Informed comments and how to make them – Alexander McCall Smith

It’s really not that difficult to keep a conversation going by demonstrating non-existent knowledge, writes Alexander McCall Smith

It is not necessary to have read  Fifty Shades of Grey to pronounce judgement on the sort of people who read such stuff. Picture: Neil Hanna
It is not necessary to have read Fifty Shades of Grey to pronounce judgement on the sort of people who read such stuff. Picture: Neil Hanna

Do you need to know what you’re talking about? It is not unusual to find that people are reluctant to express views on our current political impasse on the grounds that as non-experts they can’t be expected to comment on complicated economic questions.

This is certainly an argument put forward by at least some opponents of the referendum as a device: how can ordinary people be expected to pronounce on something as arcane as an economic union? Others, of course, consider that attitude to be tantamount to a condonation of rule by a grand council of mandarins. These opposing views seem to recognise little room for compromise.

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A more general question arises from all this. When engaged in conversation with others – and not just on that issue – does one need to have any knowledge of the subject under discussion? The answer to this is surprising. Specialised knowledge is not necessary and should not inhibit anybody from expressing an opinion on, and enjoying a lengthy conversation about, virtually any subject. Here are some examples of areas in which a complete amateur may convincingly comment.

Rugby. There are very few short stories about rugby, and indeed the great rugby novel has yet to be written. However, here is a possible plot for a short story. A man ends up in the commentary box at Murrayfield by mistake. He knows nothing about the game, but is taken for the duty-television-commentator. He has to describe the action, and in the event does it rather well. He is offered a contract to do further matches, and accepts.

But is that frankly unbelievable? No. Conversing about rugby from a position of almost total ignorance is not at all difficult. All that is required is an ability to make remarks of a high degree of generality. Examples, mutatis mutandis, might be: “Scotland will need to be careful on Saturday.” Or, “The English defence will be a hard nut to crack.” One might also get away with: “Mutatis has had a very good season, I understand. And the same goes for Mutandis, you know. He’s pivotal to the Irish strategy.” Such remarks, backed up by not even the faintest idea of how rugby is played will sound convincing and keep the conversation going for some time.

Books. The discussion of a particular book does not require that one should actually have read it. I have heard many people express a dismissive view of books that they certainly have not read. They do so very convincingly, and with some authority.

Comments of such a nature should be pithy – dreadful rubbish will often be enough. An alternative approach is to utter the name of an author and then roll one’s eyes upwards. That is an eloquent comment and will not go unnoticed. I have seen a number of people do that with popular authors, even when they have never read a word they have written. They utter the name of the author and their eyes move upwards. (It is rumoured that such authors do that themselves when they give their names.) Or they sigh – that is another way of expressing a view. If greater disapproval is to be expressed, then a sniff is appropriate. This is a typical conversation of that sort:

Fifty Shades of Grey …

Oh, heavens! (Sniff)

Why do people read that stuff?

Heaven knows! (Sniff followed by sigh)

Taboo subjects. Taboo subjects are, by their very nature, best avoided as those who enforce the taboo will be quick to escalate and then de-platform. That does not mean, however, that one cannot say something about them, provided you know the code. The problem is, though, that others know the code too. So if you say, “It’s important that people should be allowed to express their views on certain issues”, everybody will immediately know where you stand on a subject that … well, we all know is a difficult one.

Remuneration of executives, particulary bankers. This is a subject on which it is very important to express a view even if you have no actual knowledge of executive pay issues.

The key point here is to remember that this remuneration is always excessive. A good starting point is the observation that the banking sector is misplaced.

“Bankers”, you should say, “really belong in the voluntary sector and should be paid by the standards of that sector.” That, of course, is absolutely correct: nobody is forcing bankers to be bankers – they have all taken their jobs on a voluntary basis. Voluntary-sector pay is therefore appropriate.

It is important to be able to quote figures in this particular conversation. Of course one may not have them, but that does not matter as you can say, “We’re way out of line with the rest of Europe on this matter.” That, at least, is likely to be true: we are way out of line with Europe on most matters. If pressed, you might add, “The ratio between boardroom pay and average salaries is indefensible.” This is, of course, true, and actual knowledge of the ratio is unnecessary (try 53:1). Whatever it is, it’s clearly indefensible.

Specialist questions. Do not hesitate to talk about Mount Everest and the problem of pollution at Base Camp. Also pronounce on the shocking number of rank amateurs making the ascent. A discussion of stricter mountain licensing might then ensue, giving you further opportunity to demonstrate non-existent knowledge. Mind you, the condition of Everest is a real scandal. I have never been there, but I can tell you a thing or two about it…