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Rhetoric and Tone: A Debate

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Step inside the inboxes of two TNI editors as we debate the niceties of intellectual rhetoric…

Once upon a time, Rachel wrote a post on TNI about George Packer’s long anti-Twitter whinge in The New Yorker. Caleb Crain tweeted the piece; Rachel linked him to her response via Twitter. He was uncomfortable with the tone of the piece. He had a point. The following is a debate via e-mail between Rachel and me (Jen), here abridged but not censored.

Rachel:

What do you think of Crain’s tweets? He had a good point about my tone, but I DO think packer deserved it.

Jen:

Yes—you’ve got to be very careful about singling out individuals.

Rachel:

Fair enough about my tone, but I still disagree on singling out individuals—I don’t even buy you believe that. You happen to do that all the time! Rightly! And besides, isn’t that what Packer is doing to the NYT guy? If you are a public figure, you—as an individual— are culpable for the ideas you publish.

Jen:

I think it’s fine to mention people by name (which of course I do), but best to attack only their writing, or their way of thinking, or their conclusions, never them. I think your tone was one of ridicule, which, even if justified, serves no intellectual purpose.

Rachel:

Right. I agree re: my tone. I should be better than Packer…but I did not attack him, just his way of thinking and his conclusions. I defy you to find evidence otherwise.

Jen: Here are the passages I think should’ve been toned down:

1) “If Packer would get off his reactionist pity-potty for a second”

2) “he is just embarrassing himself.”

3) “How utterly childish!”

I think those come as close as possible to attacking him without literally saying “He’s an idiot.” What purpose do they serve other than to ridicule? They make no intellectual or aesthetic point. I’m seriously asking, and I’m open to changing my mind—what purpose do they serve?

Rachel: I agree those passages “push it” but in answer to your question, they do serve a purpose:

1) “If Packer would get off his reactionist pity-potty for a second…” He is being reactionist and self-pitying as a member of the mainstream media. Pity potty as a term packs a punch that has—in every instance I have ever used it—crossed the line with people. However, I think it is accurate to point out aggressively that pity is motivating a lot of this moralizing and denunciation coming from the mainstream, who are simultaneously gnashing their tongues and wringing their hands over the future of an entrenched institution that they have (by and large) inherited. To lose it would undercut their status massively. “It’s not fair” is the undertone of their objection. This is self-pity.

2) “…he is just embarrassing himself.” Well, he is. I say that in distinction to his claim that he’s asking these penetrating questions, when in fact, he’s aggressively steering readers towards his own ignorance. It’s embarrassing for someone of his caliber to do such a thing. That word is the most accurate one I can find.

3) “How utterly childish!” This one I’m surprised you disagree with! It’s—to my mind—the best line in the piece. I say that regarding the analogy between Twitter and crack Packer makes in response to Bilton’s prudent and justified point that a media critic cannot rightly denounce a new media he has never even tried. I believe it is utterly childish to deflect that obvious journalistic/professional transgression with so cartoonish and incendiary an analogy and in calling it out as such, I believe the reader is able to understand and take my point in an instant. This preserves the brevity of the piece, which is a formal requirement of an effective blog post.

Actually on all counts these statements make both an intellectual (in so far as they serve to illustrate my idea), and an aesthetic point (insofar as they keep the piece entertaining, and cut-to-the-chase with clarity and brevity).

Jen:

Yes, I call people idiots all the time—just not in a public forum like TNI. Writing for the public warrants a certain amount of discretion, and I’d even say hypocrisy. Or at least certain politic silences. I think that’s fine, because public writing is meant to appeal to the public. It’s not an issue of provocative ideas, but rather (negatively) provocative writing. It’s okay to purposely tone it down to avoid offending people.

I think their intellectual points are overshadowed by their tone. The way you rewrote them to me in your last e-mail was much more effective and clear, and therefore more piercing, than in the post. I was totally convinced by those explanations, and not put off by their tone. In this case I think brevity does not serve the purpose of clarity.

Rachel:

I think we can agree that there is a middle ground. I struggle with that a lot. It’s hard to arrest the attention of a readership, and for all of its shortcomings, that Packer post elicited one of the best responses from the public in TNI history.

I have long been influenced hugely by the style and stance of Camille Paglia. Her talents eclipse mine a million times over, but I aspire to her ability to encompass complex ideas in accessible (that is, colloquial), pithy and incendiary remarks, that in as much as they offend, also spark interest and insight. She has been misunderstood, denounced, labeled as a provocateur; but her prose is on fire.

How to strike a balance? it’s hard to say….although I will underscore the import of brevity, even at the cost of clarity in a blog post. It is a literary form like any other, and a blog post that exceeds a certain word count might as well not even be written—(w/r/t/ the number of people who will actually read long form on a blog). In my heart, I was legitimately angered by Packer. I feel passionately about a lot of things, one of which is the expressive freedom of New Media (especially for those whose access to publishing platforms is otherwise limited). I am wide-open to critique, but take offense to the dismissive sneers of the entrenched literary/journalistic establishment. Generally speaking, my surrender to passion has always gotten me into trouble with intellectuals…but then, many who have critiqued me for hyperbole or provocation are themselves unbearably dull, cautious and forgettable on the page.

Jen:

I guess part of this is a dispositional difference. I believe in intellectual humility—or at least that’s my disposition. I can’t mimic the Paglian rhetorical swagger, and I don’t think I’d want to. It’s possible to be passionate without insulting people, simple as that. I don’t like your implication that if one’s writing doesn’t draw attention to its own righteousness, then it lacks passion. Good, fluid prose is in itself passionate, albeit quietly so.

Rachel:

I think it’s possible to be passionate without insulting people. I think it’s much harder to be passionate without offending people. I am certainly not implying that righteousness is equatable with passion. But I suppose I can’t imagine passion without conviction. Conviction, expressed in good and fluid prose, is seldom “quiet.”

Jen:

I like your tone; it’s witty, it’s funny and sharp. But I also think you crossed a line in the Packer post.

I find Paglia alienating at moments. I don’t think her unpopularity is only due to the iconoclasm of her ideas; she isn’t generous to other people, and that’s off-putting. Nastiness is not excusable. Isn’t generosity something you said you liked in George Scialabba’s writing? Does his generosity make his ideas less persuasive?

Rachel:

Yes, I do think generosity is compelling. But there’s also a matter of what comes naturally. When I try to write like Scialabba, I just write badly. When I try to write like Paglia (which, again, comes much more naturally) I am better— witty, funny, sharp at times. It comes down to who one is and who one is not. You can be your best self—but I don’t know if you can change fundamentally what you’re inclined towards.

Jen:

I agree completely about what comes naturally, which is why I don’t think it’s right to declare one style better or truer than another.

Rachel:

Fair enough. I will bear all of this in mind the next time I opine. For the time being, however, I think Packer will survive this.

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