MY WRITING FALLS into several categories. There’s the paid, professional writing I do for others, on a range of topics. There are historical pieces, obituaries and profiles of famous people and places. There are meditative or reflective articles, what are sometimes called “human interest stories,” concerning parenting or ageing or travel, and so on. Then there are my political and polemical works, digging into a position and attacking an idea or a public official. Today, we’re going to consider this final category, and the charge it invariably engenders, from a small minority of readers, that I’m impolite, judgemental, arrogant and mean.
This essay is an apology for rudeness in the old sense of the term apology – an account, explanation and defence.
We begin with two scenarios.
I leave my Toronto apartment, hurling insults at the neighbors as I go. On the sidewalk I shove aside the elderly in my way and kick the dogs in the snout, tripping the children as I hurry. Having arrived at the cafe, I elbow myself to the front of the queue, barking my order at the barista, who invariably is too slow for my liking and who therefore receives the barbs of my impatience. I tell the mothers, who I’ve displaced from the line, to silence their mewling brood. I exit the store in a huff, and soon I’m lunching with acquaintances at their home. I force the topic of religion, only for the pleasure of mocking theirs, and in short time I’ve abused all the guests with my sarcastic rhetoric. This goes on well into the night, until it’s time to harass the taxi driver and reflect upon a good day’s work. Oh, how I look forward to the morrow, when I’ll enjoy it all again.
A public official assumes office. Some years into term I conclude on the evidence that she is abusing her powers and authority, mishandling the public’s money and subverting the integrity of public office. She engages over and again in unethical conduct and, rather than admit and correct the indiscretions, she reacts with arrogant contempt, dismissing critics (including many citizens) and shifting all blame to them. I write an article expressing my opinions on these matters, an article that is blunt to the point of being unkind.
Both of these scenarios are objectively rude, but only one is in my opinion defensible. I sometimes suspect the readers of my political writings imagine me as living the life of number one. You might be surprised to know that I’m in fact a mild person, in the flesh, and that aside from the printed page I’m a fellow of few words. That’s because life and polemics are separable categories. The thought of being anything other than decent to a fellow civilian in ordinary, everyday circulation repulses me. Whether as the benefactor of your dinner-table hospitality, or as a casual passerby, I think it’s best to model good manners and discretion.
Number two is altogether different. Here’s why.
Good writing is organic. By this I mean it’s whole, and the wholeness subsists in the integration of constituents that are each pushing in the same direction and with the same purpose, according to a unifying principle. The words, tone, metaphors, analogies and genre should all be of a piece. There’s a time and place for humor and for irony and wit. Likewise, there’s a time and place for high seriousness and tenderness and ambiguity. A writer forever struggles to align form and content, falling short of perfection in every attempt. Yet the effort must be made, and so the full range of tools and resources lie at the disposal of a writer’s discretion.
Rudeness has several definitions. Here’s what I am defending: “roughness and harshness in the treatment of others.” The kind of political writing I consider both fitting and necessary may be fairly characterized as mean, unreserved, blunt, direct and in some cases wilfully designed to cause political damage to its target. It is a form of rhetorical violence.
Wow, you are saying. You advocate violence?
No, I advocate rhetorical violence, which I define as “wilfully designed to cause political damage to its target.” Let me explain this in some detail.
Some days I wake up angry and go to bed angry. When I read the news, I get angry. This website began in 2010 when something I read made me angry. Some of my essays germinate in anger. And yet I don’t think I’m an angry person, at least not most of the time. That’s because the anger passes quickly, and for the better part of the day I’m somewhere other than Angerland.
Anger is a part of what I do, but I try to keep it in its place, because it has one. If you’ve never worked as a polemicist or newspaper editorialist, you may not know how useful anger is as a verbal lubricant. However, it’s also a nutrient-deficient emotion, and once you begin writing you need a lot of other things to get the job done – things like humor, information, facts, arguments and writing ability. Anger is a sugary energy drink, and so you’ll want to have a lot of other things in your diet.
Rudeness derives from the root of anger, but it can also branch out into everything from bitter sarcasm to subversive irony and playful parody. Rather than shoot a political opponent, a writer uses words to expose crimes and hopefully submit that opponent to public indignation, sanction and correction. That’s what I mean by doing damage, and any honest polemicist will tell you he secretly hopes for this outcome every time he writes. Otherwise, why bother.
Well, can’t you do this nicely? No, I don’t believe I can. I try to be honest and truthful, and to be fair, as much as that’s humanly possible. But nice, no. A good general principle is that the rhetoric should be commensurate with the behavior under consideration. Abusive behavior calls for a blunt reality check. Another principle is that one should never attack a weak target. Public officials are fair game because they have actively sought their public positions and have inserted themselves into the public as targets. They enjoy the holding and use of political power, authority and public money. They have a platform and an audience and can make the case for themselves. It’s a fair fight, is what I’m saying.
This is why I don’t shrink from the notion of measured political violence. And just as I claim its use for myself, I grant it to my own opponents. I’ll never complain or whine or feel sorry for myself, because I dish it out and should therefore consider myself fair game, too.
If a little rudeness bruises your tender skin, this website is definitely not your playground.
You see, politics is a struggle for power, and outward appearances to the contrary, it’s a dirty winner-take-all struggle. The mushy romanticists who write to me saying I should be compassionate and kind toward the Ford brothers because they “have problems” are probably my biggest political frustration of all. You hippies out there who want everyone to love one another and get along really piss me off, because I’ve studied history and I’ve seen the hippies curl up like old leaves every time the brown shirts came to town. You simply don’t understand the reality of politics, and so I have zero respect for your opinion, at least on this topic. (P.S., when the mayor accepts responsibility for what he’s done, reforms, and asks for forgiveness, I’ll change my tone completely.)
Nothing of the above is theoretical. Right now in the city where I live the battle lines have been drawn, and the armies are assembling. It wasn’t my idea to turn Toronto into a political war zone (it was Mike Harris’s, if you’d care to know) but there you have it. Because ideas matter to me, and because I care about this thing called politics, I insist that intense passion is appropriate to debate and polemic and to the delicious art of verbal political assassination. As I’ve already noted, passion on its own is boring and unengaging – but throw in a reasoned premise, a story or two, a good one-liner, a telling anecdote, and a knack with words, and you’ve got something worth the price of admission.