Drawing by Stuart McMillen
The title above is of course a variation on the title of one of my favorite essays, George Orwell‘s “Why I Write.” Joan Didion liked the title, too, borrowing it for one of her works.
“There’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space,” Didion wrote in a sentence that might have characterized social media at least as well as anything Orwell came up with. That is, assuming there’s any longer such a thing as “private space” — which brings us back to Orwell all over again.
Orwell’s best-known work is 1984, a book that may have killed him. Like many other great (and countless not-so-great) writers, Orwell “had always thrived on self-inflicted adversity,” and his death at age 46 came not via evil government agents, but via illness aggravated by trying to beat deadlines.
Orwell might also have argued that he was far from alone in his appreciation of adversity; as pointed out today in a Washington Post piece about an Orwell review of Mein Kampf, Hitler knew “that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene… they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.” Considering the number of mindless Americans and ignorant politicians who now apparently favor getting involved in another ground war, Orwell obviously had a keen understanding of people.
At least since the 1985 arrival of Neil Postman‘s Amusing Ourselves to Death, one cannot meaningfully discuss 1984 without considering another dystopian view, that of Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World. Postman, in the forward to his book (a forward so brilliant that it has been illustrated via a Stuart McMillen comic and a YouTube video), compares the two worlds.
He notes that in Brave New World “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think,” and that the sheer amount of information would become so great that “we would be reduced to passivity and egoism” while “the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” It may seem incredible that Huxley was writing before the arrival of television. At least as impressive is the fact that Postman wrote his book warning about “a trivial culture” before the arrival of the Internet or smart phones.
Few things exemplify this trivial culture better than the social media with which many of us spend much of our time. After I finish this blog post, I’ll post links to it on both Facebook and Twitter, where it will compete for attention with information about lying “news” anchors, war in the Middle East, Congressional inaction, vaccines, various health scares, funny cat videos and countless other messages.
I’ll post links on those social media sites despite the fact that I have regularly denigrated “anti-social media,” especially Twitter (also here, here, here, here and here). I have proclaimed that I would avoid Twitter, and for five years or so I did. But this past weekend — in what may prove to be the dumbest Sunday decision since the Seahawks failed to give Marshawn Lynch the ball at the end of the Super Bowl — I began tweeting at @JimBMcPherson.
“Why?” Three reasons: First, much of the news is being reported (and sometimes misreported) via various media organizations first via Twitter, so it relates to my job to my job as a journalism professor. Second, I found when I was making contacts for a recent off-campus study program that some media professionals probably would have been easier to reach via Twitter than they were through other means.
And finally; as I’ve managed to demonstrate here on my blog and on Facebook, I’m an egocentric fool who often thinks his thoughts about media and politics worth sharing. In that, I am like Orwell, who offered as his first reason for writing:
Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
Orwell offered three other reasons; I also agree with those (and will let you read them for yourself) before noting in his final paragraph, “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy.” Perhaps so, though he adds, in conclusion:
One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
My own writing may be driven primarily by ego. But for better or worse, what I write — even in 140 characters — rarely lacks a political purpose.