Orators and Writers

Yesterday I was reading an op-ed in Mint when it struck me was that this particular columnist never argues – in the sense that he never constructs an argument using inductive or deductive logic. His method or argument is to say the same thing over and over again – in different ways, using different metaphors. He hopes to make his point by way of reinforcement, and considering his popularity and his ubiquity across the media, I’m sure it works for a lot of people (though not for me).

Then I started thinking about people who are known to be “great orators”, mostly from the Indian political space. I started thinking about Vajpayee, about Chandrashekhar and several other similar people. I discovered the same thing about them. That they seldom construct an argument using deductive or inductive logic. Their way of getting the point across is the same as the Mint columnist’s – to say the same thing forcefully and in several different ways.

And thinking about it, it seems quite logical. When you are addressing a large audience, you will need to take everyone along. You will need to ensure that everyone is clued in on what you are speaking on. And when you speak, there is no way for the listener to take a step or two back if he/she misses something you said. Unlike text, the speech has to be interpreted in one parse. So if you are to be a great orator, you need to make sure that you take the audience along; that you construct your speech in such a way that even if someone gets distracted for a few words they can join back and appreciate the rest of the speech. Hence you are better off indulging in rhetoric rather than argument.

A writer, on the other hand, has no such compulsions. It is easy for his reader to go back and forth and parse the essay in whatever order he deems fit. As long as he keeps the language simple, the reader is likely to go along with him. On the other hand, if the writer indulges in rhetoric, the reader is likely to get bored and that could be counterproductive. Hence, writers are more into argument than into rhetoric.

Which brings me back to the Mint columnist I was reading yesterday who, as far as I know, has been a prolific writer but not as much as an orator (or maybe he is but I wouldn’t know since he lives abroad). And I’m puzzled that he has settled on a rhetorical style rather than an argumentative style. I’ve happened to meet him and even then he was mostly using rhetoric rather than reasoning in his arguments.

So yeah, the essence is that there are two ways in which you can construct arguments – by logical reasoning which is mostly preferred by writers and by rhetoric which is preferred by orators. I’m not sure how successful you can be if you interchange styles.

The Problem with Amit Varma

Ok, at the outset I must admit that the title is misleading. There is no problem with Amit Varma. He is an excellent fellow, and great fun to hang out with. What I have been having a problem with is his blog, the ever-so-popular India Uncut. I’ve been reading it regularly for over two years, and now suddenly there seems to be something stale about it.

Amit’s method of writing is what I call¬† as “reinforcement writing”. Other proponents of this style include Ajay Shah and Percy Mistry, and several commies whose writing I don’t care to read. The thing with these people is that they have one basic idea. And 60%¬† (ok i made up that number) of all their essays talk about this one idea. The rest 40% (made up, once again) is used to present the same idea in a different context, or to paint it using a different colour. Maybe their hope is that when people read about the same idea several times, they will get convinced and buy the idea. The concept here is that every time people read about this idea, they would have forgotten that the last time they heard about this was from the same source, and their belief in this idea gets reinforced.

Amit’s chosen idea is one of liberty. Like classic libertarians define themselves – “free markets and free minds”. Go through all of Amit’s serious essays (basically discounting his essays on cows), and you will find this to be the unifying thread. Go back, and look at all the Thursday editions of Mint between Feb07 and Feb08. I haven’t kept count, but my sense is that at least 40 of those 50 odd columns had liberty as its underlying theme.

It may be the case that his mandate in that column was to write about liberty, but this concept has now become big in his normal blogging also, and maybe in all his thoughts. A few weeks ago, I wrote to a mailing list that Amit and I are both part of saying that I was planning to write an Economic Travelogue. And Amit’s quick suggestion was that I should write it from a liberty and freedom point of view.

The reason I’m writing this essay is that as a regualr and loyal reader of Amit’s blog, I feel cheated. I feel cheated that he isn’t adding much value by way of his posts. I’m not cribbing about the volume here, since I know that he is busy trying to get a novel published and doesn’t have much time to blog. I’m not cribbing about the quality of writing here – as always, it is excellent. What I am cribbing about is the content. That – for a regular reader – the marginal value of each of his posts is infinitesimal. And the danger is that the marginal value of looking at his posts might soon turn negative, which will result in my unsubscribing from his blog.

I know that Amit is really good about writing about liberty. He even won a Bastiat for that. However, he needs to realize that most of his audience is “repeat audience”. His essays might make a big impact for a new reader, but they do little to please existing ones. This is like a business that spends so much of its energy in acquiring new customers that it ends up pissing off the existing customers. Such a business model is never going to be sustainable.