I’ve decided to attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter is a mini-course in critical thinking for writers; the second chapter is a mini-course in rhetoric for writers. This post is part of chapter one. To have a look at other parts of the book, click here.
Concept 1.13. The committed writer. If the critical thinker is about getting at the truth of matters, and the spell-casting mystifier is about blowing blue pipe-smoke over the chessboard of situations so that people can neither see nor think clearly, then the committed writer is about The Cause—whatever that cause might be. Committed writers may be distinguished from critical thinkers, not in searching for the truth, but in believing the truth is already in their possession. And they may be distinguished from spell-casting mystifiers, not in feigning seriousness, but in being quite serious. Committed writers are the true, non-ironic believers (the prophets and apologists for this or that ideology; the superheroes of their own minds; the patriots; the activists; the defenders of the outcast). Committed writers know right from wrong—or at least think they know. They may be at once confident and sincere. When in character, they may even present themselves to others in the posture of 100% certainty, without any doubts whatsoever—even though they may privately hold doubts. The content of that knowing may come from the political left or right, or from the vantage of religion or irreligion, or from the vantage of sales (they really, really believe in their product).
So if you’re a committed writer, you may be the lover of justice, the progressive activist, the person concerned with solidarity—but you may also be a resenter, an angry defender of your tribe, a hater of those you take to be freeloaders. Whatever your beliefs, you may not be especially ironic or critical about your own side—but you may be quite ironic and critical of your opposition. Your criticism may go all in one direction—outward. You might be especially concerned with either the preservation or advance of your community of believers—but not necessarily with those outside of your community. You may be quite nostalgic for a past condition—or long for a utopian future—and you might cast very dark shade on a particularly loathed enemy. (“If so-and-so would just get out of the way, my community could reach its goal.”)
Ad hoc reasoning and the committed writer. If you’re a committed writer, your argumentative style may be characterized by a lot of ad-hoc reasoning. Ad hoc means “for this instance only” in Latin. It’s haphazard, on-the-fly reasoning that adds premises to an argument to protect a favored thesis:
“If aliens have visited Earth, where are they now?”
“They’re hiding on the dark side of the moon.”
“But we’ve mapped the dark side of the moon. We know what’s there.”
A person not engaged in ad hoc reasoning is more likely to reason in a more balanced and just fashion, as when the scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote, “Read not to contradict and conflate, nor to believe and take for granted…but to weigh and consider.” [from the first page of Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric by Kahane.]
So when you’re not taking the advice of Bacon; when you’re a committed writer, then you may not really be doing your best to just go wherever the truth might most fairly and naturally lead. If, for instance, you are a committed believer in aliens, your premises in argument are going to build up in such a way that they bring you, no matter what, to the conclusion that there are aliens. That is, you treat your belief–and the protection of your group of believers–as a special case for special deployments of reasoning in their defense (also known as “special pleading”).
You might not reason in this sort of ad-hoc fashion on other issues, but on your most treasured beliefs you may be prepared to do so. If you can find a logically possible way, however implausible or strained, to defend your position or group, you’ll go there. You’re not especially enamored of the principle of Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor is “the simplest explanation is usually best.” It is a heuristic—a rule of thumb—formulated by the medieval theologian William of Occam (1285-1347) for how to choose between two contending arguments: one that is simple, requiring few premises to be believed, and one that is complex, requiring numerous premises to be believed. Perhaps, for example, we don’t have evidence of aliens on the dark side of the moon, not because they have invisible powers and don’t want to be found, or because they’re hiding underground, but because the simplest explanation is best: they’re not there.
Occam’s razor vs. the premise-beggar’s razor. In place of Occam’s razor, the committed writer may be tempted to engage in what we might coin the question-beggar’s razor or the premise-beggar’s razor; i.e., you won’t stop adding premises to your argument until it has arrived at the destination you desire, and once your premises reach that destination, your reasoning comes to a dead stop. Any challenge is answered by an ad hoc premise that returns you back to your destination: the desired conclusion. In essence, whether one is willing to follow your argument to the location you take it to, and stop questioning at the place you do—accepting your list of premises, full stop—is a test of group loyalty. Are you one of us—the believers, the committed—or one of them—the unbelievers, the uncommitted–dissatisfied with where the group’s use of premises and justifications stops?
Pessimism and the committed writer. In the persona of the committed writer, you may come across as pessimistic, apocalyptic, or conspiratorial surrounding your group’s relation to the world—or you may be quite optimistic, imagining that a breakthrough or victory for your side is just around the corner. So when you’re in this persona, you might find yourself making a very conscious choice of whether or not to exude to your audience optimism or pessimism. In other words, rather than apportioning your optimism or pessimism to the evidence–being neither more nor less optimistic or pessimistic than the situation warrants–your stance becomes a performative choice of rhetorical style.
Thus if you opt for pessimism, you’re taking a risk both psychologically and rhetorically, as you may come across as defensive, worried, alienated, isolated, or fearful. These are states of mind stressful on yourself and on your audience. And if the pessimism is extreme, you may turn cranky, and so you may come across as someone, even if you don’t mean to, who is cruel, sadistic, and cynical toward out-groups and outsiders; an angry and aggressive person prepared to torment, ridicule, exclude, and demonize the non-committed. You may be perceived as someone who is prepared to narrow group affiliation in the name of group and ideological purity. In a pessimistic mode, you may also come across as vindictive, rigid, and inflexible.
If you are a committed writer in a pessimistic mode, you may also regard an open attitude toward the world as foolish, and opt for being quite defensive. If you opt for this way of being in the world, you’re akin to a soldier; a sword fighter, say, who is always “on guard.” But in being intellectually and emotionally armored, you may also prove impervious to reason; a person who suffers from epistemic closure (you’re not searching for the truth; instead, you know). Indeed, your loyalty may not actually be to the truth at all, but to an ideology, and your tribe may function as an idol that replaces the truth, as in “My tribe, right or wrong.”
This sort of rejection of objectivity may lead you into other traps of irrationality, such as being an all-or-nothing thinker, posing false dilemmas to your audience, and engaging in either-or reasoning. When you’re enthused in this manner, very little may fall into gray areas. You may see the world in largely black and white terms. You may also lack self-criticism or self-awareness (all criticism is directed in anger outward, toward “the Other”). And because you’re so emotionally invested in your position, you may also engage in cognitive dissonance, counting the hits in your pet theory, but never the misses, and never reading books or exposing yourself to media from the other side. You may also place an excess of reliance on your intuition, waving-off reasoned and systematic deliberation, and you may over-rely in argumentation on poisoning the well of discourse with ad hominem (attacking the persons or groups that oppose you, making it about them personally, not the issues at hand). You may also prove an impatient grandstander, not really hearing others. Because, in your own mind, you already have the truth, you proclaim, you don’t really dialogue. You’re not really listening. You may be quite proud to come across as the never-yielding combatant, but it may be coming from a place of shame and humiliation; of feeling alienated and an outcast, akin to the lead character portrayed in Dostoevsky’s 19th century novella, Notes from Underground.
The committed writer may also be open and optimistic in ways that are unwarranted. Of course, there is a more positive way to be a committed writer without falling into pessimism and emotional and epistemic closure, and that is via the route of optimism and openness. If you’re an optimistic true believer, you may come across as hopeful, enthusiastic, and happy; a confident person who, though non-ironic about your beliefs, is open to scrutinizing them. You are not impatient, incurious, or rigid; you’re not uncaring for those outside of your group; you try to be self-aware when you are falling into cognitive dissonance; and you’re not impervious to reality testing. You recognize that life is rarely simple and change frequently difficult. You accept that choices often have trade-offs, and so you are more likely to be weighing competing goods in your commitments rather than casting them as good vs. evil.
Still, there are landmines here. Because optimism is wed to confidence, you may be tempted to pose as the confidence man (con-man). And as an optimistic thinker, you may be a wishful thinker who, when intellectually cornered, is a subject changer, making yourself prone to cognitive dissonance, unrealistic goals, and only looking at the bright side of life. You may thus find yourself in the role of one who is naïve and innocent, akin to another of Dostoevsky’s protagonists, Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin in The Idiot.
Empathy and the committed writer. Perhaps the most attractive feature of the committed persona is that of the empathetic writer or speaker. But here too are critical thinking landmines. The person with vast stores of empathy may decide that focus on the pain of individuals is more important than some larger truth, concern, or goal. For example, the empathetic person may write and politically organize on behalf of debt forgiveness of college loans or a cure for cancer, focusing like a laser on the pain of individual students or patients under the burden of debt or ill health. But competing goods may not be wrestled with. In other words, the empathetic, committed writer may fail to address such issues as who in society will pay the taxes for relieving the pain of students in debt and the impoverished sick. Visceral images of the suffering of students or patients may take up all the oxygen of your concern, attention, and thought.
The empathic person may also be in danger of only seeing the pain of those in his or her own tribe. In the name of empathy for his or her side’s dead soldiers or religious martyrs, for instance, he or she may demonize outsiders, supporting their slaughter in war. So in empathy, there can be a component of cognitive dissonance–and even cruelty or outright sadism (we care about our wounded and dead, not yours). To direct all of one’s thought, love, attention, and priority on one thing necessarily means it is not directed at something else. In this sense, empathy is a narrowing of response to existence. It can render the particular visible after being unjustly invisible for too long, but it can also render a synoptic perspective on the whole invisible–and a synoptic perspective is a condition for coherent reasoning itself. “The truth is the whole” (Hegel).
Writing 1.13.1. Adopt in a piece of writing the tone and sensibilities of the committed writer writing to a college educated audience. See if you can do this without falling into the intellectual mistakes committed writers frequently encounter.
Writing 1.13.2. Adopt in a piece of writing the tone and sensibilities of a committed writer who is highly empathetic, attuned to the suffering of individuals, writing to a college educated audience.