Asked why writers write, I suspect most people would say “to tell the world what they think.” Which is correct. But for me there has always been a more important aspect to it: I write to figure out what I think.
I’ve long felt that you can’t write persuasively unless you first consider how critical readers might challenge you. In classical rhetoric, the concept is called prolepsis: foreseeing and addressing objections to an argument. Early in my career I had a dim, intuitive grasp of it, but the co-author of my first book, the wonderful Adrienne Miller, named and systematized prolepsis for me, and since then I’ve found it indispensable. Prolepsis requires me to wrestle with my line of argument — is this really what I think? — and either be satisfied it’s strong enough to withstand intelligent criticism or improve it.
I bring this up not because prolepsis sounds like a medication advertised on television (“side effects may include self-doubt, writer’s block, and high blood pressure”), but because I see so little of it in current public discourse. The obvious example is the American president, who refuses to countenance disagreement and takes the extra step of dehumanizing anyone who questions his bizarre, often groundless assertions.
Another example is the United Kingdom’s Prince Andrew, whose November 16 BBC interview about his friendship with convicted child rapist Jeffrey Epstein revealed how stunningly oblivious he is to the way ordinary Britons think. As Andrew Sullivan put it, “This is what ‘privilege’ actually means. It means being so sealed off from any normal human criticism or scrutiny that your world becomes a surreal fantasy in which it is actually deemed a virtue to stay loyal to a monster . . .”
And lest we think lack of prolepsis is characteristic only of authoritarian leaders, royalty, and the obscenely rich, let’s remember that some leftists reject the notion that counter-arguments merit consideration, alienating even people like me, who largely share their goals. In response to Barack Obama’s rebuke of cancel culture, Philadelphia writer Ernest Owens wrote in a New York Times op-ed:
Boomers and Gen-Xers, along with a handful of younger people with more regressive views, have been agitated by the way many young Americans — and especially young people of color — use social media, the only platform many of us have, to talk about the causes we care about.
But they are going to have to get over it.
A textbook example of how not to win skeptics to your side.
But hey, he’s a writer telling the world what he thinks, and that’s what matters, right? I’m right, you’re wrong, get over it. Fist bump!
From my perspective, though, if you reject epistemological humility and dodge other reasonable points of view in your work, you may be a writer, but with hack polemicist stripes.