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Three cheers for generalism — why James Delingpole is wrong about web journalism

3 March 2014

3:30 PM

3 March 2014

3:30 PM

I yearn for expertise, in the way that only an arts graduate can. At university I learned how to read books (as long as they were written in English). But now, two decades on, people who can read books (as long as they are written in English) are not quite such the hot ticket that they used to be. It’s an outrage.

No wonder I envy those who have honed and sharpened their talent, rapier-like, into something that can be wielded usefully in life. What good will my dim recollection of sonnet form do me?

The people I particularly admire are those who have set their heart on some really specific skill and put in the hard yards. Microbiologists, say. I look up to them in the way that small boys look up to fathers who know how to tie 18 different kinds of knot.

When I became obits editor at The Telegraph, therefore, it was this kind of specialist life that I most enjoyed recounting. Describing the tools and tactics of artisans of genius – the master boat builders and dazzlingly brilliant cobblers — was a kind of bliss. The more specific their trade, the better. I wallowed vicariously in their lifetimes of accrued and refined knowledge. Writing about them provided a momentary and, for me, suitably superficial, appreciation of mastery that I would never know. Though we were of the same species, their specialisations seemed fantastic and remote. I felt like a dull grey pigeon landing briefly on a branch occupied by birds of paradise.

Marilyn Monroe knew of what I write. ‘Specialisation,’ she used to sing (badly), is ‘the trait/That seems to state: first raters’. I’m sure she did not have authors of dodgy dissertations on Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in mind.

All in all it often feels as if the generalist has had his day. But perhaps because of that, the generalist in me is fighting back.

For specialisation has reached an extraordinary pitch. So feverish is it that these days even specialists find they are not quite specialised enough. For example the number of medical journals, with ever more recondite and specific titles, is rocketing. If you want depth, you’ve got to sacrifice breadth. And the fashion is definitely for depth. Ever narrower depth.

The problem is that this fashion for narrowness and depth is not only obvious in areas where you would want it to be – like, say, microbiology. It is also fashionable in the fundamental questions of our politics and identity. Many Scots clearly long for the narrower, deeper sense of national identity they feel would come with belonging to a small independent country, rather than a bigger, more diverse, United Kingdom. And as Ukrainians are learning to their cost, geographical fragmentation can occur through far less peaceable means than referenda.

Everyone has their own idea of where to draw the line on any particular specialisation/generalisation debate. But we should beware the impulse to withdraw into smaller and smaller groups, however comfortable the resultant company might appear to be. I remember being in tiny, ethnic-Albanian dominated Kosovo on the day it was declared an independent country. The celebrations were wild. But the not-so-funny joke, as the new flags were hoisted, was that ethnic-Serbs in an even tinier sliver of the new state were already threatening to break away.

Pulverising political and geographic concepts into nuggets for ever more specific audiences is not the best response to the difficulties of diversity. Rather, it strikes me as a depressing sign that the virtuous but hard process of hammering out satisfactory compromise between many voices is increasingly being dispensed with, in favour of easy agreement between a few.

The internet does not help. It is an amazing resource. Those seeking out information (like obits editors) are in clover. But precisely because the breadth of information available to us has never been so great, browsers turn in bewilderment to subjects they already know they like. There’s bound to be a site tailored just to them. If we want to explore, we get our friends to show us where they’ve been, which is not likely to result in the biggest excursion off the beaten track.

I include myself in this dilemma. Last week on these pages James Delingpole, referring to the ‘conservatorial website’ Breitbart, which he now works for, asked the question: ‘What’s bad about giving people what they want?’ Nothing, was the obvious answer.

But suprisingly, something in my generalist’s wishy-washy, unconfrontational soul rebelled at this. The boy I once was, who was dragged out from in front of the television screen to go on long, rainy Sunday walks, cried out that getting only what you want deprives you of exposure to other things you might like too. Echoes of parental explanations from many years ago rang through my fuzzy arts graduate head.

James’s article is a good example. For had he written last week’s column on Breitbart (with what he himself described as its ‘niche audience’) I never would have seen it. I’m not part of the niche it seeks. This would have been a shame because the piece was clever and funny too.

I happened to disagree with his argument, but that didn’t matter. Because argument is the point. Genuine argument, I mean, in which participants are prepared to be swayed and, even, perhaps, won over. Argument in which participants simply want to be confirmed in their existing views does not merit the name. We should seek out those with whom we disagree, not turn our backs on them. Niche may be nice, but debate is delicious. How else does one form a point of view? And having formed it, how else make sure it is still valid?

It has never been easier to seek out and find like minds. But the idea that we can be happy if only we surround ourselves with such fellow feeling is doomed to disappointment. Difference will always intervene; the only way we can ever guarantee total homogeneity is for us all to sit in rooms on our own, in our own individual nation states (Pop. 1). Even then we will soon find that we are perfectly capable of arguing with ourselves.

That might be fun for a while. Like Woody Allen said about masturbation: ‘Dont knock it: It’s sex with someone you love.’ But in the end it’s more fun and more productive, whether in the sack or in a slanging match, to go at it hammer and tongs with someone else — and be prepared to feel the Earth move.

Harry de Quetteville is The Telegraph’s Obituary Editor

The next Spectator debate: ‘A liberal arts education is a waste of time and money.’ Katie Hopkins, Will Self, Anthony Seldon and Julia Hobsbawm will go head-to-head on 4 March. Click here to book tickets.

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