I received some humbling news from an editor today. Feeling confused, I had solicited her honest opinion. A few previously submitted columns of mine had not been accepted for publication. I had confidence in their quality but knew I must have been doing something wrong. I wasn’t sure whether the fault was in their format or their content, so I was seeking clarity accordingly. What I was told was to avoid preaching to the choir.
“Everyone already agrees with you,” she said.
She continued. “Try to persuade the other side through reason and evidence, not yelling and tearing down.”
I believe I may have been in activist mode for too long. Over time, I might have inadvertently transformed myself into a polemicist. Being an attack dog is a strong leading, especially if you feel oppressed and mischaracterized in any way by the outside world. It’s a default setting of sorts for my Feminist discourse, Quaker discourse, and Christian discourse. Writing first with the belief that I would surely be misunderstood, I’ve felt that the best defense was a potent offense. Sometimes I’ve yelled and sometimes I’ve torn down, mostly before anyone else could think to do the same to me.
Activism says: Be outraged! Things are wrong with the world! People need to know about these travesties! Where is justice and basic fairness? What is happening here is wrong! How could a person say that!
We live in a time where our defenses are up, guarding against someone’s inevitable frontal assault. The nature of journalism invites criticism, even solidly negative criticism. We who write for a living or for a certain amount of income often need to be reminded to toughen our hides. We don’t have to be doormats. We don’t have put up with injustice. We’re not obligated to be always accommodating no matter what. But we don’t have to always bare our teeth, either.
I’m writing for my own benefit here, as well. When we do draw fire, it may not always be best to consistently, reflexively reach out for protection in the form of those who always think like we do. Allies are important, but addressing an argument impartially needs no Amen Corner. The facts alone should stand by themselves. That we would call for reinforcements only emphasizes how threatened we feel. I’m not saying that attacks don’t happen or that criticism is only a state of mind, merely that we have more control over our responses than we may even believe.
Sometimes we feel that increasing the volume is a sufficient method of returning fire. They yell, we yell. They yell back, we yell back. The yelling thus becomes a controversy and an avenue for drama. It makes for great ratings, but by the end, most people grow thoroughly sick of the upheaval and exhausted by the effort. We regroup and silently prepare for the next one.
Don’t get me wrong. There are avenues for writing and expression where righteous indignation is strongly desired. Still, an enlightened perspective without the incorporation of activist bombast often characterizes the content of many quality publications. Sober reflection is valued more than indignant firepower. I think there’s more than ample room for both. Too much scorched earth policy isn’t just psychologically taxing; it may even take money out of our pockets. Writing to suit a publication’s specific needs needn’t be an intellectual exercise, it may also be instructive. Moderation in an immoderate age might well keep us all sane.