Comment writer as flapping tongue crab

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I want to write better. Over the last five (five!) years of writing comment pieces, I’ve learned to write more effectively, but a lot of it is about learning to fill a small frame (500-800 words) quickly (sometimes, the hour-long lunch break from my office job). This is a skill, and it’s one acquired by much practice; but it’s a skill that can only be developed in its own interests.

I can get quicker, I can learn to hit the right phrase first time, I can craft the rhetorical devices and structural tics that shelter my spots of ignorance from scrutiny. But however good I get at writing 600-word reactive comment pieces in an hour, I will still be writing 600-word reactive comment pieces in an hour.

The online comment writer is often in the role of debunker. Debunking is a thing of long standing and some usefulness, but the thing about the debunker is, they always need something to debunk: the debunker is parasitic on the thing they claim to oppose. And because the debunker inevitably repeats the claims they ostensibly wish to invalidate, the debunker become a very specific sort of parasite: you become the crustacean that replaces a fish’s tongue, living on the host’s blood while flapping away in its service.

If you debunk (say) misogyny over and over, what you also do is replicate that misogyny for the purposes of debunking. (This is an observation borrowed from Kenneth Burke.) There are times when comment writers appear to seek out the most obnoxious figures for the purposes of making them a foil; there are times when I’ve done this, and there are times when a ridiculous person is the best way of ridiculing a ridiculous idea. And yet, if all you do is elevate the ridiculous and bad without celebrating the good and the interesting, ultimately you are living within and on the thing you purport to hate.

The problem is that a successful comment piece needs a readership, and there are few writers who can deliver that readership on their own – I am not one. There are some outlets that have a broad and tolerant audience who will give consideration to a piece that sets its own terms. But in general, most pieces that traffic well do so by entering an argument that has already established the terms of its controversy. This is not a criticism: this is good editorial sense. But it does mean that as a writer, you can end up responding reflexively and unreflectively if you’re not careful.

The Raging Bull image of a face reeling from the impact of a fist is thrilling to see, but comment writing can feel a little like putting your head in the way of the swinging glove on a weekly basis: take the blow and show the shiner to the crowd. Boxers might get better at taking punches, but they rarely get cleverer from their time in the ring, and sometimes I fear that this is the fate of the reactive comment writer. Your recoil grows more dramatic as your brain grows more pulpy. Online comment writers give the appearance of being scrappers, but I wonder how many ever land an actually damaging blow on an opponent.

I hope I have not yet become the flapping tongue-crab or the mat-crashing middleweight. I hope that when I write, I add something to the store of kindness and curiosity and humour in the world, that my brain is not pulped, and that this hour’s work will turn in at a satisfactory 600.

Photo by University of Salford, used under Creative Commons

The wrong kind of intelligence

Editorial Intelligence uses “intelligence” more in the sense of “things we have on the editorial” than “the intelligence of the editorial”. It’s a sort of introductions bureau, brokering relationships between the “commentariat” and corporate clients – so when it comes to their Comment Awards nominations, the selection criteria veer towards writers who are prominent enough to be useful, rather than writers who are particularly insightful and brilliant. The few good commentators on there (Chris Dillow and Peter Preston are among the obviously exceptional, and there are a couple of others I rate besides) feel almost accidental, surrounded as they are by thought-shy ranters (Guido and Littlejohn) and flapping purveyors of illogic (Aaro and Hari). Many of the nominees are the sort of supremely hobbyhorsical writers whose “controversial” offerings supposedly spark “debate” – when actually, the sound of fact-free opinion knocking into fact-free opinion is less “worlds meeting”, and more “two bollocks colliding in a soggy ballsack”.

Related: “Making the difference in reporting”

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

Comment Is Free: Blond’s witless take on abortion

Comment Is Free has published my response to Tory philosopher Phillip Blond’s statements on abortion:

More than anything, Red Toryism – the paternalistic credo with an eye on fixing our (allegedly) “broken society” – wants you to like it. The main proponent of Red Toryism is Phillip Blond, and in his interview with the Guardian over the weekend, he was quick to temper his anti-abortion rhetoric with some pro-lady noises. “For me,” says Blond, “women who choose not to have abortions are among the most moral creatures on these shores.”

I was at the beginning of my second year at university when I found out I was inconveniently and unexpectedly pregnant. I chose not to have an abortion, which I guess puts me in Blond’s awkwardly sentimental category of “moral creatures”. So, from the position of unearned ethical authority into which I have been corralled, perhaps I can explain exactly what is wrong with his argument when he says that “by and large, [abortion] should become an unacceptable practice. I would probably want to limit it to only the most extreme cases: rape, or when someone was very young, or incest.”

Read the rest here, and let me know if you brave the comments.

Related: Paperhouse, “Think of the children”

© Sarah Ditum, 2009