I recently came across an article by Katy Waldman on Slate titled “Against Retweeting Trump’s Old Tweets.” In it, Waldman makes a case that the popular practice of retweeting Donald Trump’s old tweets whenever his current actions contradict his previously-stated positions is, in fact, a Bad Thing To Do. The title alone was enough to spark my annoyance: someone deemed it worthwhile to sit down and compose a 1,200-word finger-wag about the perils of holding the President accountable for his past comments, as though this practice — which consists of finding an old Trump tweet and tapping twice on your phone in the hope that an internet stranger will find it humorous enough to like it, retweet it, or (dare to dream) follow you — will doom our society and therefore must be contained.
Of course, I still read the piece, but not for the right reasons. I didn’t click on the story because I expected to learn some new, vital information or because I thought it would challenge my perspective; I read it because the title bothered me. The title takes its subject matter entirely too seriously (certainly more seriously than Trump takes his own tweets, or, for that matter, his job). The earnestness with which Waldman introduces her case (the subheader reads “Don’t succumb to the winsome melodies of the gotcha sirens”) brings it dangerously close to smarm territory, but it’s more than that.
Embracing and advancing a flawed argument solely for the purpose of standing out is not a new journalistic practice. There are even terms for it: challops (short for “challenging opinions”) and takes. A challop is an argument that intentionally flies in the face of accepted wisdom or common practice. Challops differ from their adversarial brethren, the take — takes tend to occur more quickly in response to a specific event or practice; challops, on the other hand, can be deployed whenever the opportunity arises.
I know it’s a bit murky. The article I mentioned above is a take — retweeting Trump’s old tweets is a relatively new (and specific) practice. A challop, on the other hand, is trotting out something like “’OK Computer’ is Radiohead’s worst album” for years and years at every opportunity; takes burn, challops simmer. Linguistic nuances aside, takes and challops are, at their core, expressions of contrarianism. And they’re becoming a problem.
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To be clear, the expression of contrarian viewpoints is not inherently bad. The problem is that challops, takes, and articles with “Actually” in the headline have become a cottage industry in and of themselves. To many outlets, page views are page views; it doesn’t matter whether you read an article because you’re genuinely interested in the subject matter or because you hate-clicked the link — you’re still viewing the page, no matter how you got there. It is a distressingly cynical element of the discourse, one that goads the audience into reading a piece rather than allowing the piece to stand on its own merit.
Take, for example, the New York Times’ recent hiring of neoconservative journalist Bret Stephens. Stephens’ first piece at the Times is a long-winded challop called “Climate of Complete Certainty.” In it, Stephens agrees that climate change is a topic that needs to be discussed, while also contending that those who acknowledge climate change need to be more measured in discussing it. As Stephens himself notes, “[t]he science was generally scrupulous [but] much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities.” Later in the article, Stephens offers his tacit approval of those who refuse to accept the existing science on climate change: “[O]rdinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism. They know — as all environmentalists should — that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.”
In short, Stephens trots out the same tired argument that scientists can’t know for sure what the effects of climate change will be; therefore, when discussing the potential effects of climate change, they should be more noncommittal — which, of course, would allow the public to more easily disregard or minimize what they’re being told. It is an exercise in logical contortions and pedantic hairsplitting, and its primary argument is that the scientific opinions of “ordinary citizens” should be given equal weight to the scientific opinions of, you know, scientists, because scientists have been wrong before.
The Times has even started outsourcing its takes and challops: those who wish to offer praise for President Trump are now invited to do so by sending an email to, I kid you not, firstname.lastname@example.org. (Somehow I doubt this is going to be a particularly fruitful endeavor — those who regularly read the Times probably won’t have anything nice to say about Trump, and those who might offer genuine praise for Trump probably don’t read the Times, given Trump’s frequent dismissals of the “failing” paper’s reporting as “fake news.”)
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So where does this all lead?
To be sure, there is value in approaching debates with an open mind, just as there is value in a willingness to challenge the status quo. Moreover, an earnest effort to understand divergent viewpoints can be wildly effective in bridging the divide between two sides of an argument; as the saying goes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” At its core, however, contrarianism is a bastardization of this mindset. Its only function is to instigate, to invite endless argument without ever offering compromise or possible solutions.
Contrarianism lends credence to arguments that don’t deserve it, and in doing so, it legitimizes certain beliefs, even those that are wrong or harmful. Those responsible for their jaded contributions to the discourse might argue that they’re doing the public a service by approaching every argument with a sense of objectivity and fairness. But what is to be gained by putting a finger on the scale of an inherently unbalanced debate? The public’s predilection for choosing the news that most closely aligns with their existing worldview (rather than news that might challenge their perspective) has turned challops and takes from mere thought experiments to potential weapons in the ongoing battle for the direction of our society. And though they may claim their motives are purely altruistic, the only beneficiaries of these pieces are the people who write them and the outlets that publish them.