The Other One

In my Introduction to Literature course, I wrote this alternate version of the Day One Essay:

For a literature class like ours, I would use this quotation a bit differently than for other classes I teach.  There are a number of ways I can approach a passage like this, but I want to evaluate the way Chesterton uses paradox to provoke and smooth controversy, and to offer some observations about what seem to me to be some faults in the style of the passage.

I hope it seems obvious that this passage seeks to provoke controversy by appearing to contradict common sense.  In fact, the larger text this is drawn from is full of examples of just this, and just a little up the page from this very passage he directly mentions the antithesis of this assertion.  We generally think of people with sharp, strong beliefs as more likely to get into disputes, and we associate that strong emotion readily with “bigotry” and violence.

Chesterton provokes us, then, by challenging our belief.  He claims “indifference” causes bigotry and even “monstrous persecutions,” and thus tempts us to react before we have reflected on the meaning of his words.  In a very small way, he tempts us to act like “bigots” about the definition of “bigotry,” at least by that common definition.  Not being willing to be thought hasty, though, we may try to understand his intended meaning–and then he has us.

For Chesterton has in view the ordinary state of interest and concern–of what has been called “studious seriousness”–that one shows in matters that are important.  When the “appalling frenzy” comes, it sweeps away those who react to the horrors and celebrities and outrages of the moment; it is only those who have spent time and effort to form initial judgments with reasons they can explain, who have actively committed themselves to principles they cannot easily back down from, who are emboldened and empowered to speak reasonably and responsibly to the needs of the moment.  Chesterton’s paradox, then, is that he suggests that those most committed to study and argue in their leisure are least likely to be swept up in thoughtless currents of bigotry and violence.

At the same time as Chesterton provokes with his paradox, he also soothes.  This happens in two ways.  One we might describe by noticing that Chesterton’s writing is, in vulgar phrase, “too danged cheerful.”  That is, Chesterton puts so many bits of clever language, paradox, and wordplay before us that we are likely to feel at every turn that we would like to throw a beer in his face, or buy the next round, or both.  He provokes, but he is having so much fun doing it that we are likely to be drawn in, at least a little bit.  Notice, in this passage, that he lets us–his readers–off the hook; we are not likely to think of ourselves as “indifferent,” or as not being “peopl who cared,” until we reason more deeply about our habits–the sting of that reasoning comes only after we have been soothed by the distance he allows us to gain from the provocation.

This basic pattern–a provoking paradox, a soothing abstraction, a subtextual jab to our consciences–is one Chesterton uses over and over.  I will not dispute its effectiveness.  I do think there is a risk, however, that impels me to urge writers to use this sparingly.  Over time, the need to provoke tempts each writer into more and more contrived paradoxes, often obfuscating the relatively simple.  At the same time, the abstractions required to provide emotional distance and explain the provocation become more complex and opaque.  The reader is likely to find them more elaborate than the situation can actually bear.  As a result, both the traction of the paradox in the mundane world and the sharpness of the jab to the reader’s conscience are weakened, turned into mush.

I think I may clearly exemplify this problem by simply changing one word in one sentence:  “Bigotry may be roughly defined as the anger of men who have [only] opinions.”  This sentence is now logically contradictory to the original.  I actually agree with the main point of the original phrase, too.  Using ordinary definitions of “opinion” and “argument” that I establish in my Rhetoric classes, however, I could totally rewrite the whole passage to make a slightly different point.  In other words, the style of the paradox is not very tightly related to the substance of the point.

Thus at once I notice the power of Chesterton’s style, and in passing my agreement with his point, while yet hoping that a habit of merely clever paradoxy will not slip into your writing style or mine.  Such a style might, after all, prove to be another expression of “indifference”–of what might be called “sloth,” in fact.  Rejecting such “indifference” should, it is to be hoped, enable us to reason and respond well–not least by weighing carefully the fitness of our words.