What does it mean to write with courage?

Ever since Thor Holt interviewed me for his podcast “Write With Courage“, I have been thinking about that core concept. What does it mean to write with courage? Many people think that being combative, abrasive and contrarian is “courageous”. They are wrong.

Real courage takes sharpening your teeth on something new. Real courage means challenging yourself more than others. Real courage means being a pioneer, and finding the area complexity that every side of a popular debate ignores.

In the current age of social media, it literally costs you nothing to be a contrarian: to be an “anti-sheep” is no more courageous than being a sheep.

You can broadcast abusive and abrasive language to millions, and get people very riled up, at absolutely no cost or risk to yourself. Is that a good way of measuring courage? No. In fact, the opposite is true: being a deliberate provocateur online, in today’s sociopolitical climate, is a sign of being lazy, shallow and weak.

 

We didn’t actually talk about this in the interview, though. We had a brilliant and invigorating talk about my days of blogging back before the word “blogging” had been invented, my first forays into professional writing, the way my writing was influenced by my long-time friend and colleague Milo Yiannopoulos, and general “writer stuff”: how I think about writing, tips for new writers, greatest influences, and so on. Some fun and interesting stuff, so give it a listen when you have the time:

One of the themes that emerged during the interview was my desire to analyze things in new ways and explore the world from a perspective that well-known theories and frameworks miss. We discuss debate strategies, and the importance of taking the perspective of multiple sides. We talk about cross-disciplinary thinking and the ability to make connections and analogies that other people never think of.

All of these are related to the topic of writing with courage.

Writing with courage means finding complexity that existing paradigms ignore.

That takes courage.

It doesn’t take courage to yell and jeer and insult a mainstream idea that you disagree with.

(It takes courage to research that idea so deeply that you understand it, and engage the people you disagree with until you understand the virtue they see in themselves.)

It doesn’t take courage to be an unnuanced skeptic, who is cynical about everything in the world.

(It takes courage to look past that cynicism, and find the pride and virtue and sense of progress that you can follow to create a world that you are proud to live in.)

It doesn’t take courage to be a feminist among sexists, and it doesn’t take courage to be an anti-feminist in a liberal haven.

(It takes courage drill down into the concepts that underlie feminism, find out what those ideas mean to both sides, and really explore those boundary cases in the world where both sides have some claim on the truth.)

Taking a dominant side doesn’t take courage.

Taking a minority side doesn’t take courage.

What does take courage? Taking on the liminal takes courage. Taking on complexity takes courage. Truly understanding things from more than one point of view takes courage.

That is what I try to do in my writing, and that is the advice I would give to anyone else who wants to write with courage.

Follow the Write With Courage podcast on Twitter: @WriteWthCourage

 

Post Scriptum: Some of the articles of mine that I talk about in the interview include:

You Eat Too Much

Scientific proof that Louis is the hottest member of 1D

The dangers of a good argument

Patriarchy, traffic jams, and complex systems

6 tips for online debate

 



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  1. HFP says:

    I really enjoyed this piece. If courage entails action despite fear and doubt, an honest slog toward precision absolutely requires courage – where there is uncertainty, there is fear, and that never quite goes away. And yes, when honest inquiry culminates in honest conviction, whatever the social risks of embracing it, communicating it faithfully takes yet more courage, I wonder, though, whether courageous writing ends there. Unbiased conclusions grounded in rigorous inquiry involve nuance. Even nuance approaching the self-evident can strip a message of its power to compel. Might not courageous writing rather call for further diligence? Surely the safety of a disinterested audience is inimical to taking a stand. Might not the best countermeasure then be an equally rigorous (and likely discomfiting) inquiry into the hearts and minds of the audience? Seeing writing through until the message truly resonates is hard. Far less so, I think, when we know what it is to stand in the audience’s shoes.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Thanks for your comment, and I definitely agree. Back when I was in academia, I loved teaching. One of the big challenges about teaching is finding a way to present complex material in a way that resonates with the students, and allows them to understand it and remember it. You can present all of the data or detailed theories you want, but at the end of the day: if you are not finding a way to effectively communicate that to the students, you aren’t being a good teacher. And succeeding in that task always involved being able to understand what the students respond to, what makes it easier for them to remember and understand things, and ultimately connecting with their point of view.

      As you said: knowing what it is to stand in their shoes.

      • HFP says:

        Exactly. And in my own experience, checking my perspective at the door and entertaining even the most alien of experiences among my audience is arduous. I see courage in seeing that through.

  2. AJ says:

    I really liked this post and I listened to the podcast. Very interesting. I must respectfully say that I don’t know how one could be friends with Milo. Not because of his views or ideas [not original] but for… other reasons.

    He must have some redeeming qualities he doesn’t show in public, right?

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Thanks for your comment, AJ!

      Everybody is multifaceted, and he and I have known each other a very long time. Everybody changes and evolves, too. I don’t know that we would become friends if he and I met today for the first time. But I’m happy that he and I had the opportunity to be friends, and to share the experiences we shared when both of us were at different points in our lives than we are now.

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