Speaking Out vs. Being Heard

With the advent of the Internet and its applications (blogs, tweets, Facebook) more people have more ability to speak out than ever before, resulting in the greatest diversity of expression in history. But I’m still not convinced that we’re being heard any more efficiently despite having that louder, more expansive voice.

The two most obvious examples are religion and politics (itself a sort of burned over district of religion), where the use of mass communication is to deliver a message, not to receive (or revise) one. The ability to testify (and be seen doing so) of one’s own standing relative to an essentially fixed (orthodox) position is designed to reinforce that core message as it is.

In other words, the conclusion has already been reached, and the goal is to express that conclusion as clearly and forcefully as possible. The fundamental intent is to implant that conclusion in the mind of the recipient and replace whatever is there now through a combination of repetition (political talking points) and expressive power (rhetoric).

A story (or a blog post) necessarily testifies of an already well-conceived viewpoint. Though the plot may take the form of an argument (try/fail cycles accompanied by a shifting understanding of the nature of the problem), it’s a functional strawman to the author’s narrative intent—the character will move as his strings are pulled.

So it’s to the author’s advantage to pull all available levers to make that rhetorical point as loudly and clearly as possible. This can (and arguably should) lead to increased shrillness, greater pyrotechnics, and more distinct polarization between hero and villain. To deliver the conceptual payload, one must first get the attention of the reader, then drive the key points home as forcefully (and starkly) as possible.

But in literature we like to speak of subtlety, variable interpretation, and individual meaning. We want to engage a discussion rather than push a specific conclusion. We want to convince (convert) rather than merely indoctrinate. We want to see a body of work (or at least a collection of stories) as a larger argument in an expansive dialogue that helps all of us discover greater truth (and perhaps even unity). The story is a point of discussion, not the whole argument.

This tension between the rhetorical (one-shot testifying) and the dialectic (extended argument intended to discover new conclusions) is at least as old as the ancient Greeks and has been a staple of academic consideration from the beginning.

The problem is that market forces are not conducive to extended conversations. If your last book sells you get a shot at the next one; otherwise, you’re out of luck and looking for a new publisher. The mechanics of markets tend to push more toward the rhetorical extreme—you have to make the biggest splash you can and deliver the entire conceptual payload in a single go.

In other words, the market requires that you testify rather than argue to maximize short term return on investment and allow publishers to bring out the next book.

Except that strong testimonies are built line upon line, precept on precept; here a little and there a little until we reach a fullness of understanding. We are converted bit by bit, point by point, until we reach a critical mass that carries us forward in a rush. The Spirit testifies to the truth of a conclusion won through reasoned argument far more often than the Spirit delivers that truth in a single massive bestowal.

Which is why alternative media (and ebook publishing in particular) is so critical to realizing the greater power of literature. Where an author has time to develop an argument over multiple works, the conversation itself has a chance to become deeper and more considered, and readers have more entry points to that conversation. When a story gains greater shelf-life and future availability to readers, it can afford to carry a smaller (but more fully realized) conceptual payload that informs future stories.

By bypassing the logistical and capital overhead of traditional publishing, distribution, and warehousing, ebooks have the potential to restore dialogue to literature and integrate both the power of rhetoric and the depth of dialectic in ways not seen since the famous five-foot bookshelf.

And if we’re lucky, we can tone down some of the shrillness of speaking out so that we can actually be heard as we reason together to discover greater truth.

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5 Responses to Speaking Out vs. Being Heard

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Scott,

    Your distinction between speaking out and being heard strikes me as capturing very aptly some of the dilemmas (and frustrations) of our current electronic age, in areas ranging from politics to the fundamental frustration of blogging (i.e., more people interested in talking than listening). The fact that there’s so much more talking going on doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s more actual communication. Sometimes I fear that the multiplicity of voices (artistic and otherwise) may turn people off from trying to listen at all.

    Most political and religious testifying, it seems to me, is aimed primarily at the already converted–and perhaps secondarily to those who don’t already have an opinion. Or perhaps it’s intended for one’s opponents, but as an act of verbal aggression rather than any kind of persuasion. Certainly in the political arena, listening to what “the other side” is saying seems far more likely to generate anger than any kind of change in opinion. I hope that’s not the case in our literary endeavors as well–though clearly literature can be just as partisan and confrontational as any other kind of communication. Part of the value of literature, for me, is that I can find truth in stories by people whose views seem on a surface level very different from mine.

    Interesting thoughts. Thanks so much for putting them out there to read.

  2. D. Michael Martindale says:

    I find it interesting that your call for more extended dialog to come to a knowledge of truth is nevertheless couched in the presupposition of what the end result will be: the goal is apaprently not to discover truth, but to build that testimony in the presupposed conclusion of what truth is.

  3. Scott Parkin says:

    I disagree. I used the language of conversion because I believe it’s both a familiar concept and a common understanding for people on a Mormon literature blog, and I wanted to bridge from common religious experience to less common literary (and general) experience.

    I presuppose that being convinced of something comes (or at least should come) as a result of an extended investigation where you combine the assurances (testimony) of others with your own research and consideration. I presuppose that the triggers for both understanding and acceptance are different for each person, and what is moving to one is irrelevant to another. I presuppose that a worthwhile belief (in anything) is built upon not a single consideration, but a series of investigations and refinements that build line upon line, precept on precept; here a little, and there a little until you come to a fuller understanding of the truth (which further implies that there is yet more truth to understand, and thus more investigation to undertake). Testimony is merely the expression of that understood truth (think courtroom, not chapel).

    That’s a general formula for understanding the truth of anything at all, not just coming to a religious conversion. One is converted (in other words, moved from one stance to another) to any truth by essentially the same process. In science we call it the scientific method; in philosophy we call it the Socratic method; in literature we call it dialectic; in religion we call it conversion.

    To me both the terms and the concepts are interchangeable; all are an investigative approach to first understanding, then being convinced of the true nature of a thing.

    So while I certainly couched the post in terms associated to religious conversion, I presuppose nothing about either the type, extent, or nature of either the investigation or the discovered truth that results from it.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    To me, the point of Scott’s use of the term “conversion” is that we don’t typically try to express ourselves through writing–either on a blog or through a story–unless we feel that we have something to say, which represents our “take” on that thing: the end point (as of the time of writing/speaking) of a process of developing our viewpoint.

    There’s an inherent tension between the goal of speaking in order for others to listen to (and hopefully accept or validate or at least acknowledge) what we say, and the fact that such speaking is also implicitly an invitation to dialogue–raising the possibility that such dialogue may change our views about the very thing that prompted us to speak in the first place. Some kinds of writing/speaking are closer to one end of the spectrum, others to the other end–but it’s important to acknowledge that both are generally at work in any kind of communication. At least that’s how I see it.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Thank you for stating this so clearly. All narrative starts from a presupposed premise and argues a viewpoint. My main idea here is that if you’re forced to pack the complexity of that viewpoint into a single story (as the market seems to require) with no opportunity for countering argument or continued authorial evolution, then the argument will necessarily be smaller, less complex, and less complete than an investigation that takes place over a series of stories.

      That makes no assumptions whatsoever about what premise (or what truth) is inherent in the narrative argument, only the method by which it’s delivered. All of which reinforces my initial assertion—single statements are rarely sufficient to explore complex ideas. More complete understanding requires multi-stage interaction with arguments and counterarguments if we want to arrive at a more complete understanding (and get at least a sense of truth).

      That requires a body of work, which requires that each work gain greater shelf-life; something new media seems more capable of providing than traditional media.

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