On sweary rants and counterproductivity


It’s the standard formula:

  1. Pick a side on a topic of well-established controversy. Dredge up some strong feelings on the subject.
  2. Rant about it. Put in whole sentences in CAPSLOCK, so everyone knows how cross you are. Find some stock imagery of somebody screaming.
  3. Make it swearier. Say **** a lot. Drop it in the title, if that’s what it takes.
  4. It’s probably not edgy enough yet, so call everybody who disagrees with you a ****ing ****.
  5. Etc…

The formula for what, though? For getting likes and recommends and attention, yes. For general cathartic satisfaction and a sense of political righteousness, without doubt. It’s probably great for getting eyeballs on ads and clicks on affiliate links. Controversy sells, too.

But maybe you’re making it worse…

The question is: does it persuade anyone? What if the only people who like it, share it, smile and nod as they read, all agreed with the article before they started?

There’s another possibility: what if it’s counter-productive, that the tone of the thing just further entrenches the opposition? The Backfire Effect — the tendency for contradictory evidence to actually strengthen an incorrect viewpoint — is a real thing, a defence mechanism in an idealogical war. It would be strange for insults and anger to succeed where reason and facts fail. Who of you, dear readers, can honestly admit to having ever been convinced against your will of the virtues of an argument made by a shouting stranger?

Even if you think there is a neutral centre that can be reached by such an approach, do you really want to be a party to conditioning a world where people are swayed by rants rather than rationality?

Because what can possibly go wrong there?

We all have different motivations for writing. There’s often not one simple goal for any given piece. But surely if insults and four-letter-words are at all indicative of passion for the topic, the desire to persuade is in the mix. And if that’s the case then it’s better to think about what might work instead of what feels good to write.

I’m just tired of all the escalation. For a few years now we’ve watched public discourse disintegrate, both on- and offline. It’s getting worse, not better, and as a society we’re kidding ourselves if we think all of this shouting is contributing anything positive.

What’s more important: to be angry, or to persuade?

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