How to Write in Divided Times

Words with consequences

I’m fully aware that churning out cheap SEO-baiting articles in the days following a high-profile death is the lowest of the low. Five things marketers can learn from Stan Lee is not just culturally worthless, it’s shamefully exploitative. This article does not indulge that trend, but I was moved to write it by a shocking event in recent news.

A few days after the murder of Gdansk’s mayor Paweł Adamowicz, I’m both heartened by the positive legacy he left behind, and struck by the grief the event caused. It’s one of those news stories that, at a glance, is just another statistic, but on closer inspection pierces you with sorrow. Someone disagreed with his opinions, and thought that was a good reason to take his life. Not just tragic, but medieval and despicable.

Assassinations are nothing new in history, but when they happen in a country that mostly seems to have its shit together, it’s a cause for concern. Especially for anyone putting their work, and opinions, out there for all to see.

Should we be afraid of publishing our ideas?

To understand what’s going on, we need to zoom out and look at the trends. We all know global politics is lurching to the populist right, alongside the fall of champagne liberalism and its discontents. Bolsonaro wants to give every Brazilian a gun and chop down the Amazon for profit. Germany’s Christian Democrats took a battering in recent elections. Duterte would be a comical Bond villain if he wasn’t actually murdering innocents all over the Philippines.

What does this have to do with writing? It’s about walls. They’re not easy to see over. And to write the truth, we have to be able to see.

Not only are walls being built between nations, peoples and ideologies, but identities are fragmenting more and more. Just look at the fiery battles between reductionist liberalism-at-all-costs and paranoid, hateful conservatism in issues like transgender rights and racial politics.

Even vaccinations have become politicised. (I don’t just mean squabbles between mums on Facebook — politicians are literally basing their campaigns on denial of the workings of the immune system. The Italian Deputy Prime Minister is known for his views against mandatory vaccines.) It’s a sorry state of affairs.

Science fiction is based around the technique of extrapolation. That is — you look at a current situation, and extrapolate the future from it; imagine it taken to a conclusion in the future. If we extrapolate the tribalism we’re encountering now, ten years ahead, it looks like we’re in for difficult times.

It could be a nasty comment that hurts our feelings. A twitter brigade that ends our career. Or real-life violence.

Can we still tell jokes?

Graham Linehan is a comedy writer, famous for TV shows such as Father Ted and The IT Crowd. He’s now known for his crusade against certain transgender rights, which he argues are anti-feminist, as they erase the notion of gender. (In his view, if one can declare themselves as any gender, this nullifies the female characteristics that feminists have fought so hard to protect, especially those included in the Equality Act of 2010 — if anyone can call themselves a woman, then who is feminism for?)

His reasoning isn’t always watertight. He’s felt the wrath of thousands of young gender-fluid netizens and their allies brigading his Twitter feed with accusations of bigotry. Some sent police to his house, accusing him of hate speech due to his criticism of their views. I’m not willing to comment — not because of fence-sitting cowardice (which you’re welcome to accuse me of), but because there’s a whole lot of nuance involved, and this argument can go all the way down to molecular biology and even the concept of self-determination. This isn’t the right place to dive in. One wrong word and I’ll be immolated by one mob or the other.

The reason I bring him up is because of an interesting point he makes. Linehan feels his livelihood as a comedian is under threat, because the more ridiculous real life gets, the less we can find humour in it (a familiar notion for anyone writing political satire these days).

It’s an extrapolation of current discourse that sees a flattening of our right to ridicule. He (correctly) says that ten years ago, we would laugh at the idea of a gruff, masculine, bearded character identifying themselves as a lesbian. Now, though, it’s a reality. And you wouldn’t dare laugh, unless protected by the safety of your tribe. (The famous line from Chandler in Friends — “sometimes I wish I was a lesbian” — has taken on a whole new context. You can be now, Chandler.)

Let’s extrapolate his argument. If humour is neutered as we lapse into a morally paranoid dystopian world, what else? Can we write good drama? Fiction? Opinion pieces? Journalism? Or will every mildly adventurous creation be burnt at the pyre of some group or other?


On a gut level, Linehan’s point about comedy does resonate with me. But zooming out — remembering the changes cultures have gone through, time and time again — I know that in the grand scheme of things, we’ll always have stuff to laugh at. Cultural change brings opportunities. What seems ‘ridiculous’ to him now could be the norm in ten years.

The humour in Friends seems pretty dated in 2019. It might be downright embarrassing in 2029.

Resilient ideas survive the test of time

I believe we can still tell jokes. We can still voice our opinions, speak truth to power, and write what people want to read — without cowering in fear.

After a week in which we saw devastating news media job losses in the States and public figures like Rachel Riley receiving death threats for criticising political parties, the landscape for sharing opinions is tricky, but still abundant with opportunity.

The lessons for writers, then, are broad. There is hope.

Five tenets for the modern writer:

  1. Fight for your authenticity. It is an asset. Not a target on your back. Authenticity doesn’t come from bullish arrogance, but quiet confidence based on clear observation. Do people respond to your writing in the way you’d like? Can you sleep at night knowing you’re not telling lies? Then you’re authentic. This leads to the second:
  2. Back up your arguments with as much proof as you can. There was a trope in online discourse around 5–10 years ago that left-wing thinkers rely on logic and reason, while conservatives base arguments on morality and empiricism. I don’t think this can be taken very seriously anymore. Both sides appeal to base feelings as much as intellectual questioning. You can do both while being committed to the truth, and truth survives longer. Lies come undone in the end, whether you’re a marketer, commenter, or politician.
  3. Know your filter bubbles. If you’re relying on the Algorithm Gods to serve you only the information you subscribe to, your ideas won’t be questioned. And all ideas need to survive the forge of criticism. Idealism needs to be tempered with realism, and reading things that make you uncomfortable will give you empathy and a tactical understanding of your idea’s place in the bigger picture. Reading outside your comfort zone is like taking your ideas to the gym.
  4. Don’t stop reading. Offline, that is. The printed word, other than junk magazines and tabloids, provides the antithesis to attention-muddling clickbait. Depth, nuance and critical thinking are much more likely to appear in a book than a tweet, and those values are your greatest asset as a writer. Reading enhances thinking. You need to think well to write well.
  5. People need leadership and inspiration. The hunger for guidance in difficult times is strong. Putting anger, frustration and hate out there can work in whipping up a mob, but is it going to change things for the better? Giving hope and motivation to folks that feel powerless is an incredibly effective move. In the words of the recently departed Mary Oliver:

“Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

Live fully and honestly, appreciating your place in a shared and dynamic society. There will always be friction, and your words can survive it.

With these five models, writers can weather the storms a little better. If you publish confident and authentic words, people will listen. You will encounter haters; those that try to discredit your ideas with reductio ad absurdum fallacies, or ad hominem attacks.

Do your ideas stand up to criticism? Could you be clearer on what you mean? Are you cherry-picking evidence to support your assertions while ignoring truths that undermine them?

Are your jokes skewering those in power, or are they punching downwards?

Holding yourself to high standards — excellent standards, even — will give your ideas the resilience they need to pierce through the noisy world of online hysteria. Good luck.