So there’s an argument on social media somewhere. Doesn’t matter what the argument is. There are two sides to the argument, even though the issue itself may have many sides. You try to make a third point and are swarmed by angry hornets, maybe on one side or maybe on both.
Poor you! You’ve just been unfairly mobbed! It’s a witch hunt! Thought crimes! There’s no room for moderates any more!
What do you do? Retaliate, of course. Of course you do. Because on social media, you have to think fast and act fast. You take advantage of your brain’s superpower — and it is indeed a superpower — of quickly assembling meaning from a group of facts, of seeing patterns. And you respond.
But now you’re somebody else’s angry hornet.
For most folks on social media, the solution is simple: go offline, get a cup of tea, call a friend and vent, smell some flowers, or do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. Come back later when you’re calmer, or move on to some more pleasurable activity.
But there is one group of people for whom I have a higher expectation: public writers and bloggers. You, my dearies, are the ones that upset the hornet’s nest in the first place. This isn’t a value judgement. Sometimes a situation calls for a swarm of angry hornets.
But if you are writing for the public, if you set those hornets off accidentally, that’s on you. That’s your mistake. If you’re complaining about thought police and whatnot, and you’re doing it honestly (you don’t have a hidden agenda, that is), but not looking at where you might have gone wrong, you’re only compounding the mistake.
Me? Who? Me? I didn’t do anything wrong! I was just saying what I think!
Yes, you did do something wrong. You were careless with your craft. And if someone is kind enough to point it out to you, for heaven’s sake, pay attention! Put on that thick skin that all professional writers must have, and look past the sting of the comment to what the person is really saying. Writers mess up, all the time, but if we look honestly at our mistakes we will always improve.
Now, when I say you were careless with your craft, what I mean is that you didn’t bother to get to know your audience. And that’s Rule #2 for persuasive writing. (Rule #1 is “Consider your purpose” and Rule #2 is “Consider your audience”.) No matter how good of a writer you are, you will never have a full understanding of the depth and breadth of your audience’s viewpoints and life experiences.
So why am I saying all this right now? Is there a specific piece and writer that set me off? Yes, there were two or three or four. But rather than go into the specifics, here’s what they did wrong.
- A respected Second Wave feminist who actually had something important to say about #Metoo but erred in using the phrase “witch hunt.” There were no actual witches in Salem, but there are plenty of people who sexually assault and harass others. This matters because some of the people who are actively fighting to maintain the status quo, such as Gamergater types, are also using the phrase “witch hunt.” Is it fair of people to accuse you of guilt by association? No, of course not. But, as a master wordsmith, did you really intend to align yourself with Gamergaters?
- Same feminist who is apparently getting into arguments with millenial feminists and wrote an article to defend herself against the claim that she is a “bad feminist.” This broke Rule #2, “Consider Your Audience,” because her message will be received positively by some audiences (anybody who feels defensive about being called a “bad feminist”) and with anger by others (millenial feminists who don’t feel listened to).
- A writer of an ostensibly progressive paper who started her article complaining about social media is a brush fire — which is true — and callout culture is a problem — also true, but lost me in the middle when she started talking about “thought crimes.” For some reason, although George Orwell coined the phrase to attack authoritarian governments, these days it’s mostly used to shut down conversations about racism, sexism, ableism, and the like. I paused in my reading of the article to wonder, “Which side is she on, anyway?” and then, “Should I bother finding out, or do I have better things to do?”
To go all meta, let’s look at my purpose and audience in writing this piece.
My primary purpose is to provide an alternative perspective to a problem we’re all complaining about (other people being annoying on social media) and also to advocate for craft in persuasive writing. This is a bit of a follow-up on a series I started several years back on persuasive writing for activists and have yet to finish.
So far so good. But let’s be honest: my primary audience is imaginary. I wrote it for every single author who’s ever started a pointless argument over a topic that actually needs attention, and who, when called out, takes it personally and attacks back. This is what I’d say if we were in the same room and I had their undivided attention.
So there’s also a secondary audience: every writer everywhere who has to write for an audience of human beings. My condolences.
Keep writing, but for the sake of your craft . . . mind your language!