I won’t start this blog post with an anecdote.
I won’t tell you about that time, in a dreary Yom Kippur (almost) two years ago, when I stood in shul, shrouded in that pregnant Vidui hush. I won’t tell you how I suddenly realized that I had one more potential sin to ponder. I won’t tell you about the light that seemed to hover in the air instead of flowing through it, as if it, too, was in a state of waiting. As if it, too, was still reviewing the past, and unable, as of yet, to move on.
I won’t tell you about my feelings at the time. I won’t use sentences like “suddenly I realized” nor “as I looked up, I knew that my personal transgression was part of something bigger.” In fact, I won’t use any of the tactics that make a personal anecdote compelling and relatable, because these very tactics are the sin I must confess.
“Sin” might be too strong a word. “Transgression” is better, because it connotes stepping over boundaries. And when I tell a story which is designed to persuade you, your boundaries are that which I try to transgress.
Compare stories to arguments, for example. When I offer you arguments, they operate like visitors: they declare themselves as my opinions when they knock on your door. You are free to let them in, and you are free to reject them. You are never lured into viewing them as something you came up with on your own.
Stories are different. Stories are tricky. They engage your emotions, snake their way into your mind, and allow my opinions to sneak in, undetected. If arguments try to convince you, stories are all about persuasion. When they’re good, they’re called “compelling,” and the hint of force isn’t mere chance.
When I first started blogging, I engaged strictly in convincing. I used anecdotes to add color, but presented my opinions as the arguments they truly were. I described emotions and placed my insights within the experiences that birthed them, but the insights themselves were presented as My Own Opinions, cut and clear.
Somewhere along the road, however, I became a better writer. I learned to control the flow of the prose, the tone of each sentence. I learned which tactics and styles make for a more-widely-read post. I learned that a story can make a point far more subtly, and persuasively, than a list of provable points. And I started applying this knowledge, not as an act of conscious deception, but rather as the next natural step in perfecting my craft.
And storytelling is a natural, even necessary, part of blogging. The Times of Israel enabled us, ordinary men and women, to have a say in the marketplace of ideas. But most of us don’t have the degrees or the official positions to convince you, the readers, that we have something worthwhile to say. Sans external proofs for the value of our insights, all we can offer you are the experiences we went through. We tell stories that make you experience what we experienced ourselves, and try to make you reach the conclusions we drew.
Storytelling isn’t a transgression in and of itself. But it’s easy, so easy, to get carried away with the power of rhetoric, to seduce and compel instead of present and convince.
But that way lies manipulation. And as I stood in that shul (almost) two years ago, I realized that my personal possible transgression was part of something bigger, something vast. (See how easy it is to get carried away and use the very type of sentence I declared I won’t use?)
We live at a time when facts are constantly contested, when everyone has the means for public self expression, and when there are very few agreed-upon ways to find truth within the resultant constant noise. Our opinions are influenced by beautifully crafted articles that move us to tears… And distract us from the need to weight their truth value. Our emotions are bombarded with tragic images… and flare regardless of circumstances and/or context . After all, long and nuanced explanations bore us; our eyes are trained to look for the TL:DR. He or she who speaks with passion attracts and excites us. The true-yet-boring details are not what gets the “likes”.
Within this atmosphere, I must tell my truths with soul and color to be heard. But I must also anchor my opinions in facts and reason and undisguised, self-proclaimed arguments. Otherwise, I’ll become part of the problem, part of this seductive flow that drowns out Truth and overpowers others and compels.
We who deal in words must wield them carefully. Otherwise, we’ll lose our chance to find out truths. I know that I am not infallible, and you might know better than me. But I’ll never know for sure if I don’t allow our clashing opinions to meet and engage in the open, but rather try to overwhelm you out of your position through manipulative techniques. Worse: I’ll never have a true relationship with you if I treat you as someone to compel. You can’t be a “thou” to me, in Martin Buber’s sense of the word, if I don’t treat you as my equal, as someone who is capable of challenging and enlightening me, as someone whose opinions are worthy of debate.
And so, in the name of both truth and mutual respect, I must remember my own fallible nature, and engage with you in an open, and openly opinion-based, exchange of thoughts.
And so, here is my vidui, my confession: As a blogger, I’m sure there were times when I allowed myself to get carried away with the excitement of writing, with the joy of wielding my craft. I’m sure there were times when I crossed over the boundary between convincing and persuading, when I stopped explaining my positions, and reverted to using evocative stories to seduce and to compel.
I can’t promise never to get carried away again, and I can’t promise to always discern the boundaries ere I cross them. But I can pledge to try and be conscious of the danger. I can pledge to remember that stories are the means, but truth is my end. and I can pledge to place my respect for you, my readers, before the drive to write compellingly and well.