Most writers work alone at a desk. They're drawing on memories of conversations, tinkering with ideas, deleting a word, pausing, and then writing the same word again. Many advice-givers on the writer's craft suggest that the author write for an ideal reader. This solitary art form makes it important to find ways to stay in touch with the reader, but not too in touch. Historically, writing has been a way to gain distance from other people.
Social media is a new phenomenon in which there is far less of a barrier between an author and their readership. Less time to edit, fewer gates being kept, permission for lack of polish. The result is an output that is simultaneously more disposable and more permanent, feedback that is both more immediate and less constructive (to say the least!).
You don't need to hear another social media critique, of course. What's attractive about social media, the ideal of the medium, is the ability to get a remove, but not too much remove, from the immediacy of a verbal conversation. In theory, there is time to fact check, to consider words and ideas more carefully, to refer back to earlier stages of the conversation. At the same time, social media brings quick feedback, the ability to seek outside points of view, to give more weight to diverse perspectives. There is a reasonable argument that social media should have improved the quality of our discourse. Is the potential still there?
Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other platforms are outlets for many other forms of writing and conversation. Poetry and fiction, job advice, social support and counsel, explainers and how-to manuals, music and visual art, and more. But social media is most famous for producing one very special form of writing -- the argument.
An argument is a piece of persuasive writing. It is meant to persuade. Persuasion is too slinky and sophisticated a word, though, for what's on Twitter. "Argument," with its jagged edges and unpleasant vowels, does a better job. It's a cousin to words like agony, gutter, aggression, and anger. Forgive the wordplay. The point is that although social media has mostly made us more argumentative, it could have made us more persuasive. And perhaps it still can.
Persuasion is a sexy word. After all, it implies a sort of intimacy. To persuade, we have to be settled in together, committed to each other, at least for the moment. A mutual curiosity, a sense of need, of hunger, even, must pervade the air. To persuade you, I must try to understand you; and even if you are hesitant, at first, you must be stirred by the anticipation of my thoughts; long for the strong yet tender touch of my words. You want to drop your defenses. Nor to passively accept, you want to respond, return the gesture, make me understand you. When we both have reached satisfaction, or at least a happy sort of exhaustion, we let it go... until next time.
How could a writer be genuinely persuasive in the age of the Internet, if that was their desire?
A good lover has to know how to use their own body in a graceful and sensitive manner. They have to understand how they themselves feel, move, and respond to stimuli. They can only learn this by inhabiting their body for many years. They interact with the bodies of others, in rough games, delicate dances, quotidian navigation of crowds, hugs and kisses. Hopefully, they gradually grow into an adult capable of participating in the most intimate activities with aplomb.
By analogy, a persuasive writer learns how to express their thoughts about and to the world in a graceful and sensitive style. They do this by reading and writing. This teaches them how they themselves think, assemble sentences, and respond to ideas. This too is a long process with a large and lovely onanistic aspect, and takes place in many different arenas of varying levels of intimacy, consequence, and tone.
Although there is surely no shortage of bad lovers, we don't seem to be a society that genuinely perceives itself to be in a civilizational crisis over bedroom performance. On the other hand, we are quite concerned about all this constant argument. If people are learning to be at least adequate lovers, why are so few people managing the leap from argument to persuasion?
If I had to venture a guess, I would say that online writing is to persuasion as pornography is to making love. Both online writing and pornography contain the visible, tangible elements of the act in question; yet they take place without any serious intention of replicating the intimate emotional or relational context that is supposed to underpin them.
Perhaps this metaphor is not quite apt. Persuasion is supposed to be an act that can be carried out between any two people, or between a speaker and a crowd. All too often, though, it is not persuasion that is happening in those public spaces, but preaching to the choir. Argument and preaching abound, while the thing we really want - persuasion, a meeting of minds - is tragically uncommon. Our highly educated population has a thirst for thought, is surrounded by language, and yet finds so little sustenance. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.
I promised that this wouldn't be a critique of social media, and I feel I'm veering dangerously close to the edge. What is to be done?
There are many plans for top-down solutions to our global argument. Censor Facebook! Ban hate speech! We also have grassroots policing solutions. Cancellations abound! Most of what we hear about are approaches to getting rid of the argument. Or at least, the side of the argument we don't like.
What about solutions for promoting more persuasion? What would that look like? Can we describe what a culture that honors and creates healthy space for persuasion might be?
We would need to find ways to describe what persuasion looks like, in contrast to argument. Along with this, we'd need to examine the gray areas and nuances, acknowledging that nobody has all the answers.
We'd need strategies for exploring a mutual interest in persuasion, and for getting in touch with our own authentic desire to be persuaded - or not.
Space and time need to be created in which persuasion is an open possibility. Other spaces are more ambiguous, and negotiating an act of persuasion needs to be done with some care. It is good if all involved can become conscious of when that "feeling out" process has begun, and if an ongoing meta-conversation about when, whether, and how persuasion takes place.
Sex ed is a thing. What about persuasion education?
Persuasion often involves advocating for social changes that affect people beyond the people in the room. That's fine. But it's even better to find ways to identify interest groups and bring them together. Argument is shouting into the void, or into another person's face, with little awareness of who might hear or what they might think. Persuasion is not just about advocating for a position; it's also about imagining who else might care, reaching out to them, and asking them to join you in your inquiry.
We can imagine how democracy might work fundamentally differently if we had a healthy culture of persuasion. Ideas would be floated from anywhere, and their expression polished in essays and conversations. Advocates of ideas would have real sophistication about how to draw others into discussion, refine their presentation and tweak the details. The idea that an idea would be too "weird" to succeed, too "partisan" to make headway, would be laughably strange.
In this world, almost everyone would understand the value of a culture of persuasion over a culture of argument. They would talk about the bad old times when arguments were soldiers and politics was a wasteland. Divisions would remain in society, but rather than silos with steel walls, we would have membranes - lipid bilayers like in our cells, flexible, able to split and to join, in constant communication, divided not out of fear but out of the utility for promoting specific chemical reactions in their chambers.
How can an individual get started?
We already have the tools of literacy. For a long time, we've been able to read and write. Now, we can also publish and communicate across long distances. Our learning curve is to use those powers to give good ideas a life beyond their original form of expression. This means that authors must think beyond the shaping of words on a page, just as a lover must think beyond the movement of their own body.
What are questions an author might ask in order to move closer to this goal?
- If this piece of writing proved influential, which people or communities would be most affected? Should I consider including them in the conversation around this piece before and after it is published? If we want to be even more imaginative, perhaps there are non-human people or communities who could be included somehow!
- Just like I have both intuitive and deliberate ways of knowing if I am ready to engage in intimacy, and how to cultivate it, am I engaging my intuitive and deliberate ways of knowing whether I am ready to engage in persuasion on this topic?
- When I put my words or writing out into the world, am I committing to being receptive, yet self-honoring, toward the response they might draw? Do I feel free, right now, to step out of an argumentative space that does not feel safe? Do I have the resources to cultivate spaces of persuasion that feel life-giving?
Love and warfare both have ways of perpetuating themselves. In the midst of conflict, peace can seem impossible. While the clash continues over how to police the argument, perhaps a few adventurous spirits can, all on their own, practice thinking about how their words and ideas can invite the kind of persuasive exchange where all participants are delighted to be involved.