Every online utterance is an angling for approval; we write in the style of speeches: exhorting an audience, haranguing enemies, lauding the choir. People “remind” no one in particular of the correct ways to think, the correct opinions to hold. When I see us speaking like op-ed columnists, I feel embarrassed: it is like watching a lunatic relative address passers-by using the “royal we,” and, I feel, it is pitifully imitative. Whom are we imitating? Those who live in public: politicians, celebrities, “personalities.”
But this is nonsense. In truth, the only intellectually defensible posture is one of humility: all beliefs are misconceptions; all knowledge is contingent, temporary, erroneous; and no self is knowable, not truly, not to another. We can perhaps sense this in ourselves—although I worry that many of us are too happy to brag about our conformity to this or that scheme or judgment, to use labels that honor us as though we’ve earned ourselves rather than chancing into them—but we forget that this is true of every single other, too. This forgetting is the first step of the so-called othering process: forget that we are bound together in irreducibility, forget that we ought to be humble in all things, and especially in our judgments.
This resonates with something I’ve been thinking about lately, ever since a friend of mine mentioned that when someone’s online speech turns mostly into exhortation and advice, what they might really have to say gets lost, and what’s left is vaguely off-putting.
Exhortation often has rhetorical power, but it is usually uninteresting for the reasons Mills arrives at: it lacks humility, and it seems willfully blind to the transience of knowledge. Also to blame, I think, is that it’s impersonal. Writing for everyone might as well be writing from no one.
My same friend is into the craft of storytelling, and he once told me something he’d heard at a workshop: that good storytellers don’t say what they were thinking or how they felt, they only talk about what happened. It’s a line that has stuck with me. I like its suggestion to forget about what a story might mean, and instead to just tell it already.