Nowhere Are We Commanded To Be Doormats

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2018-09-07 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

Kevin Drum, in a recent piece on the way Twitter has degraded online discourse, dropped an aphorism that's worth repeating: "When you write, pretend you’re writing for people you respect."

Meaning, don't write defensively. Don't load up your essays with constructions like I am not saying X (a sin of mine, I admit). Don't try to pre-empt attacks typically thrown at you by people who aren't interested in having an actual discussion. if someone replies to what you have to say in bad faith or blessed ignorance, let them have their say unless they're sinking to a personal attack, and then go your merry way.

The key word in what Kevin says is not respect, but pretend. Writers are, under it all, a thin-skinned lot. We crave approval and validation perhaps even more than the next guy, in big part because this work is mostly conducted in a room alone (or in some café somewhere, but alone all the same). We have to envision — pretend — that there's someone out there to hear what we have to say and engage with it on its own terms, because odds are there is. Those people just don't tend to be motivated to agree out loud more than others who are motivated to disagree out loud.

It helps to have some mental strategy for not being dragged by everyone who has no actual point to make about your work other than they don't like it or don't agree with it (but can't really say why). An opinion is not a point. Opinions can be well- or ill-informed, wise or foolish, insightful or blinkered. But they are not automatically valid, especially when they are tossed out as a response to a far longer and more considered statement. More often than not such reactions are simply a symptom of how the person expressing it seeks validation of his own, without having to do the same degree of work as the person he's replying to. Replying to someone like that just validates his strategy, and leads to an endless spiral of nit-picking pedantry, and who has time for that nonsense anymore? Not anyone who wants to get actual work done.

If someone has a valid point to make, that doesn't mean you need to engage with such people to consider it. I've written about this before. Sometimes the points made by others are best dealt with entirely on your own time and terms, and not in the hot-takes context of a comments section or Twitter thread. There's no reason you have to answer them right then and there.

None of this means you should be sloppy. (There, I just violated the I am not saying X rule; see how easy it is?) The problem isn't being imprecise, but trying to defend against an audience that is less interested in what you have to say than in announcing their reaction to it. They aren't worth the trouble. And none of this says you deserve to treat every single insight from every single source as if it were equally valid. Deserving of consideration, to be sure. But not necessarily deserving of validation. Nowhere are we commanded to be doormats.

Tags: audiences ideas intellectualism philosophy writers writing