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Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Angry writing is often very ineffectual writing, when it focusses attention on the writer's emotion rather on the substance of the complaint. Oftentimes it is hard to tell why the person is even so angry, because the prose is saying, very loudly, I AM ANGRY. Needless to say, if you aren't outraged by many things every day, you aren't paying attention. Anger itself is legitimate, but what I am talking about here is the rhetorical power of calmness.

If you are having an argument with a very angry person, you can often get the upper hand simply by remaining calm. You are going to be in much more control of the situation than the angry person is, because you are in control of yourself and the other person isn't. You can easily make the angry person more angry, if you want, by pushing even more of his hot bottons, or you can use your calmness to de-escalate the situation. Of course, the angry person's anger makes her seem more powerful (and sometimes the angry person is actually more powerful), but your calmness can be even more potent.

So it is with prose debates. When I was a kid (a strange kid I guess) I would read outraged authors writing in to the New York Review of Books. Usually, the madder the author seemed, the easier it was for the original reviewer to compose the rebuttal: "Yes, I see that the author is very upset, but let's look calmly at what I said in my review...." It always seemed best to win on "the facts" than on emotion.


Thomas said...

Someone once said:

"Basbøll’s tone never varies from that of the patient and meticulous scholar but his anger ... is palpable."

I hope it's true.

Anonymous said...

I am stuck on a book chapter because I am so p.o.'d at what one scholar on said topic says.

So it's not just clouding my rhetoric, it's clouding my thought processes. I have to figure out why he's got me so p.o.'d.

Let's see -- elements like:
- painting US with broad brush and using it as straw man;
- claiming if you are from US you cannot understand the problem in question, because only people from the country in question can ... yet not being from said country himself.

So it's manipulation of some kind, in part, that has me seeing red, and also the fact that he can even get published as a *scientist* when his views are so subjective and irrational.

More, though, I am p.o.'d because of his condescending tone. I've been condescended to before, in person, by people making the irrational arguments he is now warming over, and I am apparently not over that, either.

Jonathan said...

One snide footnote should do it. "Prof. Y, a Guatemlana scholar, takes the essentialist position that only Chleans can understand the Chilean soul." Why be angry when you can make him angry?

Anonymous said...

Good idea, merci! Right now I have several pages refuting this character and it looks scholarly but is actually a form of venting. And it is throwing the chapter off track.