Once again Paul Graham writes another provocative essay that just gets me thinking. His latest is here. He's talking about his style of writing - blunt and offensive. It was strange that he felt his writing was offensive because he never offends me? But he's offensive because he's writing to discover not to persuade and that is a big difference I guess.
Most people write to convince (do I? I I think I write to discover, but you know I probably really don't write since I put so little effort into this - I really should try harder, but when you have three kids, this is all I got).
"The reason there's a convention of being ingratiating in essays is that most are written to persuade. And as any politician could tell you, the way to persuade people is not just to baldly state the facts. You have to add a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down."
"Because I'd rather offend people needlessly than use needless words, and you have to choose one or the other.
"That's not even the worst danger. I think the goal of an essay should be to discover surprising things. That's my goal, at least. And most surprising means most different from what people currently believe. So writing to persuade and writing to discover are diametrically opposed. The more your conclusions disagree with readers' present beliefs, the more effort you'll have to expend on selling your ideas rather than having them. As you accelerate, this drag increases, till eventually you reach a point where 100% of your energy is devoted to overcoming it and you can't go any faster."
"It's hard enough to overcome one's own misconceptions without having to think about how to get the resulting ideas past other people's. I worry that if I wrote to persuade, I'd start to shy away unconsciously from ideas I knew would be hard to sell. When I notice something surprising, it's usually very faint at first. There's nothing more than a slight stirring of discomfort. I don't want anything to get in the way of noticing it consciously."
The funny thing is I started to think, do I facebook to discover? No, I facebook to persuade. A few of my fb friends pretty consistently put up some provocative Glenn Beck video or some such, so when I perusing my news channels and I see something that directly or indirectly addresses something they've posted directly or indirectly, I link it. Now that's fb to persuade.
Other times, I see something that's just so simply too great and I post it, that's fbing to discover. Because sharing is discovery I think. That's why writing is such a powerful exercise. It codifies your thoughts into something concrete. You're forced to drag these vague ideas out of the recesses of your imagination and force them into the limits of the English language.
Then when you spark a fb friend's interest and get a comment that's a tad on the disagreeable side, if you're fbing to discover, you are forced to look at the argument again in a new light. Maybe you need to clarify the point a bit more - perhaps the commenter missed it. Or maybe they see the issue in a different way - differently than you understood it.
Another point about Graham's essay. If writing to discover is often offensive, is the converse true? Any writing that's offensive is writing to discover? That doesn't make sense. I find Glenn Beck's style, not so much offensive as ludicrous. But it seems like Glenn Beck is really trying hard to offend while at the same time, trying to rile up his constituency. But none of it seems to be about discovery.
His personal style doesn't seem to be of such that allows him to admit he's wrong or maybe to admit he didn't have all of the facts before he made his latest ad hominem attack.
So, Beck is writing to persuade? Definitely, but his persuasive style is pretty offensive.
At the beginning of Graham's article he describes an encounter with someone that made him think that person was a jerk. Turned out he just read the signals wrong: the man wasn't a jerk, just wasn't socially aware enough to follow social conventions., but not nerdy enough to make it obvious to him that he was not socially aware enough to follow those conventions.
So, I guess the definition of a jerk is someone who intentionally ignores social convention for the purpose of offending someone.
By the way, in case you're wondering whether I'm a jerk, someone who's just trying to discover new ideas, or a nerd who doesn't understand social conventions, or someone who's trying really hard to persuade in the nicest most pandering kind of way. The answer is probably all of the above, someone else will have to tell me which of these is the most common occurrence.