Yesterday, Mark Shea posted a mea culpa about the way he’s interacted with some of his ideological sparring partners. And, for me, there was one part that really hit home:
[M]y attitude toward Public Figures is much the same. I tend not to see them as human beings, but as sort of semi-fictional characters. People who don’t fully exist but who are In the News and therefore symbols or representatives of ideas.
The upshot is this: Irony of ironies, a friend asked me today if I had contacted Lila Rose. I said that I had contacted her organization–recently. He said, “Why didn’t you contact her at the start of the contretemps?” I had no answer. It had never occurred to me… [A]s the conversation moved along, I was basically thinking on the fly and in public and as opposition to the change of mind increased, it never occurred to me to contact Lila Rose because, well, my argument was primarily with people talking about her and she was a public figure acting publicly like, say, a movie star or politician or philanthopist in the headlines. And so, instead of doing what Matthew 18 says and going privately and speaking in love, I simply treated her as though she wasn’t so much a person as a thing–a Figure in the Headlines and therefore a means to an end wherein I made some points about things I wanted to say to third parties I wanted to convince.
I’ve had to junk some post drafts when I noticed that I was really stretching a pull-quote in order to have a concrete, high-profile example of the point of view I wanted to argue with. They weren’t actually the avatar of a position, just a handy place to stick a crowbar. I’ve surely got some posts that snuck past that filter, where I didn’t pause to make sure I was checking for the most charitable reading, not the one that was most useful to me.
It’s a bad habit I think I mostly picked up in college. In weekly papers and at debates, I could use texts as a jumping off point for a slightly unrelated idea. I can start with something everyone in the room is familiar with, and then use it as an entry point or contrast to the point I want to make, without saying much about the intentions of the author. It’s the kind of thing I do when I’m discussing Sondhiem as a lens on marriage, without talking about Sondheim’s views of marriage.
But it’s a lot easier to make that separation when the author is dead (either physically or just in the postmodern sense). I don’t need to worry about a dialogue; the text/actions are just a handy, concrete way for me to tussle with an interesting idea. But when writing online, and publicly, it’s important to be clear if I’m imputing a view or motivation to the author or just talking about a connection that came to my mind.
I find it easiest to make this distinction clear when I’m writing about fiction or theatre. I’d love to hear from commenters or fellow bloggers about good ways to make it clear that someone else’s writing sparked an idea that’s now several steps removed from the original thing you read. And do call me out if you think I’ve left this too ambiguous in future posts.
In the meantime, I think Mark has a great insight about consciously looking for ways to connect with the author, instead of treating a text or action as though it was as parentless as Aphrodite. Once I finished reading Mark’s post, I opened up my email, and sent William Irvine a message to ask if he was concerned about an endurance-treadmill replacing the hedonic one for Stoics, and whether he had any patches for the problem.