I haven’t done a real writing post here in awhile, and since I’ve been writing quite a bit of commentary lately, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about how I do it. It’s a little different from the other forms of writing I do, so I approach it differently.
First of all, if you take a look at the political stuff I’ve done here and at Sourcerer, you’ll notice that I try to write about issues rather than people. Now, sometimes it’s impossible to avoid writing about people, because politics is a social thing. But for the most part, I don’t talk about party politics, elections, or specific ideological adversaries if I can help it. The reason I approach it that way is because writing about people rather than issues generates conflict, and while that may be good for a few extra page views, it creates problems. Once things become personal, reasoned discussion goes right out the window and the best thing to do is find a way to disengage. I won’t pretend I’m perfect with this. Usually, if I’m writing about a political issue at all, I have an emotional stake in it. But I do make an effort to stick to issues.
This may not be as apparent unless you follow me very closely, but when I get into political mode, I tend to focus on the issue I’m writing about until I’ve done all I can with it. This means posting plans change, maintenance gets postponed, and networking takes a back seat to writing. That’s because political blogging is such a small part of what I do, and I don’t do it just to express my opinion and have a debate. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a legitimate thing to do, lots of people love it, and there are plenty of blogs that have grown huge audiences by doing that very thing. But it’s just not my style.
If I’m spending my time blogging about a political or social issue, it’s because I see something that I think needs to change, and I’m trying to have a political effect. I’m very realistic about just how much effect one small-time blogger can have, but I still put all my effort into it once I decide to take up a cause, and I use the same rhetoric I’d use if I were writing for mass circulation. Most of the political things I blog about are things that I believe demand an immediate response. Usually, when I’m engaging in politics, I’m trying to write whatever I’m going to write as quickly as possible and offer it to people who might actually use it.
In my personal experience, the most common reason small-scale activist projects fail is that it takes too long to mobilize and agree to an agenda. So, if you see something happening that you want to address, it’s important to set things in motion the minute you find out about it and to figure out just how much time you have do do whatever you’re going to do. Mobilization is difficult. It’s hard enough to get people to read a single paragraph and click a like button. When you start trying to encourage people to share links, make phone calls, sign their names to things, etc., you’ve got a long row to hoe. So the first thing I write, usually, is something that invites people to discuss, write their own post, etc., so that I can gauge the level of mobilization I’m capable of. If I don’t see enough likes, comments, shares, etc. to convince me that what I’m wanting to do is actually possible, I usually just follow the first post up with a piece of strongly-worded criticism that lays out my position and leave it at that.
Now, a few words about the structure of the writing itself and the rules of engagement I try to follow in political writing. Some of this applies to informed discourse in general, some of it is specific to politics. Here’s the structure I try to follow:
1. Open strong with an attention-grabbing lead.
2. Define the problem or issue in clear, plain English and provide something to show that it’s an actual problem.
3. Explain my own take on it. This can take many forms, depending on the issue, but here are a few examples:
- Make a legal argument and put it into terms that the average person can understand.
- Show that the situation is irrational, or that it harms people for no good reason, or that it might have negative long-term consequences.
- Appeal to equality, or to peoples’ sense of justice. (Very useful when you’re dealing with abuse of power or any form of discrimination.)
- Make a moral argument (this is one of the weakest ways to support a political position, IMO; I try to stay away from it entirely, and I never base my entire position on it).
- Make an emotional appeal. (Also weak, in terms of supporting a position, but a very useful political tool. I’d love to see less of it in politics, but I’m not above using it if the situation is right).
4. Offer an alternative, a solution, or an opportunity for people work together to do something specific like sign a petition, attend an event, call their legislators, support a Thunderclap, etc.
That’s a simple structure, but don’t let the simplicity fool you. Effective political writing can be a complicated task. We aren’t talking about a letter to the editor here. We’re talking about a persuasive appeal to action. It’s more like marketing than editorial-writing. The more rigorous your standards of evidence and political ethics, the more complicated it becomes. Here are my standards, and I don’t pretend to live up to them 100% of the time. No one’s perfect and everyone slips up now and then, but this is what I aim for.
- Rhetoric must be nonviolent at all times. That doesn’t mean it can’t be disparaging. Sarcasm and ridicule are techniques that no political writer should ignore, but threatening or coercive language is unacceptable. Dehumanization is a form of violent rhetoric.
- Assertions of fact must be documented with evidence, and only documented facts count as knowledge.
- Opinions, statements of faith, statements of taste, intuitions, conclusions drawn from experience, conjectures, and all other subjective, debatable propositions should be clearly labeled as such. They should never be presented as facts. When they are, it’s fair game to point it out. I do not view any of them as sound bases for political decisions, but they do inform our behavior. It’s legitimate to use them to support an argument or a personal position so long as they’re clearly labeled, but they shouldn’t be used to impose policies or discriminate against other people.
- When I’m presented with legitimate evidence that I am wrong, I admit my wrong, and think about whether or not the mistake is important enough to require me to re-think my position. If my mistake did injustice to another person, I apologize using the same media in which I made the mistake.
- I never publish anything that I know to be untrue. (Though I am not above leaving an intentionally ridiculous comment on a thread just to see how people respond.)
- I do my best to avoid logical fallacies, and take extra care not to engage in ad hominem attacks.
- When I use another person’s words, ideas, or creative work to make my case, I apply fair use and credit them properly.
- I avoid generalizations about groups of people unless I can clearly support them with facts.
- I make every effort to respect and support everyone’s human rights, and Americans’ constitutional rights.
Those are all I can think of at the moment. They are sound principles, and I adhere to them as best I can because I believe in fair-dealing and I think politics should be focused on improving the quality of peoples’ lives.
Here’s how I analyze politics. There are several starting positions to choose from, and they all have strengths and weaknesses. A lot of theorists start with the idea that humans are social creatures. I believe that, but it’s not where I start. “The greatest good for the greatest number” is another popular one. I think it’s a fine sentiment, but I reject it as overly-simplistic. I think that as a starting position, it’s a recipe for mischief. For me, first and foremost, politics is about power. Ultimately, the authority of the state is maintained by armed force, and that’s the most important point. So, even though I’m a leftist and a libertarian according to my political compass test, and I identify myself as a liberal, my political analysis and methods are thoroughly grounded in realism.
When I see the coercive power of the state brought to bear, I want that power to be exercised in a necessary and proportionate manner. I don’t want to see people having their lives, freedom, or property taken away unnecessarily, and I believe that when it happens, the state has an obligation to make restitution. I also think the state has a responsibility to protect people when it’s clear they’re being injured by other citizens, and to make sure the law applies equally to everyone. This is my biggest bone of contention with the libertarian right, and it’s why I don’t organize with them except on single issues that affect everyone (like surveillance). They seem to think that all the courts need to do is make sure contracts are honored and laws enforced, and we’ll all be just fine. I prefer a more active judiciary than that, because I think legal equality in the U.S. is still more an aspiration than a reality. But I have to believe we can get there. Otherwise, I wouldn’t write about politics at all.