Why we write
I’ve been going back and forth with Josh Rosenau, at his blog and also now via email, and I think we’ve pinned down (for the moment) our basic disagreement – which is about what one writes or talks for. Josh says, perfectly reasonably, that we surely write or talk in order to get some result, however broadly we construe ‘result.’ I say…yes, if we construe ‘result’ really broadly…but I think that may be where the difference is: how broadly we construe it.
At any rate, my goal, if any, when writing is not really to get people to do something. It’s certainly not to avoid disturbing people in any way. My goal is to say what I’m trying to say. It’s to get a thought out there without losing any of it on the trip between my head and the paper or the screen. It’s to be clear, and it’s also to be non-boring. It’s not…to persuade some imagined average person full of average prejudices who might be ‘offended’ by some irreligious observation. Of course, I don’t work for the NCSE! If I did, that kind of thought would probably play a much bigger role in my thinking. And working for the NCSE is an outstandingly useful thing to do – so maybe it just boils down to the fact that Josh and I have different jobs and different readerships and we have formed different habits. In that sense maybe our disagreements just go sliding past each other, gracefully and stupidly as swans, because we’re doing different things.
There is another angle though, which is that the imagined average person full of average prejudices may not exist as we imagine her. Imagining people and their prejudices is not an exact science, so I think it’s a mistake to assume too much prejudice and inability to listen to unfamiliar ideas. I think we can afford to give people a little benefit of the doubt. We can treat people like easily-wounded babies, or we can treat them as toughened adults. Either or both may be wrong – but the second has the virtue of treating people as…adults.