8 100-year-old tips for writing about controversial topics

G.K. Chesterton, a leading journalist of the early 20th century, would have made a great blogger. He was popular in large part because he was controversial. Via his quotes I will show how bloggers should approach controversial issues to promote debate rather than stifle it.

Chesterton had no problem writing about controversial topics
Image Credit: G.K. Chesterton, By Herbert Lambert (National Portrait Gallery)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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?

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What is your opinion on stirring things up just to get more page views and social shares? Can this work in the long run?

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  • karenf

    Sigh. I’m not funny, usually. Hence, I’m going to stick to my plan of “short [blog] and honest.” Ora para mi! :-)

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  • Joseph Bandana

    Who cares about the civil community of bloggersz?!! The rulers and shakers must be dethroned and they could careless about the civil community!! Ask the Syrians!! Ask the Iraqis!! Ask the Afghans!! WAR is unfortunately the answer to most dramatic changes in our world today…..or…..DREAMONDREAMON…..BLOGONBLOGON!! hehehe! (humor)

  • Joseph Bandana

    Sometymes we weary of argument and provoke a quarrel to get the thing settled with impunity!

    Endless argument is debilitating and the stalemate frequently changes nothing whatsoever.

    We are in our 21st Century and most Americans still believe in PregnantVirginMary and BabyBoiJesus djd turn WatertewWine and WalkonWater!! WHAT??!! We have Science now and the Vast Intranets!! LoL!! Give up yer Mansions on GoldenStreetsHeaven, yew Xtians, and allow us Billions of BeautifulSouls yew determine are doomed for Eternity in Hella ……to Live, Love and Be Alive on our BeautifulPlanetEarth NOWNOWNOW!! hehehe…hehe!!

  • Indu_Pendent

    That’s why we have wars with winners and loser? The British are not scared of fighting.

  • Indu_Pendent

    … albeit we should ignore bigots, fantasists and others we don’t agree with… because the only truth is our own. Its not exactly a very politically tuned approach.

    Power is truth. Winning the argument of truth requires the power to be fought. Chesterton does not fully address this.

  • http://ninjakillercat.co.uk/ Claire Toplis

    Great post . Inspiring

  • http://pokerknave.com PokerKnave

    I must admit his 3rd point on the people ruling is the most interesting thing in this article.

  • http://cst.net Chris Salmon

    “What is your opinion on stirring things up just to get more page views and social shares? Can this work in the long run?”

    HuffPo thinks it can, and they sold to AOL for $315 million bucks!! So the answer is YES.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001312680119 Simon Denomie

    Well first of all it’s a representative democracy.

    Second, nobody’s owned by China except China.

    Then all the nonsense about the government “handing out entitlements”… how silly to post this on a page about respecting peoples’ opinions. I respect opinions, not lies

  • Nenad Senic

    Dear Soc, yes, you may do that, under the following conditions:

    – mention where this post was published originally with the link to this page.

    Please let me know, when it’s posted and where. Thank you, Nenad.

  • http://twitter.com/Sochest Soc Chestertoniana

    Dear Brad, I’m Marco Sermarini, president of Italian Chesterton Society. May I translate this interesting post and put it on our blog? I think it could be useful. Thank you.

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  • JD Salinger

    No wonder he’s forgotten

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  • Chris Plumb

    Very good advice. I think I was absent-mindedly following about six of these in my blog, but much of that has to do with just being a people-person. Realizing that the only way to challenge somebody stuck in their beliefs, is to go at them sideways, with humor, or self-depricating anecdotes (and being open to the fact that I could be wrong).

    I think myself, like many others, need to focus on number 6. Respecting other people is what we are taught, but somehow, on the computer, we try to destroy the competition, which only goes against what we are trying to do.

  • Melissa Curran

    I completely agree with your statement. The bad thing about internet discussions is that you can’t see the person you are debating and some believe that gives them license to be rude, ugly and condescending. It’s truly a shame that our manners have gone the way of the wagon wheel.

  • Melissa Curran

    Number 3 sticks out to me – I believe that America is no longer a democracy. We’ve blindly followed along as our Constitutional rights are eroding before our eyes. Our freedoms are being destroyed little by little – and we all choose to do nothing because we want the entitlements our government so freely hands out. It is a shame that our once-great country is now owned by China.

    Ah, but I digress…wonderful stuff here and I am off to find more information on GK Chesterton. Thanks for your post!

  • Melissa Curran

    One thing that I do when a customer comes into my business and takes up my time with their phone call is to leave them sitting at the front counter. I go back to my desk and when they are finished, I rejoin our meeting. I do not have to accept rude behavior as my time is just as important as their time.

  • Nosa Iyare

    I really picked out some wisdom from this peice………a first from an entertainment blog. kudos ( @nosa_iyare) on twitter

  • http://twitter.com/Ziuabuna Ana Vasiliu

    Yes. This will work in the long run. The twits and posts and blogs and one-liners are the noise of the wold. If it persuades, it is not by argument, but by presence. And debate seems to be gaining ground as a spectacle sport, as it was in more up to Chesterton’s time then between him and ours… I’d rater have it done with a ear to the world, of course.

  • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

    It’s quite discouraging. Last night I took a rare trip to downtown Chicago, and everyone on the streets had their faces buried in a smartphone. And I must confess i checked mine more often than I should have. The impulse for instant gratification in communication is making it harder for us to think through complex problems and discuss them with the attention to detail they require. Solutions, anyone?

  • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

    Great point, which brings up a whole other discussion: how does a blogger go about cultivating a civil community of commenters?

  • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

    Not a bad idea at all. Either call them out or ignore them … I think the worst thing to do is respond and get sucked into that kind of discussion.

  • Ouch

    Losing, my friend, LOSING. America must learn this distinction, or I shall kill myself by repeated palm plants to the forehead. It is a very drawn out form of death, and I beg your cooperation.

  • gautam chintamani

    Great post. Such reading should be mandatory for just about everyone out there. Sometimes people love to shoot the messengers instead of concentrating on the message. If one can make the other see the point with a little help from words, then why not.

  • texasaggie

    It takes two to tango so both sides need to be respectful, but if we aren’t respectful when we write our posts, it doesn’t matter if the other side is respectful or not. Only one side will be dancing.

  • boomerscoutofamerica

    I think we should all call out those who use vile, obscene, bullying, uncivil, or personal attacks. We could say something like, “Your language is not appropriate to this discussion.” Or, “Your lack of civility discredits your position.” Or one I really like (but don’t myself use), “When your I.Q. reaches room temperature, sell. You are not for all markets.” At any rate, I think we should insist on civility in posts and call attention to its absence, even–maybe especially–if we agree with the attitude or idea.

  • skycody

    Today so many live by “Bumper Sticker” slogans and are lost if the thought is more than two sentences long. In the day of writing letters by hand, loving the tactile book, and attending an intellectual debate are mostly over. I have to stop here, I am loosing you….

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