone for a few days. I found new space for reflection in the silence, new vigour for my work in the respite from incessant distraction. I came back to "civilization" with a new determination: I would no longer be a passive consumer distracted by the constant stream of analysis from my peers in the chattering class. I deleted my Twitter app from my phone. I turn on the "Do Not Disturb" function while I'm writing. I'm trying to listen more deeply to a few voices rather than the din of many. I'm trying to make space to discuss matters with my family and friends, to be available to the embodied neighbours right here in front of me. When the chatter subsides, we might rediscover conversation.

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