The Pap Problem; or, How to Not Write Like Mary Elizabeth WilliamsS

The thing that every "Life" or "Style" or "Pop culture" columnist must keep in mind at all times is that the things they write about are not important. (I include much of Gawker.com's content in this sweeping generalization.) These types of columnists do not write about economic policy, or international relations, or genocide or poverty or war. They just write about the latest bit of eye-catching news-lite distraction, like everybody else on the internet. Because of this, there is absolutely no excuse for these pap columnists not to take a firm stand on the "issues." Because it doesn't matter!

Sadly, some columnists both A) just write about whatever crap happens to be popular online (*just because you sometimes write about "news" does not mean you're a real columnist because you're only writing about that news because it happens to be popular online at the moment, come on, this is what I do), AND B) equivocate and tippy-toe around the unimportant issue at hand like Richard Cohen in a roomful of minorities. Look, bad columnists: either write about dumb things and have strong opinions, or write about important things and have no opinions, but don't write about dumb things and have no opinions.

Not to "single anyone out," but let's single out Salon columnist Mary Elizabeth Williams, one of the foremost practitioners of the "write a bunch of nothing about a bunch of nothing" style. The concluding paragraph of her column today about a guy who punched an obnoxious ten-year-old kid at the movies is a classic example of the form:

It's inexcusable to assault someone for being annoying or disruptive or even for laughing at you. Furthermore, Kim's assertion that he couldn't see how young the kids were – when he saw well enough to land a face punch - seems a little shaky. Don't knock out little boys' teeth. In fact, don't knock out anybody's if you can help it. If you applaud hitting kids, you're probably a bad person. But the lesson here – whether you're a child or a grownup - is pretty simple. If you don't know how to behave in public and you don't like losing teeth or going to jail, for God's sake, just stick to Netflix.

Hitting is bad. Kids being bad is bad. Everyone is wrong, and right. The end. Great, bold stuff. This is not an anomaly; this is MEW's default style. She can be even more explicitly noncommittal, if you like. Her piece on Dharun Ravi's sentence asks, rhetorically, in the first paragraph, "So, does Dharun Ravi's punishment - 30 days jail time, 300 hours of community service, three years' probation, and $11,900 total in fines - fit the crimes of which he's been found guilty?" Well?

Though [Judge Glenn] Berman said he believed the sentence "disenchanted both sides," it's one that shows respect for the law as it stands in New Jersey. It also offers what Berman calls the "hopeful" possibility that Ravi - and others who have so cavalierly shamed and exploited people - might learn something about the quality of mercy. Maybe all those hours of service can teach Ravi something he, as an 18-year-old college freshman, was so devastatingly lacking.

Maybe! Or maybe not. A simple "yes" or "no" would have sufficed, MEW. It is always thus. Whenever Williams encounters an even slightly challenging issue that cannot be completely addressed with an opinion so orthodox and agreed-upon that there is no need to waste time reading it (i.e., Pepsi's Michael Jackson ads are creepy, it's sad that MCA died, the most brazen sort of anti-gay discrimination is bad), she reverts, always, to the ol' Tentative Platitudemobile. On the issue of whether Pinterest should censor pro-anorexia content:

The tragic truth is that a person who posts her self-loathing over drinking a Coke is not going to be helped by simply being blocked or forced to choose a more vague hashtag. Halfhearted attempts to cut her off from a community that cheers self-destruction aren't enough. She needs more than rules to make her stop posting. She needs guidance out of the darkness. She needs real people who can help her stop hurting herself.

So, is it ethical, or even necessary, for privately-owned internet firms to police the unhealthy habits of their users? "She needs real people who can help." Okay. Good. Thank you. Thank you for that clarity on this knotty issue. Much appreciated.

Useful for all of us fake internet writers to remember: if, instead of reading your article, someone could just strike a humorous "The Thinker" pose and recite what their polite mom would say about the topic at hand, and that would be essentially the same thing that you say in your article, then no one needs to read your article, and you didn't need to write your article, and you don't need to exist, and we might as well all go out and get real jobs. So let's avoid that.

[Photo: Shutterstock]