A word that annoys me is “gestalt.” It was one of the words that I remember in college comparative literature majors and postmodernists using to try to sound intelligent by making themselves unintelligible. It means “looked at in a loose and holistic sense,” and it bugged me that its very use implies that things are different in a loose and holistic sense than looked at as the sum of their individual parts. So when you use it, you get to craft narratives and tell stories you like based on not a lot of evidence or step-by-step rigor. And you get to call this a virtue for how you think and argue, not a vice.
Recently, I experienced some whiplash watching people who had been podcasting weekly about the Mueller investigation do 180s to claim that its summarized result didn’t matter. I listen to the podcasts! So I was discussing the psychology of cults with a particularly clever (and somewhat trollish) friend who said the whole thing calls for the language of cults. That’s how I came across a use of “gestalt” I actually like. In an article about believers in the Mayan 2012 apocalypse theory, the psychologist Matthew J. Sharps describes “a continuum in human information processing” which “ranges from feature-intensive processing, in which a given concept is subjected to the consideration of its specific features, to gestalt processing ... in which the logical consideration of specific details is reduced in favor of a more global, uncritical acceptance of the given phenomenon as a whole.”
Reading that article and that term, I was struck in a way I haven’t been able to shake, because the psychologists investigating irrational thinking seem to have described pretty exactly what the editorial standards of much of a certain kind of journalism have become these days. Put up one of those signs like a workplace safety calendar (“It has been 201 days without an accident”) on your desk and see how many days you can go, if you read magazines and websites and newspapers even a bit broadly, without encountering an argument that rests on a “narrative” or works “in a larger sense” or asserts the “systemic” instead of, rather than because of, the system’s features. I might direct you to a much-derided Christina Cauterucci story about Pete Buttigieg published in Slate on March 28, but you won’t need to look hard for gestalt processing being published as good writing rather than shunned as shoddy thinking.
This, I might argue, is lamentable for journalism and for analysis and for public discourse, in the larger sense.