I had an interesting exchange the other day, the fallout from publication of the most recent installment of ReDotPop. The substance of the dispute is less important than the fact that there was a dispute at all. And why? Because at root was a basic assumption by a couple of readers who responded in the vein that I was a particular (kind of) person: one they thought I must be based on the words that they read on the screen. The only thing is that I really wasn’t that person they were making me out to be (even though I had truly employed those words that led them to that viewpoint). They read the column, took my words at face value, ran with it, got (justifiably exercised) — and there we had it: the makings of a first class verbal joust, an ideational brouhaha, a comedy of erroneous supposition.
It led to a Catch-22, of sorts, which I will explain below. Nothing real profound, as Catch-22s go; rather, a sort of low-grade writer’s dilemma. But, at a more important level of concern: a puzzle in (constructing and defending) identity.
But for now — here’s the thing: for these readers, how would they ever know that I wasn’t the person that the words suggested? How could they? After all, I had invoked those words from which the inferences derived. Constructed and published those sentences my own self, under my own banner. Shouldn’t I be accountable for what appeared after I pressed the “Submit” button?
Didn’t my words seem to suggest a certain flippancy regarding weighty matters, a certain willingness on my part to excuse past villainous behavior perpetrated by heinous others?
So, unless these readers had followed my ouevre all these years — on this blog, in my columns, on my web page — which told a very different story about my values and standards — unless they had really tracked my identity, could one really blame them for assuming the words they read to be a full summary of the inner me?
And would we expect anyone to “track another’s identity”? In this 24-7 world? Who has time to stop and engage in careful cogitation? Who has the luxury to engage in such careful analysis? All that precise reading, the comparison of columns, the assessment of blog posts and web pages. That would all be rather tedious (and a little bit scary were someone to actually follow through) . . . now wouldn’t it?
But, the thing is — and the reason that I am penning this brief note — unless they did really get into my oeuvre, unless they really took note of my position on (in the debate that eventuated, political morality such as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the Nazi exterminations at Auschwitz, and the firebombing at Dresden, and the Japanese treatment of Chinese in Manchuria and Nanjing), then how could they ever know? Because I actually have taken very strong positions on these events before and my accusers apparently had no clue.
And, so here we were delivered: me wondering: “if they didn’t know, then how could they really, fairly, ever comment on my alleged flaws?” Who the hell are they to inveigh against my (alleged) blithe flippancy about former antagonistic nations who refused to “get over it” and reconcile?
Well, the answer is: they actually could have, but didn’t . . . and so they shouldn’t have tried.
So, here’s the next thing: is that truly their fault? Are they to be held accountable for not knowing when there is a public record — even if that public record is extensive and clear and rather profound — and relatively easily accessible in a variety of media produced over the course of many years? Who is responsible for making sure that readers and writers are on the same wave-length; that readers don’t misapprehend what writers intend in our new age of constant ideational production, and that writers are unfairly castigated for errors in reception and interpretation? Well . . . the writers, one would guess.
These are our productions, after all.
But this leads in two different directions at once.
First of all, in this age where blogs and on-line columns have spaces for comment, we are all writers. Those who read, also write, and, hence, they are also responsible for knowing prior to speaking, of reading after reading, of researching before commenting.
Secondly, as for primary (rather than the derivative) writers, does this mean that they are responsible for continually massaging and maintaining and crafting and nurturing their identities in public (so that the derivative writers keep that at the fore prior to their acts of commentary)? Is it really incumbent on us to enumerate . . . every . . . little . . . thing? Every . . . singular . . . point . . . Every time? Do we have to hyperlink to every possible reference, every subterranean pillar in the edifice of self that might possibly bear on today’s thought? Without clarifying where we stand each time we pen a comment or a column or a blurb, we leave ourselves open to attack (fair or otherwise, justified or not). But to be tied to constantly reaffirming identity, to clarifying deep-self each outing, is to mire oneself in chains of text that no one has the time or patience to read — particularly if they are return customers.
“I know that already,” they impatiently burn. “My God, this dude just loooooooooooooovveeeessss himself, repeating this shit over and over.”
“Yeah, reading the same stuff over and over gets pretty stale.”
“You know, I’ve given him enough of a chance. He is simply not a very adroit communicator.”
Which leaves primary writers in a sort of Catch-22. If we fail to do the prior referencing, the laying in of the precursive groundwork, then we risk getting assailed by the one person who hasn’t read those prefacing remarks, the foundational principles, the establishing terms, at any time prior. And, following the assault, the inevitable loss of audience. But, by contrast, in trying to retain that audience by offering up all the necessary background, that leaves us open to assault as repetitious (and worse: heavy-handed, obvious, facile) — hence risking the loss of audience.
Such a rhetorical Mobius strip is probably irreparable. But, for blog-writers, faced down by writer-critics who assert: “You Are Who I Think Your Words Say You Are,” we find ourselves in a position of circling the wagons against the idea of circling the wagons. Rather than cover up in the face of (unfair) critical assault, the writer simply has to rejoin: “I am not going to spend every second defining myself — telling you who you ought to think I am just so that you can perfectly decode every word.” That is the reader’s job. To get it right. To read well, to think deeply, to research thoroughly.
From that stance it is reasonable to offer the salvo: “I know who I am and if you aren’t completely sure, read a little while longer, before weighing in.”
But, in a 24-7 world, with derivative writers nipping at our heels, and a Catch-22 waiting to tie us in knots no matter which way we choose to go, it might be simplest just to conclude: “as for any misunderstanding that might happen to result after you’ve finished this piece, well . . . life moves on. Maybe we’ll get it right next time.”