The philosopher Bernard Williams writes scathingly about the “fetish of assertion”, that impulse to ram home your case as though its content is all that counts. Listening skills don’t figure much in this kind of verbal joust; the interlocuter is meant to admire and so to agree, or to counter with equal assertiveness – the familiar dialogue of the deaf in political debate.

Richard Sennett, Together (Allen Lane, 2012)

The rebuke in this passage isn’t aimed only at readers: it’s for writers too, when their craft turns away from the discursive and conversational. (Does this rule out polemics and broadsides? I don’t think so, though I certainly think it’s a strike against a default literary mode of blunt rage and low sniping.) Attending is an art that authors and audience owe to each other.

Image © Marc Wathieu, used under Creative Commons

2 thoughts on “Writing/listening

  1. The big problem in the sort of political writing you see on blogs or the internet is the lack of facts. It’s ALL assertion. We’re expected to accept arguments because they tie in with the conventional wisdom of conservatism or liberalism or feminism or whatever, but no one ever gives us real facts to back up their arguments, so no one knows what to believe.

  2. Actually, while I agree with you that facts are pretty damn key, I’m not convinced we have a shortage of them. The rise of data journalism and the Goldacre tendency means facts are in fairly plentiful supply in journalism now: an improvement that can be tracked over at least the last ten years, I think. What Sennett’s getting at is different. It’s the idea that conversation is political in itself. Writing in a way that invites engagement (rather than outright endorsement or reaction) is a good in and of itself.

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