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Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Writing, Thinking, "Debating," and That Other Medium

At his Leiter Reports blog, Brian Leiter links to this short post by philosopher Charlie Huenemann on the "twilight of the idols of good writing." He laments the decline of "nuanced and disciplined" writing and the resultant increase in "shorter attention spans and shallower content." Naturally, he finds Twitter to be "the emblem of both results." Although I am biased because I am temperamentally ill-suited to Twitter and have ambivalent or negative views on late-capitalist culture, ceaseless self-promotion, and political polarization as a kind of hobby--the implicit ultimate object of most of the twits I read when I visited that site, including (especially including?) those by writers and academics--I find little reason to disagree with his general point, albeit it's one you've read before. (I grant that one-liners and "what a cute cat!" might be perfectly suited for the medium.)

I thought two things were worth emphasizing about the post. Huenemann does a nice job of discussing the connection between good writing and good thinking:

All in all, writing matters less. To my old school way of thinking, this means thinking and reading also matter less. I once heard Jonathan Bennett opine that there are no purely stylistic difficulties; every problem in expression betokens a failure to have thought all the way through what one wants to say. If we are more lax in our expectations for our writing and the writing of others, this means expecting less in thinking and reading. Good writing is mental discipline, and that discipline carries over, or fails to carry over, into all attempts to process content.

Perhaps this is truer for some forms of writing than others, but I think it is generally true. One reason I stole (from Professor Vincent Blasi) the "close reading" or "response paper" assignment I offer in many of my classes, in addition to my objection to hundred percent finals, and made sure that it was not of indefinite length, is that editing and deleting are essential exercises in writing and thinking. (I know, I know. Do as I say, not as I do.) Getting rid of what you don't really need is a fundamental part of figuring out exactly what you mean to say and what isn't necessary. Forcing students to concentrate their argument also forces them to think about that argument. Finally, it forces them to think about what kind of argument they can make well in a given amount of space and what would require more. (Thus, the end-point is not "If it's good to say something in as little space as possible, it must be even better to do it in 280 characters." A worthwhile idea should be communicated in as much length as it needs--no more, but no less. An idea that can be communicated in 280 characters or, not infrequently, an op-ed is often an idea not worth having, let alone sharing.)

I have only one quarrel with Huenemann, which is that he feels the need to add that the style of writing he teaches has "bankable career benefits." The thing is a good in itself and that is sufficient ground to argue for it and insist on it. If it becomes the case that writing short-form foolishness takes on more cash value than writing well, Huenemann will still be right and the fault will be that of society and the market. (More likely, I think, is that some people will master both, switch as necessary, and do very well by it financially, even as they champion the foolish style and call the thoughtful one outmoded, and that those who have failed to master or not even been taught Huenemann's style of writing and thinking will find themselves at a further disadvantage in a society stratified by education and elitism.)

I would suggest a second point as a variation on the theme of Huenemann's post, one not raised by him. He is right that thinking and writing are closely, inextricably connected. What about debating? Twitter is well-suited to a particular set of forensic debating toolswhich can be used in that short space. Yet it is still a moronic place, and even (especially?) skillfully wielded debating points by ostensibly intelligent people are as likely to lower as to raise the discourse and to obscure rather than clarify any real understanding of the issue. It may be that law professors, who (in my view) overvalue debating skills and their own debating experience earlier in life, like Twitter in part for that reason. (Although I suspect that capitalism, self-promotion, and politics-as-hobby still have more to do with it.) To my mind, Twitter also reminds us that while writing and thinking may be the same, thinking and and arguing are not the same as debating, that forensic skill is not serious thought, that it is dangerous to mistake one for the other, and that our culture has indeed developed the perilous habit of making just that mistake.      



Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 10, 2021 at 01:18 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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