I’d like to talk about writing ethics. I do some things which are obviously manipulative when writing this blog. I don’t know how transparent they are (if you’re trained in rhetoric they’re probably charmingly naive, though they might still work anyway), and to be honest I often forget that I’m even doing them – they’ve just become second nature – but they’re there in almost every post that is designed as a persuasive piece.
This post comes off the back of a twitter conversation with Jay about my use of “we” in “I am angry too“, and how it was essentially a rhetorical trick to claim legitimacy and get people on board with my point by identifying with me. It’s a fair cop. We then had a good discussion about our use of rhetorical tricks like this and whether this was OK. Here is something she wrote about this issue a while back.
I think it’s an important question. I believe I know my answer to it, but it’s still worth thinking about the issue.
But first, a digression.
In order to understand the ethics of this, and in order to understand why I do things like this, we first need to go meta and ask another important question: What is the purpose of this blog?
I’ve long maintained that the sole intended audience of this blog is me and that the rest of you are just along for the ride. Once this might have been true but it’s been a transparent lie for some time by now. Although many of my posts fall into this category (lets be honest, none of you care about my efforts at game design), a substantial proportion of my writing is obviously designed to be persuasive. I’m not usually trying to persuade myself here, so clearly there must be another intended audience and another intended purpose.
Thinking about it a bit more, the purpose of this blog becomes clear: The purpose of this blog is, of course, to invade your brain and take over your thoughts.
I don’t mean I’m trying to use it to turn you into mindless zombie drones obedient to my every whim or anything. That would be silly. I mean really, the very idea.
I have way better means of achieving that than mere writing.
No. What I want is not to make you obey every command I give you. What I want is for you to autonomously make the decisions I would have commanded you to make without my having to bother.
You think I’m joking. That’s OK. I get away with a lot because people think I’m joking. But, for once, allow me to persuade you that I am in fact deadly serious.
In order to do that we will have to step up a level again.
What is the purpose of persuasive writing?
Um. It’s to persuade, isn’t it?
You see, if you were persuaded by a piece of writing then that means that either you didn’t really care very much about the subject matter in the first place or you already 80% agreed with it. It is essentially impossible for someone else to change your mind about an issue you believe strongly on.
Convincing fence sitters and people who are already mostly on side is certainly still useful. It bolsters your numbers and gets you more aligned along a single purpose. But these are fringe benefits. They’re useful, but they’re not really the main point. What you want is to get people who disagree with you to change their minds.
Pity it’s impossible, huh?
Fortunately, it turns out though that even though you can’t persuade people to change their mind, you can do the next best thing: You can make them persuade themselves to change their mind.
How does this work?
It’s simple really: You make them listen to your point. You make them remember your point. If you can you even make them believe it for an instant – not so it sticks, but so that later when they come to the scenario that you described and have cause to check what they believe about it they remember that they could have believed differently in this case. And then they question maybe whether they should.
You see, when you wrote that memorable piece, you may not have persuaded them, but you planted a seed in their brain. If it stuck then when your point is relevant to a situation they find themselves in, that seed will grow. It has found a chink in the foundation of their refusal to believe you and it can take root there, growing as each new experience feeds it. Eventually those foundations will crack and they will discover that maybe they agree with you after all.
Will that seed flourish? Probably not. But plant enough seeds and it hardly matters. That one may not have stuck, but another one might. The seed you planted in their friend might, and they might have another go. It’s not inevitable, but if you’re good at it, if you’re persistent at it, and if you’re simply lucky enough, eventually you will have a forest.
Why am I doing this? Why is it so important that I plant ideas in other people’s brains and persuade them around to my own point of view?
Simple, really. It’s because I want to take over the world.
Oh I don’t want power. Frankly, power sounds immensely tedious. What I want is much more subtle: I want the giant global brain to look like me.
You see, the world is broken. It’s broken in big ways, it’s broken in small ways. Some people don’t log stack traces with their exceptions, some people kill others for having a sexuality they disapprove of.
I am not very good at fixing the world. Some of this is just a lack of power – I’m just one person, not especially influential, I’m comfortable but not exactly rich, so the amount of actual ability to change the world I have is relatively limited. A lot of it is personal failings: I’m not great at taking action. I tend not to overcome the initial hump required to motivate myself to do so, I tend to paralyse myself with indecision over which cause to commit myself to. A variety of other issues you don’t care about.
But one thing I can do is influence other people to change the world for me. I mean sure, my audience isn’t exactly huge – I’d guesstimate that most of my serious posts get about 100 readers. Some of my more popular ones get more traffic than that, but I’ve seen the stats and most of you aren’t reading them. For example, my post about gendered anger has had about 1400 unique visitors so far, but of those three quarters have left the site in under a minute. Still, that’s 300+ readers. I don’t think hoping I’ve planted one or two seeds that will flourish is too over optimistic.
Is all this effort really worth it just to change a handful of minds? Sure. It took me maybe an hour to write that post. If all that results from that hour is that I’ve made a couple of people’s lives substantially better, job well done.
But that’s not all. You see, if I change those handful of minds, they have now become vectors for my zombie plague. They will talk to other people about this, maybe try to persuade them about it, maybe just link to my original post. I don’t care how they do it. The point is that by changing your mind you have not just changed your mind, you have implicitly committed to changing other peoples’. There’s no obligation of course – it’s not like you have to become evangelical about every idea that you become convinced of, but that doesn’t matter. It will happen anyway. You will talk to people, you will discuss ideas, and sooner or later those ideas will spread like a plague and eventually the world will be in the thrall of my all powerful grasp.
Err. I’m sorry. I got distracted there. What were talking about?
Oh yes. The ethics of rhetoric.
Let me present you with a scenario. You are facing an opponent in a friendly duel. You each have a short stick. Your goal is to be the first to poke your opponent with the stick.
Now suppose I offer you a stick that is twice as long as your opponent’s. Do you accept?
Of course you don’t! You’re a decent human being. You believe in fairness. You don’t want to cheat do you?
Now suppose I tell you that if you lose the game I will kill all your family.
Oh you want the stick now? Cool. Here you go.
There’s this notion that using rhetorical tricks is somehow unfair, or cheating. This seems to be particularly common amongst the scientifically minded and the left.
Personally I think this is wrong and is a fundamental misunderstanding of how language works and what it’s for. But that doesn’t matter.
What matters is simply this: Fairness is that thing you do when you’re playing games. It’s what you do when what you’re doing is unimportant.
I’m not saying everything I write about is earth shatteringly important and whatever means I choose to employ are justified. This is patently and obviously false.
But what I am saying is that I think that what I’m writing about is important enough that I’ve already chosen to invade your brain and take over your thoughts. On top of that, what’s a few subversively chosen pronouns between us?
Enjoy your new trees.