"Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, 'In this world, Elwood, you must be' - she always called me Elwood - 'In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.' Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me." -Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart), Harvey
Since this post marks the first bit of actual writing on my new writer's site, I wanted to take the opportunity to set forth one of the important aspects of my personality that shapes the way I think and write about culture. Namely: I am not a controversialist.
In the rough and tumble world of Internet culture writing, this predisposition puts me at somewhat of a disadvantage. Controversy sells, almost as well as sex, and rage remains the primary fuel of the clickbait economy. I could probably double my readership overnight, from 4 to 8 people, by tackling the issues of the day with a loud voice and a snarky style. To do that, however, I'd have to fight against every impulse that guides me as a critic.
Not that I shy away from having strong, offbeat opinions. I will never miss an opportunity to blast the films of Quentin Tarantino, or praise mega-flop Speed Racer, if given the chance. But I'm not the sort of person to go out stirring up trouble, picking fights about films or books or politics. While I don't hold myself up as some sort of superior being for this trait, and I think controversialists have their place in society, I want to lay out a few reasons I shy away from heated debate, especially on the Internet.
I Just Don't Have the Personality For It
Some people love debate. It energizes them and clarifies their thinking process. They like nothing more than shooting out little sallies of opinion and having them batted back. That's not the way I work. I think much better internally, when I have a chance to lay things out piece by piece. If debaters are like blacksmiths, honing their points through repeated blows, I'm more like an architect, assembling daring structures through careful planning.
Additionally, I am mortally afraid of offending people (there's a history there - more later). In a personal encounter, it is easy to regulate and make sure that your conversation partner follows your train of thought without taking what you say personally, but online this becomes a tricky proposition. I can be a very sarcastic person, but I have resolved to refrain from using that sarcasm as a weapon - for me, this means staying away from situations where I will be provoked to use my words to score cheap points.
Forget the Right Answers - People Don't Even Have the Right Questions
This is where I disabuse you of the notion that I view myself as some sort of moral saint in a parched landscape of evil. A large part of the reason I avoid online controversies is that, well, I (arrogantly) find people to be poorly equipped to talk about issues they way I think they need to be talked about. Largely this comes from my eccentric history of reading, wherein I have consumed all sorts of strange notions about the way society works (see the influences page of this site).
Essentially I believe that all debates about contemporary issues take for granted larger questions of the functioning (or dysfunctioning) of society under democracy and capitalism. I tend to want to make every question a meta-question, when people really just want a soundbite about why they should hate the other side. I fully realize this makes me at times an insufferable conversation partner; just ask my wife. It's no fun to ask a "simple" question about, say, my views on technology, and have me launch into a diatribe about the printing press. So I tend to keep my mouth shut.
My Personal History Makes Me Wary
I try to live life without too many regrets, but one piece of my past that has always bugged me involves the dissolution of a close friendship over the course of my high school years. One of my dearest friends and I gradually grew apart thanks largely to our penchant for yelling at each other, often via blog posts, about issues we found scintillating. He became a fervent atheist, indebted to Dawkins and his ilk, and I reacted by trying to overcompensate for the perception of Christians as slack jawed yokels. This led to a lot of preening and harsh words on both sides. We eventually reached a truce, but we never regained our original closeness, and I still feel sad about that.
What I learned out of that experience is that I never want to place winning in front of loving others. I never want to make people pawns in a game of feeling good about myself (at least not in that way - I do this in other ways every day, unfortunately). And so I try to sit off to the side, playing by myself. I'd rather build a snow castle than throw a snowball. So join me, if you will. Grab a shovel. Let's make something beautiful - together.