Paul Chiusano

Functional programming, UX, tech, econ

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The internet has made defensive writers of us all

[   culture   tech   ]            

I was struck by this passage in Steven Pinker’s article about why academics’ writing stinks:

Writers use hedges in the vain hope that it will get them off the hook, or at least allow them to plead guilty to a lesser charge, should a critic ever try to prove them wrong. A classic writer, in contrast, counts on the common sense and ordinary charity of his readers, just as in everyday conversation we know when a speaker means in general or all else being equal. If someone tells you that Liz wants to move out of Seattle because it’s a rainy city, you don’t interpret him as claiming that it rains there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just because he didn’t qualify his statement with relatively rainy or somewhat rainy. Any adversary who is intellectually unscrupulous enough to give the least charitable reading to an unhedged statement will find an opening to attack the writer in a thicket of hedged ones anyway.

I love this notion of relying on “the common sense and ordinary charity of readers”. What a wonderful, inspiring idea. I realize I’ve begun writing defensively on the web, putting in hedges and clarifications that really aren’t necessary for a charitable reader. I’ve also taken to toning down any rhetorical flourishes that could be interpreted uncharitably in a way that annoys some people. The result: boring writing stripped of a lot of my own personal style.

I think the web has made us all write more defensively, and it’s a shame, because we’re effectively contorting our communication style to defend against a small minority of mean-spirited and uncharitable actions by some. Actually, as I say that, I instinctively feel the need to hedge myself–I don’t believe that people are really mean-spirited (well, perhaps some are–gak I’ve done it again!), but there’s something about commenting about stuff on the internet with people you’ve never met that seems to bring out the worst in people. There’s even an amusing onion article about it: Seemingly Mentally Ill Internet Commenter Presumably Functions in Outside World.

At times I’ve been tempted to just turn off comments entirely on my blog, and just flat out avoid participating in comment threads on the web, but this feels like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Despite the signal to noise ratio, there are conversations and exchanges that make talking about things on the web worth it to me. Though there’s a Twitter account with 39K followers which humorously endorses checking out from the cesspool of internet discourse - Don’t Read Comments. They correctly made the following observation:

The defensive writing style also encourages another sort of ugliness, which is that “avoiding saying something wrong” becomes a primary focus of the writing, rather than communicating or exploring ideas which the author might himself be unsure of. It encourages a tendency to be attached to ideas and defend them against attackers, rather than letting ideas exist separate from ourselves as they should. I can recall many occasions where I find myself in a position of defending or arguing for an idea I don’t necessarily feel strongly about, but feel compelled to reply to someone giving the idea such dismissive treatment.

I want to close with one remark. Pinker clarifies here his statements on hedging:

Sometimes a writer has no choice but to hedge a statement. Better still, the writer can qualify the statement—that is, spell out the circumstances in which it does not hold rather than leaving himself an escape hatch or being coy as to whether he really means it. If there is a reasonable chance that readers will misinterpret a statistical tendency as an absolute law, a responsible writer will anticipate the oversight and qualify the generalization accordingly. Pronouncements like “Democracies don’t fight wars,” “Men are better than women at geometry problems,” and “Eating broccoli prevents cancer” do not do justice to the reality that those phenomena consist at most of small differences in the means of two overlapping bell curves. Since there are serious consequences to misinterpreting those statements as absolute laws, a responsible writer should insert a qualifier like on average or all things being equal, together with slightly or somewhat. Best of all is to convey the magnitude of the effect and the degree of certainty explicitly, in unhedged statements such as “During the 20th century, democracies were half as likely to go to war with one another as autocracies were.” It’s not that good writers never hedge their claims. It’s that their hedging is a choice, not a tic.

Programmers in particular are obsessed with making sure that all relevant qualifications are added to any statements made by anyone, anywhere, at any time. Why? I suspect it’s because programming is an activity in which one must be perfectly precise, to a degree not typical in day-to-day interactions. This need then carries over into many other arenas. But I wish we’d reflect honestly on whether this level of precision is really warranted in all cases and whether such precision always needs to be completely nailed down up front. Maybe we could all try to exercise a little “ordinary charity” and have a simple conversation sometimes.

Sadly, I don’t have any concrete proposals and am unsure what to do about all this, but… er, I welcome your comments.

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