Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

Controlling my density

Posted by boakley59 on October 21, 2008

I’ve been disappointed with my writing lately. Neither the process nor the output are what they should be. That wastes your time and mine.

I said in earlier posts that I write mostly about things I feel strongly about, because I am not certain about things until rational and emotional aspects converge. Still, I prefer to reach an emotional state through rational examination: I want to be ashamed that we aren’t doing enough about poverty because half of the world lives on less than $2 a day, not because one day I saw one lady at the grocery store using food stamps.

We have reached a stage in our culture where the sound bite, the iconic image, the viral video dominate. We have no time for serious examination. I have been struggling mightily to construct larger arguments, to consider and answer the counterarguments as I go. But this leads to dense prose that seems even to me to twist back on itself. In the forceful writing I remember from the times I think I was at my best, I could turn complex issues into compelling narratives and get the message across persuasively, evoking shared experience and encouraging togetherness. Now, I am an essayist constructing houses of words few would want to visit.

One way to correct this is to tend more toward the very sort of shorthand that I know is not good enough for these difficult times: the sound bites, iconic imagery and viral video. Another way is to be more scientific about it: Do better research and present more structured, formal commentary with citations. I like to think that the strength of my opinions comes from a scientific, rational approach bolstered by a strong undergraduate grounding in math and science (which degreed mathematicians and scientists no doubt think really just scratches the surface), but the expression of my opinions has always been more artistic than scientific. I do the basic math, but I rely on the touchy-feely stuff to carry the day.

These days, that’s a problem because we have developed a culture that follows the rules of a football crowd: You’re on one side or the other and every game has a winner. The other side is to be demonized, screamed at and intimidated into submission.

I often find myself paralyzed trying to write now, because rationally I find it hard to imagine those on the other side can’t see the stupidity of their position yet sentimentally it is wrong to demonize them. Further, my background and training force me to acknowledge the never-vanishing possibility that I can be wrong, even when I am most certain. I don’t want to write things that hurt people; I don’t want to be the one to tell children about Santa Claus. I struggle for a perfect argument that will show the other fellow in the nicest way what a dummy he is. So, I stumble about trying so hard to give the other fellow the benefit of the doubt that I end up not wanting to say anything at all. I don’t want to belabor what I consider obvious, yet I am reluctant to disillusion people who I am convinced are deluded.

In the end, that is the key to the whole mess: It’s appropriate to attack delusions, even if it will be painful for those who are deluded, and even if some of those are people I love. Truth may hurt, but if you do not protest against lies, then you permit them.

I will work harder to give you rationality, logic, math, science in ways that are familiar and workaday, even sentimental, and I will try not to bog down in the twists and turns of the capering demons on all sides.


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