I vaguely remember a wry observation that essentially said most internet thinkpieces can be reduced to two templates: “X is overrated,” or “X is underrated.” I would add a third, “Everyone is doing X wrong.” This is the formula chosen by Kathleen Stock for her contrarian take on gratitude, published at Thanksgiving for maximum provocation. Gratitude done properly, you see, requires a specific benefactor to whom you feel grateful. Stock, a former professor of philosophy who has done nothing to raise the discipline’s esteem in my eyes, thinks that being grateful in a bland, generic sense has become the trademark of yoga teachers, Instagram influencers, and people who want to humblebrag about their privilege — eew, those people. (Clear identification of the outgroup is also a necessary ingredient in this genre.) I mean, I’m sure there are vapid twits who invoke gratitude in a superficial way, but if you encounter so many of them, maybe this just says more about your online browsing habits than it does about significant trends. In any event, I guess I’m just glad that they’re trying, however ineptly, to model an appreciation for their good fortune. Fake it till you make it, and all that.
There are more sinister effects, though. It seems that hashtag-gratitude has an evil shadow:
It surely will not have escaped your notice that there is very little good news around — a state of affairs obviously not helped by awful wars, but not wholly caused by them either. Declinism and doom-mongering are in vogue everywhere you look; and, though they take on different flavours on the Left and Right, the net result is still bloody depressing. Whether it’s the collapse of the environment and the implacable rise of bigotry, or the collapse of Western civilisation and the implacable rise of cultural Marxism, there’s not much out there to put a spring in your step. In fact, it’s almost as if all the despairing and all the gratitude were two sides of the same psychically dysfunctional coin.
“Almost as if.” Nice hedge. She goes on to say:
When gratitude loses its moorings from a proper relation to another person’s intention and responsibility, we end up with nice vibes. When resentment does the same, we end up with increasing amounts of conspiratorial rage. And unfortunately for us, the former doesn’t seem to have the power to cancel out the latter.
Now, I’m not a former, current, or future professor of philosophy, so I don’t know if there’s an already-named fallacy on display here, but it seems to me that if you want to say that unfocused gratitude is somehow directly related to unfocused resentment, with one perhaps causing the other, or both springing from the same source, you’d have to offer some sort of actual argument. Instead, she relies on what I think of as the “argument from aesthetic symmetry” — i.e., you just claim that these two things are “two sides of the same coin,” perfectly balanced and inseparable. Or you portray them as two combatants in a zero-sum battle. The rhetorical image does all the work of argument (what little of it there is in such an impressionistic piece). Many of Oscar Wilde’s epigrams use that same formulaic symmetry to give the illusion of depth. Speaking of which, be sure to read more in my upcoming essay on Unherd, “Why Oscar Wilde Is Overrated.”