My Turn: An opinion on writing opinions

Monitor staff
Published: 2/21/2020 10:10:52 AM
Modified: 2/21/2020 10:10:40 AM

I’m wary of people who are fully confident in what they’ve written. Don’t they know that what they’ve set out to do is impossible, that they are incapable of saying exactly what they meant to say exactly as they meant to say it?

The undermining truth is whispered, declared, shouted every time a writer reaches for a word. “There is nothing at all that can be talked about adequately,” said Alan Watts, “and the whole art of poetry is to say what can’t be said.”

Opinion writing, even the best opinion writing, is not poetry. But like the poet, the opinion writer’s world is precisely the size of her ability to describe it. Her goal, in two entwined pieces, is everyone’s goal: to understand and be understood. In all its imperfection, inadequacy and imprecision, language is her only path of approach. If there was another way, maybe she would take it.

The failure of language isn’t merely a writer’s lament. It is an explanation for why the world is as it is, why the opinion writer feels the need to cry out in the first place.

The human scramble to understand and be understood, to connect and be connected, is itself a source of disunity. From this wasteland of misunderstanding arise two illusions, maybe equally held: that further education and experience are unnecessary for understanding and that education and experience alone lead there. Who is more dangerous, the one who is ignorant of his ignorance or the one who knows everything except what he does not know?

For all the knowledge that separates each of us from any other, we are brothers and sisters in self deception.

In my own efforts to write opinions, to be a journalist, the only thing I am ever sure of is that I will never know enough to justify the act of writing. I don’t know how anyone can arrive at one side of an argument in a state of pure confidence – and stay there. Something – one more phone call, a bit more research, deeper consideration – is always left undone. But for the journalist, occupational facts eclipse the anxiety of doubt: There is no end to understanding, but there are deadlines; there are no words to make oneself truly understood, but there are word limits.

Ready or not (always “not”), the written must become the published.

“I’m wary of people who are fully confident in what they’ve written” – that’s where I began. Now, nearly out of words, I’ll do my best to be understood.

The opinion writer is something of an illusionist, a performer who must stand on stage with his fundamentally incomplete argument and convince the people that it’s whole. His aim is not to deceive but to alter and expand perception, to help them see differently, to see more, to see better. But sometimes in haste to be understood he mistakes his own passion for certainty. Spellbound by the argument he has built, he reduces a complex issue to the binary and recasts his opponents as a monolith: There is a right side and wrong side. Read, and then choose.

I am wary of people who are fully confident in what they’ve written because I suspect, even before I’ve read their words, that they have pressed their audience too tightly against the wall. If there is no space for movement, what is the point of expressing an opinion?

To opine in good faith is to seek clarity, to understand and be understood by degrees. When the opinion writer resists the urge to deny her audience what she demands for herself – her full humanity – uncertainty finds its utility. Writer and reader stumble forward in the dark together, connected, even in their disagreement.

Language alone can’t close divides – but it can lift our eyes so we see each other, sometimes for the first time, instead of the space between.

(Dana Wormald is the Monitor’s opinion editor. He can be reached at dwormald@cmonitor.com or 369-3370. On Twitter, @dana_wormald.)




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