He was born in 1874. He was fat, unattractive, disheveled and absent-minded. His ideas were dismissed and often ridiculed by many of the era’s most exalted men and women of letters, science and state. Nevertheless he remained popular with peers and the public during his lifetime, and his ideas are every bit as relevant and provocative today as they were 100 years ago.
His name was Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and he was one of the most prolific, and in my judgment one of the finest, writers of his day or any other day.
G. K. Chesterton was a leading journalist of the early 20th century. An Englishman, he wrote about everything under the sun: politics, religion, history, philosophy, literature, culture and economics were among his favorite topics. He wrote voluminously: novels, short stories, poems, plays, essays and Christian apologetics. In addition to all of this, he was an active and sought-after public speaker whose debates with George Bernard Shaw attracted worldwide interest.
Chesterton was popular in large part because he was controversial. He attacked communism and socialism at the very time these ideologies were picking up steam. He attacked capitalism and predicted its downfall while it was basking in its glory. He was a convert to Catholicism in an Anglican society that was rapidly becoming secularized, and a man who respected history at a time when the culture was in rebellion against it.
What does all this have to do with blogging?
Today we live in a world that is not all that different from Chesterton’s. We are confronted with problematic and contentious issues everywhere, issues which seem unresolvable. Just as then, dark clouds hang over our heads, even though one man’s cloud is another man’s sun.
However, one thing that is different today is that we seem to have lost our ability to discuss contentious issues with civility, and with the purpose of finding common ground and solutions. It is in this area that I think we can learn from Chesterton, because he had the ability to tackle tough issues head-on, make his case with complete conviction, and yet still hold the respect of his opponents and continue to engage them.
Any blogger seeking to argue his/her case runs the risk of offending, alienating, or enraging. In fact, for some bloggers these risks have turned into objectives; for them blogging has become a purposeful attempt to provoke rather than to persuade. This is not good. When debate sinks to the level of shouting matches, when intimidation rather than illumination becomes the strategy of choice, our problems can only get worse. As Chesterton himself put it, “people generally quarrel because they cannot argue.”
How did Chesterton make his case in a way that promoted debate rather than stifle it? Here are a few instructive quotes that will help show us the way.
1. Humor “Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.”
2. Penetrating Insight “What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but absence of self-criticism.”
3. Reframing the Issue “The test of a democracy is not whether the people vote, but whether the people rule.”
4. Uplifting Point of View “There are some people, nevertheless — and I am one of them — who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.”
5. Finding the Center “Briefly, then, we dismiss the two opposite dangers of bigotry and fanaticism, bigotry which is a too great vagueness and fanaticism which is a too great concentration.”
6. Putting Opponents in a Positive Light “The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues.”
7. Identifying Yourself with Your Opponents “Somewhere about the beginning of the nineteenth century, we English came to the conclusion that we could not think.”
8. Focusing on the Big Picture “In the darkness of barbarism men knew the truth without the facts. In the twilight of half-civilization, they saw the truth illuminating the facts. In the full blaze and radiance of complete civilization they found all the facts and lost the truth forever.”
Bloggers writing about controversial topics would be well served by reading Chesterton in detail.
My feeble attempts to convey his style and sensibilities fall far short of what can be learned by going to the source.
Stirring up emotions with incendiary attacks may result in a lot of page views and social shares, but it’s a strategy that lacks staying power and is next to worthless as a means of persuasion.
Chesterton set his sights much higher. Consequently, he is still opening minds and changing them 77 years after his death. As bloggers, we should all be asking ourselves, how high am I willing to reach?