Bringing Assumptions To Light

One of the things I talked about when introducing myself on my homepage was how my reading habit helps me as an editor express the complex ideas of others more clearly. I want to (hopefully) illustrate that point and explain how immersing oneself in the thinking of others makes you a better editor.

I’m going to explain what I mean by way of examining a topic that will strike some readers as just plain odd to use for this purpose and others as too deeply controversial to be of much use at all: eating meat. Why this is a useful topic to explore for the purposes of becoming a better writer and editor is likely opaque at the outset, but one of the benefits of using an unexpected entry point is that it offers a clean slate on which to sketch out the insights I want to make (at least different from well trod advice like “write what you know”).


If forced to offer a thumbnail sketch of where people stand on the issue, I would say that while it's not hard to discover passionate advocates at both extremes, most of us lie somewhere in the muddled middle. For the vast majority the topic of eating animals is not one we spend a lot of time thinking about, because when we do many of us feel a little queasy about the whole thing. I think those not at the poles also suspect there are good reasons to be concerned about factory farming even as we enjoy our next hamburger. In short, many people both think and feel that there might be something questionable about our carnivorous habits, but don’t want to look too closely lest we are forced to give up something that we both enjoy and are accustomed to.

Based on that summary it sounds like I’m getting ready to tell you stop eating meat. Let me say at the outset that I’m personally not a vegetarian, and in bringing up this topic I’m truly not aiming to persuade anyone. It’s possible of course that one or more of the arguments I want to look at (in future posts) will convince you to become a vegetarian (though as noted above there’s a quite a gap between having reasons to do something and actually acting on them). But winning adherents to a side I don’t belong to is not what my goal here.

What does interest me about the overview I’ve offered above is how before the debate even gets underway one side (regardless of the merits of the position) starts in a seemingly much stronger position than the other. Perhaps this should come as no surprise when you consider that the vast majority of Americans at least (95 percent in a recent Gallup Poll) are not vegetarians. But when you look past the polls you can begin to make out a deeper framework of default settings around eating meat that creates the background upon which the debate plays out.

Why the debate is tilted in favor of eating meat is complicated and has its roots in a host of different factors, including biology, culture, and economics (just to name a few). Untangling and weighing the myriad influences that have shaped our attitudes towards eating meat would be a book-length project in its own right, but in terms of low hanging fruit it’s hard to ignore the fact that at this point in time large scale commercial farming has made meat abundantly available and relatively affordable. Culture also plays an undeniable role in making meat eaters out of most of us: for example, as Frederick Douglass Opie observed in his history of soul food, religious traditions brought from West Africa led African-Americans (despite the privations of the Great Depression) to scrimp and save so that they could serve “Gospel bird”—fried chicken—on “grand occasions” like Sunday dinner. Examples like these abound, and there’s simply no denying that (in America at least) the presumption that meat is on the menu is conveyed in a variety of different registers, from the comically blunt (“where’s the beef?”) to the innocuously invisible (like how dishes (even salads!) are almost always named after the meat ingredient).

I do not mean to condemn carnivores (among whom I number myself) by drawing attention to the host of “hidden” social and economic structures that support our meat-eating habits. It’s simply a fact that the default setting is in favor of eating meat, and therefore it should come as no surprise that until quite recently there has been very little in the way of explicit justification offered in defense of our flesh-eating habits. These assumptions make it appear as if the “burden of proof” rests on the non-meat eating crowd, making it an uphill climb for vegetarians to argue their point (as we shall see). But the default position also has the undesirable effect of allowing and perhaps even encouraging meat eaters not to critically assess their assumptions. Carnivores too often unthinkingly slide from unconsciously embracing a norm (eating meat) to assuming its justification, letting the background assumptions stand in for actual arguments in favor of their position.

I want to pause here and make my first point about how all of this connects to editing someone’s writing, because it’s precisely at this juncture where a good editor can help. The sort of unquestioned norms, default settings and assumptions I’ve been teasing out above creep into our thinking—and writing—all the time. For example, it’s been observed that journalists have a tendency to refer to the “working class” supporters of President Trump when in fact they actually mean “white working class”—unconsciously (or unthinkingly) ignoring the existence and experiences of a large swath of middle-class African-Americans. While it’s perfectly understandable that journalists will want to explain the socio-economic motivations of Democratic and Republican voters, some like Mark Lilla have made assumptions in this area that have come under critical scrutiny by historians like Beverly Gage and journalists like Ta-Nehisi Coates. I think what most writers would like to avoid is unknowingly or unconsciously wading into those waters without first grasping the hidden presumptions that lurk in their writing.

There are default settings everywhere, and they are hard to ferret out. For example, Daniel Immerwahr’s new book How to Hide an Empire specifically targets our assumptions behind the “logo map” of the contiguous United States that most everyone identifies with as the map of America. He shows how our assumptions around that image contributes to our ignorance about the role played by the many other territories the United States possessed over its history—and the very existence of an American Empire.

But assumptions don’t have to be political in nature: consider the topic of parenting. Despite the overall trend towards greater gender equality with respect to child care, in the realm of parenting gendered assumptions still predominate, and these biases creep into writing about parenting as well. Sometimes that’s intentional: it’s a crucial plot point that mothers attract more blame for abandoning their children than the benign neglect of fathers towards their offspring in novels like Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. But oftentimes a default position will simply find its way into one’s thinking and actions, affecting how even the most seemingly benign idea—which parent to call when a child is sick—is unconsciously framed and presented. Writers serve a valuable function when they bring these assumptions to light; yet rooting out these default settings in oneself is difficult to do alone, since the writer’s outlook likely was the source of the assumption in the first place.

In my view a good editor not only works hard to help identify those default settings in someone’s writing that might alienate an audience, but offers solutions for how to fix those assumptions if they were unintentional. A good editor stays up to date about what’s happening in the world so they can see emerging trends in this regard. And a good editor is able to navigate those shoals with their writers to help them make course corrections that strengthen their thinking as well as their writing. Or as I said on my homepage, a good editor helps smart, creative people find the clearest way to express the complexity of what they’re thinking.

In my next post we’ll look at this issue some more and see if the examples from Einstein and Wittgenstein—among others—can offer any help to understanding how to challenge our assumptions.