Writing as a Form of Aggression

Photo credit: Olu Eletu
Why does a person choose to write?

Now I wouldn’t presume to answer this question for every human being who has ever lived since our ancestors first started doodling buffaloes on cave walls, but speaking for myself, I like to inflict my thoughts and feelings upon unsuspecting victims.

Maybe other writers would finesse the egoism of this confession just a bit, but I’ll bet if you distill the motivation of many would-be scribes, this is the irreducible truth you end up with.

I want you to know what I think and feel because — being resolutely and thoroughly myself — I can’t help but give primacy to whatever rattles around in this little noggin of mine. I wouldn’t call it selfishness or narcissism, per se. Both of those imply a sort of willful or pathological disregard of others. Being completely of and within oneself, on the other hand, is a condition that a human being can never fully transcend. It is the fundamental basis for human experience rather than a choice or defect.

There are entire systemic philosophies which hypothesize that “reality” might be a construct of the subject’s mind and that the world doesn’t even exist, properly speaking, apart from this subjectivity. Whether that’s true or not is really beside the point — because we can never get outside of ourselves to verify a reality that isn’t filtered through our own subjectivity — but it’s food for thought and a useful reminder how self-centered we humans must invariably be.

Even empathy is — in a way — a symptom of our “selffulness.” (Yeah, I realize that’s an ugly-looking word, but I needed something that doesn’t have all of the baggage of “selfishness.”) We feel for others because we can imagine what it might be like if we experienced the same thing.

I would venture to guess that people with more developed imaginations are more likely to be empathetic. In other words, if we lack the psychological wherewithal or initiative to imagine what it would be like to be homeless, then we probably won’t feel much of anything for homeless people. When I feel empathy for someone, I am in a sense feeling (the concept of) myself suffering his or her fate. I am acknowledging the possibility of my own pain and suffering.

On the surface, this understanding of empathy appears very calculating and self-interested, but if you’re inclined to judge it morally (and most humans can scarcely avoid this inclination) you should remember that morality implies choice: one can do the right thing, or one can do the wrong thing (or any of various permutations of rightness and wrongness for you relativists out there). We human beings, on the other hand, can not be anything but ourselves. Our selffulness is not what we’ve chosen, but what we are — and we generally try to make the best of it.

Let me get back to the subject of writing for a minute. Earlier, I said that I write because I like to inflict my thoughts and feelings upon unsuspecting victims. There’s obviously more than a tinge of aggression in some of those word choices, and it’s intentional. Writing about your ideas and feelings inherently offers up a challenge to other people’s opinions and perspectives. Even the least controversial autobiographical ramblings have the potential to shake a reader out of habitual thinking, sometimes in unintended ways.

Most of us are passably acquainted with the literary theory of “the death of the author” — which dismisses the author’s intentions and biography as irrelevant to the substance of the text itself. The long and the short of it is that a reader’s reaction to a particular writing isn’t controlled or limited by what the author meant, but rather by what the author actually said and what the reader brings to the table in terms of cultural associations.

What this means is that we can’t always anticipate where our writing will lead the reader. This is why writing is potentially dangerous. Once we set our words down on paper (or on a screen), they can have unforeseen consequences; they can be manipulated; they can be dragged out of their context to do the dirty work of the opinion we are intending to argue against; they can be re-interpreted in light of shifting cultural norms; and they can accidentally lay bare some of the attitudes and prejudices of the writer that he himself was blind to.

Even the most “objective”-seeming writings are an assertion on the part of the writer and/or editor. Try as you might, it’s difficult to conceive of a perfectly neutral writing of any length or substance. Isn’t the mere fact that a person chooses to write about something an insistence upon the value the person places in that particular subject? When a news website chooses which stories to feature at the top of the homepage in bold, attention-grabbing fonts, isn’t this an assertion of the relative value of those stories with respect to other stories that aren’t featured prominently — or not even featured at all? (In this respect, you could argue that not writing about something is also an assertion of sorts, albeit generally a more passive one.)

Personally, when I think of writing as aggression, I immediately think of online trolling or those scavenging semi-literate ranters and ravers who swarm around the comment section of every news story and think piece on the internet. I’m certainly not talking about writers who thoughtfully object to an author’s opinion, but those who derive some sense of potency by lobbing insults or trying to otherwise derail meaningful discussion with red herrings, misinformation, or ad hominem attacks. While these kinds of writers do exercise a certain power — some have even driven their online victims to suicide — it’s the kind of power that generally preys on emotions rather than the intellect.

Writing, in this sense, is an optimization of violence: we can (seek to) inflict injury on others without actually being there or expending much effort. We don’t have to “own” our violence in any meaningful way: we can use a fake identity and a cribbed IP address; we don’t have to look our victims in the eye as we attempt to harm them; and we can remain unaware of the consequences of our act.

Of course, this is only the most obvious — and the least productive — example of aggression in writing. Most internet-savvy readers are all too familiar with trolling and realize (as an article of faith, even if it’s harder to put into practice) that trolls shouldn’t be “fed.” A troll who can’t extract any response from his intended victims becomes impotent and superfluous.

This is why subtler forms of aggression are far more effective. If a writer earns a reader’s trust — or at least the reader’s cooperation — by expressions of good faith, reasonableness, or just good old-fashioned geniality, then the reader is more likely to be receptive to and, thereby, taken unawares by the challenging ideas that a piece of writing might contain. It doesn’t imply that the reader is some kind of patsy or an easy mark (although uncritical readers often are); it only means that a reader is more likely to meet the writer half-way if the writer shows him respect — namely, by not treating him like some kind of ignorant dope who needs to be bullied into a good idea because he is incapable of arriving at one on his own.

Has a polemic ever once changed an opposing viewpoint? The old saying about flies and honey is durable because it’s true. No one wants to be berated or cajoled into an opinion. It’s a lot like when you’re a kid and you’re scolded by your parents for doing something but you don’t really grasp why you’re not supposed to do that thing. Sure, getting yelled at or spanked may make a little kid fearful, resentful, or confused, but it’s not necessarily going to convince him that the thing he did was intrinsically bad. (The next time you resist speeding on the highway, ask yourself whether it’s because you might get a ticket or because you believe speeding is morally wrong.) Violence, in other words, always creates victims, but it rarely changes minds.

So — returning to the question of why we write — I think it’s important to embrace the aggression inherent in writing — aggression, that is, not in tone or style, but in intention. Or, if you’re uncomfortable with the ominous connotations of aggression in this hyper-aggressive world we live in, how about assertiveness? We write to assert ourselves in a world of warring opinions and seemingly incompatible perspectives.

When we write, we invite readers to find a fundamental sympathy between writer and reader which can then possibly be extrapolated to new ideas. This, I suppose, is what makes an unreceptive (or, worse, nonexistent) audience so disheartening to a writer. He is apt to diagnose the reader’s indifference as his own failure to assert himself persuasively. The direst and most self-pitying conclusion might be that he is so estranged from insight into humanity that he lacks the shared language from which he can translate his own perspective to the reader.

The rejection of a piece of writing is a negation of the writer. He is sent packing, back to the lonely shelter of his own mind. With every piece of writing, he must earn the title of “writer” all over again. He must stumble out of his intellectual sanctuary, often bleary-eyed, and try to be recognized and understood.

He’ll often fail, of course, but if he’s really a writer, innately or habitually, he won’t stop trying.

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