Decorum

Alan Jacobs offers another nice, brief post with several thought-provoking observations. (He does that often enough that I’m kind of jealous!) It centers around an email exchange with Miroslav Volf, who James Davison Hunter mentions prominently in his discussion of how the defining characteristic of a Christian life should be faithful witness.

Volf has just written a book about how Christians should relate to Muslims, and Jacobs emailed Volf a question:

If it is often necessary to seek common ground, do rhetorical situations arise when it’s important for a religious believer to emphasize what’s unique about his or her own religion?

Miroslav’s first response to this question was that emphasizing uniqueness as such is not a value for religious believers, or for Christians anyway: rather, we must strive to be faithful to our beliefs and commitments, and let uniqueness come as it will. A very wise response, I think, though one that had not occurred to me. [Emphasis added[

How many celebrity evangelical teachers do you think would agree with that!

And then this second observation, on writing in particular and communication in general:

One of the most fundamental principles of rhetoric has always been decorum, that is, suiting one’s language to occasion and audience. Those of us who teach writing typically think it vital to get our students to think in these terms — to see that they must adjust style and diction, evidence and argument, to reach the readers they most want to reach.

I did not know that this is what decorum means, but it sure does. And this got me to thinking about turning the concept around, and using a writer’s style as a diagnostic for who he is actually trying to reach.

Too often I’ve heard the excuse that when brash, flippant writing turns off the intended audience of, say, an apologetic argument, it is actually the reader’s fault for nitpicking at the delivery rather than facing up to the argument being delivered. I’ve never bought this, since I think it is a writer’s job to communicate successfully, and the failure to do so is the writer’s failure. But it didn’t occur to me that the “failure” might actually be deliberate, and that the intended audience might not be the ostensible target but someone else—in this case, a cheering section who is entertained both by brash, flippant writing and by seeing the target turn away in disgust.

Jacobs continues:

Such imperatives will never cease to be important. But it also seems likely that we will have to train students to be aware — and will have to train ourselves to be aware — that much of what we say and write can find audiences we never intended. And the consequences of our words’ extended reach will not always be positive ones.

I’d add a corollary to this. We need to also train students to understand the true objectives of any writer whose style they strive to emulate, so that they aren’t fooled into using that style when they genuinely want to achieve that writer’s publicly stated objectives. Just because your favorite apologetic writer uses horse laughter extensively does not mean that horse laughter is an effective apologetic technique—it may be that apologetics is not his true objective.

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