Monday, December 24, 2012

What Is Writing?: Part 2

So in my last post, I told you that writing is a what and not a how, and I wouldn't be surprised if most of you didn't believe that assertion at all, which is not surprising in the least because our minds are not simply rational machines.  They take time to get used to an idea, to weigh it, kick it around, see if it works for us, and then decide if we are willing to accommodate it.  You may think I'm exaggerating.  I'm not.  Most recently, Howard Gardner, Kathryn Schulz, Dan Ariely, and Jonathan Haidt have written on exactly this topic.  But they are neither alone in their recent research nor is it really recent.  At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Niccollo Machiavelli advised the Prince similarly that people let go of old ideas and adopt new ones very slowly in general (although actions can be taken to slow down or speed up that process).  But that process is a good one.  It has definitely served our species.

It is because of the way our minds work that recognizing the what-ness of writing in addition to its how-ness is so important.

Recognizing the what-ness of writing allows us to search for which "what" our audience is expecting, and it allows us not only to give them what they expect but also to utilize the underlying mechanisms of cultural logic, as carried by diction, syntax, and rhetoric, to communicate with our audience in a form which they will understand and respond to in order to change the what that the writing currently is.  In other words, if we know what people expect, even if we don't agree, we can't get them to change their minds until we have shown them that we understand their point of view and saliently, coherently, and in a personally meaningful way demonstrate to them why they might want to reconsider their stance.  To draw a parallel to Nonviolent Communication (NVC), consider the essay question as the observation.  Consider the response of the writer as one's personal feelings regarding that observation.  Consider the needs as the underlying logic behind the feelings.  Now imagine that the audience has a very different response (feeling) toward the question (observation)--a different response (feeling) due to a different logic (need).  Now the writer, being in the subordinate role, cannot do one thing to sway that audience until he has empathized with the audience.  He needs to parrot back the audience's expected response (feelings) and an understanding of the audience's logic (needs) before he can go on to explain his own.  Only when he has demonstrated knowledge (and I use "knowledge" here in the sense of Bloom's taxonomy because this is not critical thinking.  It is merely knowledge and comprehension of an existing structure--one that is often largely undefined explicitly because teachers take common cultural ground for granted) of the existing mainstream thought can the writer move on toward influencing the direction of that thought.

Now, there are plenty of reasons that a writer will refuse to parrot back the mainstream idea.  I totally get that.  I am one of those writers.  I am one of those people.  And sometimes I can't keep my views back to save my life...and I'm just lucky it hasn't ever literally come to that because I would have a really hard time.  BUT my point here is very important:

There is a time and a place for dissent. 

It is there.  In every culture, there is some place, some space, for other views.  Now, there may be very small tolerance for such views.  The space for expressing them may not be in words or in visual symbols.  It may happen some other way.  But there is always space.  There is always a way for change, which is obvious because life is always changing.

The trick is finding it.  And I can show you where it is and isn't and have a few good ideas in creating a path for it in Western writing.

Up next:  What reading comprehension tells us about writing.

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