As a novelist, part of my job is to try to see things from other people's perspectives and to make them seem plausible, as well as interesting and entertaining. I'm currently writing my fourth novel about Paul Dark, an MI6 officer during the Cold War who was recruited as a double agent by Soviet intelligence when he was a young man. The challenge is to make Dark a character you want to follow, a man with whom you can even empathise, despite his having betrayed his country.
It's not easy to do, but in some ways I find it easier than other aspects of writing in that I'm usually wary of fixed positions (a self-serving way of putting it that makes me sound very wise), ie a wishy-washy hand-wringing fluffhead who can't make his mind up about anything (a less flattering way of looking at it). I can see, in other words, both those views in parentheses... oh, I'm being self-servingly wise again.
I basically do this all day, about most things.
This might not be obvious if you read my non-fiction, or follow me on Twitter - I'm aware I can often come across as very certain about things. I rarely am. Or if I am, I am apt to change my mind the next day. There are always just so many sides to the story. I go to a film and someone asks me what I made of it: I'm often not sure. On the one hand, it seemed very suspenseful and I was swept away by the plot. On the other, was I, really? What about that bit halfway through - that was stodgy... wasn't it?
I have the same reaction to current events most of the time. Not just a floating voter, a floating thinker. I'd make the world's worst newspaper columnist, because one of the main requirements for that job is to be supernaturally certain of every position you take - or at least, to seem so. I sometimes wish all newspaper columns started with a disclaimer, something like:
'This is what I think right now, based on the available knowledge I have, and it's just some preliminary thoughts and questions, and I might well be wrong, or be proven wrong by subsequent events, or change my mind for other reasons.'
But that would be useless, of course. We read columnists in part to get a firmer view, to help us make up our own minds. The best columnists aren't always certain, do change their positions with new evidence, admit it when they do, are unpredictable, can see more than one side to a story, think in shades of grey, and all the rest. But most don't. Most are either intuititive or counter-intuitive on a mass level. So if there's a horrific murder, say, a whole lot of people will think 'This is the worst, most disgustingly outrageous thing that I've ever heard of, and the scumbag who did it deserves to die a slow, painful death.' A natural human instinct, tempered in most people by the thought 'Well, steady on. Let's wait for the rule of law, and not act like savages.'
Columnists' responses to this generally divide into two types. The first is to demand firing squads and Iron Maidens even more bloodthirstily than most people had considered, even in the moments of sheer rage they had seeing the original news reports. By taking the instinct that many people had to an extreme, the column becomes sensational, and lots of people read it and agree and get enraged all over again, while lots of other people read it and disagree and share the link to it on social media to say how awful it is and that traffic, my friends, shows up just the same.
The second type of column takes it to the other extreme, arguing that actually the murderer was the real victim here, he didn't have a nice childhood at all, and he should probably be given a reward. Perhaps even a knighthood. Everyone gets outraged and the traffic comes in.
Then Tom Chivers writes a column for The Telegraph pointing out that both sides have got it all wrong and suggests we all sit down and have some cucumber sandwiches.
So yes, it can be done. Mr Chivers does it a fair amount, and there are plenty of others who write reasonable, astute and widely read columns. But the unreasonable ones are, usually, more widely read. The ones that are the most certain.
In the case of the detention of David Miranda, I find this dissonance particularly pronounced. I've read articles arguing both sides of the fence, and I'm conflicted, feeling like I think both things at once. I think it's possible to be blasé about the nature of Miranda's detention and just focus on the fact he was carrying classified secrets that might do British national security harm. And I think it's also possible to be blasé about those national security concerns and simply focus on the outrage of his being suspected of aiding 'terrorist' activity, having his possessions confiscated, threatened with jail, and so on. Not to say either are blasé, but on the national security concerns I find it hard to disagree with anything substantial in this piece by Dan Hodges, while on the human rights issue I find it hard to disagree with anything substantial in this piece by Adam Wagner. Where the pieces contradict each other, which is almost everywhere, my brain melts a bit. I can see both sides. I'm 'in two minds'.
How do I resolve this? I read more about it, I ask more questions, I think about it more. And perhaps I won't resolve it. Perhaps there is no one answer and, cliché as it is (and one that even Mr Chivers has lampooned), it's more complicated than that.
Well, this is what I think right now, based on the available knowledge I have, and it's just some preliminary thoughts and questions, and I might well be wrong, or be proven wrong by subsequent events, or change my mind for other reasons.