Read your writing out loud, advises Alan Jacobs, particularly in the case of opinion or argument. Hear how your words might affect an audience by passing them up through your vocal chords and out your mouth, feeding back into your own brain via your ears. How would you then evaluate your rhythm, the strength of your position, and perhaps most importantly, your generosity of spirit?
Jacobs quotes a prayer:
“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust for power and idle talk.” Idle talk! — how many of us would think to place, near the head of a long prayer to be repeated frequently in Lent, a plea to be delivered from that?
And yet many have been my idle words over the years. I wonder how much harm they have done to others, and even to me. . . .
In some cases the embarrassment would have been because of arguments badly made or paragraphs awkwardly formed; but in others because of a simple lack of charity or grace. An essay begins with an idea, but an idea begins with a certain orientation of the mind and will — with a mood, if you please. We have only the ideas that our mood of the moment prepares us to have, and while our moods may be connected to the truth of things, they are normally connected only to some truths, some highly partial facet of reality. Out of that mood we think; out of those thoughts we write. And it may be that only in speaking those thoughts do we discern the mood from which they arose.
I have argued that the skepto-atheosphere (or at least its online manifestations) could benefit mightily from the rhetorical and literary ethos of the essay. A movement eating itself alive, constantly swirling with varying degrees of outrage and righteous indignation, dividing into sects and factions which then divide further into sub-sects and sub-factions. (Go ahead, hop onto any popular atheist blog or onto any Twitter neighborhood where the heretics and skeptics play. You will doubtless see at least one jab thrown at another member of our “reality-based community,” at least one missile launched, perhaps brazenly, perhaps as a snarky aside.) But I would temper my prescription by adding that it must be a thoughtful essay, a careful essay, heard out loud by the writer as Jacobs has learned.
Something a fellow heathen has done or said (or is alleged to have done or said) has you fuming, and you take to one of the Web’s myriad platforms to immediately broadcast your ire — your dudgeon high and your motives unassailable. You feel it’s your duty to call it out, shine a light, muster disapproval.
But think: is what you heard true? If so, might there be additional context? Must it now define the character of your target forevermore, casting aside that you, they, and we were once all allies for some reason?
Might you instead at least consider, perhaps even experiment with, a dose of charity, a pinch of the benefit of the doubt, a slight hint of generosity of spirit? Can you just try it out?
Or just start with reading it out loud first.