virtues

Learning the Aussie (and spiritual) virtue of hospitality from and for the outsider

Halal_Snack_Pack_served_on_ceramic_plate

Image Credit: Wikipedia article on Halal Snack Packs

On election night in Australia, in the midst of the chaos and the commercial networks clamouring for ‘worst possible election graphic/metaphor’ and Laurie Oakes’ tie-switching gazumping of the gambling industry there was a moment of pure beauty; a beauty that some may have interpreted as political pointscoring if it were disingenuous, but that I choose to see as a glimmer of something both transcendent and fundamentally human; a reminder that we, as Aussies, whatever our differences, should be able to share something in common. A literal, and metaphorical, place at the same multi-cultural, multi-faith table. Part of being Australian, I think, is operating in the realisation that hospitality is a central virtue, and in the practice of hospitality we’re to be both hosts and guests; and that nothing kills hospitality as fast as fear.

This revelatory moment came when Labor senator Sam Dastyari, of Iranian heritage, invited the newly (re-)elected Pauline Hanson, famous for her anti-Islam ‘no halal’ platform, to join him for a halal snack pack in the western suburbs of Sydney. According to the SMH story on the invitation, “a ‘HSP’ is a styrofoam box filled with kebab meat, cheese and chips covered in chilli, garlic and either barbecue sauce or hummus.”

I’ve never eaten an halal snack pack, but his guide to making the perfect pack makes this invitation particularly inviting.

Hospitality: a lost Aussie virtue

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair. — Advance Australia Fair, Verse 2

Dastyari’s offer was an attempt to practice the foundational ‘Aussie’ virtue of hospitality; one we no longer sing about in our anthem because we don’t sing the second verse, but that is there nonetheless (an ironic ‘foundational’ virtue in some way when white settlers ignore the way we forced first Australians to show us ‘hospitality’, but I’ll get to that).

Hanson rebuffed his invitation. She committed what I think is a cardinal Aussie sin, she rejected his offer of hospitality and mateship, an offer to share in part of his vision for human flourishing — not the snack pack itself, but the hospitality he offered. The invitation to share a meal at a shared table. To share life. To understand each other. This sort of hospitality is so vital to life in a multi-cultural context. Our nation will fall — it won’t possibly be one nation — without a rediscovery of the cardinal Aussie virtue of hospitality; of being able to share a table with those who are different. And this is extra true for Christians — because it’s not just an Aussie virtue, but a Christian one; and we’ve got a particular interest, as Christians, in both taking up the invitations of others, and inviting those whom society can’t find a place for at the table to join us.

There are implications in this pursuit of hospitality, in the context of Islam in Australia, for how we think of such things as enabling the building of religious space for Muslims as an extension of our desire for religious freedom, what we think of halal food and its place in Australia (and our pantries, which I’ve written about elsewhere), but also for how we think of what it really means to ‘belong’ in Australia (which I’ve also written about elsewhere); what we unite around as Australians.

There’s lots at stake here, because Pauline Hanson has a view of what our unity as Australians should be found in and that view now has a place at the table in the parliament, which ostensibly legislates towards particular views of what being ‘Australian’ looks like. Hanson’s view, a reaction to terror and change sounds so appealing to those of us who are looking at the pace of change in our world, and our nation, and who are afraid. Fear is a totally understandable response to change (and ‘terror’ the intended response to acts of ‘terrorism’), and she taps into it, and has built a platform that, in a circular way, escalates the fear as she speaks the fear into reality for many other people, while offering solutions that cause fear for others. I think it explains much of Hanson’s popularity, but it also explains much of the damage Hanson is doing, whether deliberately or as collateral. Her appearance on Q&A last night, and the associated contributions to the discussion by Muslims in the audience, and Dastyari who shared the platform with her, shows that we can’t take her lightly. She’s been elected by a constituency who share some of her fears (and proposed solutions), and she (and they) have a right to have their fears heard.

The antidote to these fears, where they’re unfounded, is hospitality.

This is the answer for both Hanson (and voters who back her), and the Muslim community. The answer is rediscovering the virtue of hospitality; generous hospitality that seeks to make a place for and to understand the other that will allay Australia’s fears about the Muslim neighbours we have nothing to fear from (and might help us identify those we do, should they not be interested in the exercise of hospitality), and hospitality that will allay our Muslim neighbours’ fears about whether they belong in the Australian community or not.

If we want ‘one nation’ we need to practice hospitality as both guests and hosts. Which is interesting, because for white Aussies like me, that’s what I am, historically. I’m both a guest — in that I am a descendant of those who settled having ‘come across the seas’; and a host, in that my family has been here for generations and I’m now in a position to show hospitality to others. One might say I’m morally obliged to do that either because of the (largely ‘inherited’) cultural wealth I enjoy as an Aussie in a world where such wealth is rare, or the story I participate in as an Aussie enjoying the boundless plains I did not create, or just that I have more wealth to share than most people alive today. I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with welcome to country ceremonies at public events because they remind me of some truth that this isn’t really my home, or that it wasn’t first my home, but another peoples’; but this extension of a welcome, an act of generosity from another Australian people — our ‘first Australians’ — should model something to me that I then pass on to others. It’s the articulation of a fundamental Aussie virtue that stands in the face of past fear, injustice, and terror — the stuff that European settlers perpetrated on others, and if we can’t learn from this welcome as modern Australians and be true to our national anthem, then we’ve lost any hope of being ‘one nation’ as others join us from across the seas. My discomfort in welcome to country ceremonies — the discomfort of feeling a sense of forgiveness and hospitality in the face of inherited guilt — is a powerful reminder that we are all, as people, both guests and hosts in this nation, and this world. In a sense, as Christians, we also understand first nation people to be guests in God’s land, as an extension of our role as God’s image bearing stewards who are placed in an embodied sense, in his world, to do the work of caring for it (in a Genesis 1 sense)… or as Paul puts it in Acts:

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ — Acts 17:26-28

We are both guests and hosts. 

This is part of the Australian story — because it is a part of every Australian story, from the first Australians whose relationship with the land was predicated on some sense of being guests and stewards, to all those who have joined in the call to share our ‘boundless plains’ with others — being an Aussie means being both guest and host; hospitality is a foundational Aussie virtue, if not the foundational Aussie virtue. And fear is the enemy of hospitality. It leads us to put up walls, to build ghettos, to demarcate the ‘other’, to attempt, as Hanson, Andrew Bolt, and TV host Sonia Kruger have, to limit the extent of our national hospitality to those who don’t bring anything new or different (or dangerous, because all danger is apparently found in this difference) to the table. Ultimately a failure to practice this virtue leads us, as a nation, and individual Aussies, to practice exclusion rather than embrace. And both our past and our future have to be built on embrace if we’re to survive as a multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-ethnic nation. It’s simply too late to return to ‘white Australia’ and Australia was never really white to begin with…

The way for us to recapture a lost virtue, and to be schooled in it, is to practice it. We have to recover this practice in our homes in order for it to be recaptured in our parliament. This starts with you. If you think this stuff matters — you need to practice it.

If you don’t like what Hanson is on about, or the politics of fear, if you want Australia to be defined by what it is or could be — a truly hospitable nation — not by what it isn’t, then start habitually practicing hospitality. Not just as a host, but as a guest. Get out to Western Sydney. In this we have much to learn from both the welcome to country we’re offered by the indigenous communities at public events; and from ‘new Australians’ like Sam Dastyari and other Muslim Australians who have responded to the rhetoric of fear and exclusion with hospitable invitations. Just like on election night, the moment that stood out for me on Q&A last night (apart from Hanson’s apparent epiphany that Dastyari is actually a Muslim), was not the Muslim voices who expressed how deep the cost of this rhetoric is for their community (though that was striking) but the hopeful invitation a young Muslim man extended Hanson, not to eat a halal meal (on his terms), but simply to eat with him and seek common understanding.

My name is Mohammed.
I love my religion Islam and have been to more mosques than I have the supermarket. Perhaps the greatest influence for our family members to becoming hard working and focusing on education and hoping to be good citizens was the emphasis placed on it by Islam.
I believe the best way to increase understanding and mutual respect, is through interaction. Would you be willing to take my offer to inviting you for lunch or dinner, whichever suits you, with me and my Muslim family? And in respect to you and your beliefs, while we have something halal, we will ensure your food is not halal.
Would you accept this invitation now? — Mohammad Attai, Q&A

We won’t have one nation without practicing this sort of virtue.

We are both guests and hosts.

This guy, and Sam Dastyari re-taught me a truth that I should know both as an Aussie, and as a Christian. Hospitality is a virtue, and our survival as a nation (and as a church within a nation) depends on it.

So, I’ll be looking for Brisbane’s best Halal Snack Pack, if anyone has any recommendations.

But I also have to step up my hosting game, not just hosting those in my church community (though we have to do this as Christians if we’re going to live out our Christian story and display the Christian virtue of hospitality in our communities), but hosting those who are not like me, especially those from the margins; and those who live in fear in our changing world — both the Muslim community, and the One Nation voter, because hospitality isn’t just an Aussie virtue, it’s a core Christian virtue too. It’s part of us living our story.

Hospitality: A lost Christian virtue

Hospitality is at the heart of the Christian story — which begins with the hospitable God making a place for us, a beautiful world, and a place for us to enjoy a relationship with him. But our fear, and our failure to be hospitable — guest or host — is also at the heart of the Christian story. We fail to be good guests, as humans, when we live as though God isn’t hosting us, as though the world isn’t his. We behave like bad tenants, or terrible guests in a hotel room who trash the joint, or worse, like a house guest who comes over the threshold of your home and systematically attempts to eradicate any trace of your ownership, your life, or your existence until you’re driven from your house. That’s what we’ve done to God. That’s the story of sin; our act of remaking God’s place — the world — comfortable for us, by removing him. We aren’t great guests. And, as John puts it, as a result, we humans are terrible hosts…

 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. — John 1:10-11

This is, in a sense, John’s summary of the parable of the wicked tenants — the parable where the owner of a place that has been trashed sends his representatives, and finally his son, to talk to the inhospitable tenants, who kill the owner’s son. This story — and this statement in John — is about the Cross. The word who made the world became human flesh — a guest of the world — we hosted him here in ‘our world’ and we killed him. The story of the Gospel is that God is the great and generous host, but that we, by our own god-rejecting nature, are bad hosts and bad guests. There’s something in the image of God that still remains in us that means, by his grace, we are still hospitable to others even if we’re not deliberately following him, but this characteristic — this divine virtue —is something we take up anew when we take up the invitation to be his people in a hostile world. We become the representatives of the great host; but we also realise that we live in a world that is hostile to him — the world that killed Jesus — and that part of the invitation extended to us in being his people is an invitation into the new creation; where the hospitable God will again make a place for us, even after we trashed the last one. This new creation is so new that the world now isn’t actually our home… and so we live as guests. Peter captures this tension in his first letter:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. — 1 Peter 2:9-12

This letter is one of many parts of the New Testament that expresses the connection between the hospitality God shows us — the mercy we’ve received changes the way we treat each other, and the other. So Peter says:

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. — 1 Peter 4:8-10

This isn’t just to be love that we show to other Christians, but to strangers and the marginalised, this is a Christian virtue, one that participating in this story and remembering the Cross, points us to over and over again. Hospitality is a Christian virtue. A way of living out who we now are. We are both guest and host. We model this in the way we love each other as brothers and sisters, but also in the way we love our world, free from fear.

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” — Hebrews 13:1-3

Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. — Romans 12:13-16

The hospitality will go far beyond eating with others, but it will essentially include that — both as guests and hosts.

I think the logic of 1 Corinthians and especially the outworking of what it means for Paul to ‘be all things to all people’, Paul also wants Christians to receive hospitality — especially to eat with — from those who are living out different stories in our world — the ‘other’ — our neighbours. There’s some good stuff I’ve cut out in this passage about food sacrificed to idols that I think is relevant to the halal thing, but it’s worth reading what Paul wants Christians to do with their eating and drinking…

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience… So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God — even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. — 1 Corinthians 10:27, 31-33

Are you practicing and receiving this sort of hospitality?

Because our Muslim neighbours, like Sam Dastyari and Mohammad Attai, are inviting us to (Attai specifically invited ‘anyone’)?

If you’re not, what is stopping you? Is it fear? That’s actually a failure to love, or its an indicator that you fear people and what they might do to you more than you fear God, and that’s a problem because as Christians, those who stand with Jesus, relying on his hospitality, and so following his way of love, we’ve got no reason to fear those who might hurt us (Matthew 10:28-29), or the God who judges us (for trashing his world and killing his son).

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. — 1 John 4:16-19

Hospitality — giving or receiving it — is not just a powerful antidote to hate and fear, but a powerful testimony to our story.

Hospitality is a virtue, because hospitality is an act of love. It’s an antidote to fear — the fear of God, or the fear of the unknown ‘other’ (be they someone not to fear or someone who might ‘hurt’ us). Practicing these virtues will teach us who we are, and continue to make us who we are, people who are like Jesus (who, in his life, kept getting into trouble for eating with people the ‘religious establishment’ didn’t like).

So, where is Brisbane’s best Halal Snack Pack? Anyone got a lead?

 

 

5 Virtues for writers in a new media world: #2 Eloquence

new media virtuesIt might seem like a fudge to call being interesting a virtue – and this second virtue was originally an authentic and interesting voice with an interesting message. But, in this brave new media world, it is. I changed the title because  this virtue is something like the ancient oratorical Holy Grail. Eloquence.

Attention spans are short.

Time spent reading is an increasingly popular web metric (see also, Upworthy making this switch, and note: there’s now something of an estimate, based on length, of reading time at the top of each post on this site). Being boring kills.

And this is a series about what it is that defines the writers I admire. And those writers are, without fail, interesting. Or eloquent.

Who else would I turn to to prove my point on this front if not Cicero.

“He, then, is truly eloquent… who in the Forum, and in public debates, can so speak, as to prove, delight, and force the passions. To prove, is a matter of necessity:—to delight, is indispensably requisite to engage the attention:—and to force the passions, is the surest means of victory; for this contributes more effectually than both the others to get a cause decided to our wishes.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero went as close as anybody to declaring eloquence a virtue in De Oratore he says:

“Eloquence is so potent a force that it embraces the origin and operation and developments of all things, all the virtues and duties, all the natural principles governing the morals and minds and life of mankind, and also determines their customs and laws and rights, and controls the government of the state, and expresses everything that concerns whatever topic in a graceful and flowing style.”

What I think is interesting about this quote is that the new media world is ‘governed’ by something like eloquence. The agenda in this world isn’t set by big budget, multi-national, media conglomerates, but by individuals whose content is dispersed through social networks. Individuals curate content, functioning as editors. Sure, new media platforms like Facebook influence what spreads and what doesn’t through its opaque newsfeed algorithm, but how long the online community will stand idly by and let that happen is an interesting question (on opaque algorithms and their dangers, read this), and even with the all-powerful algorithm serving up stories to maximise eyeball time on the platform, the content is still largely generated (or curated) by the little guy (Facebook’s Director of Product says its algorithm ensures it’s the content users like that users see – rather than quality content, or biased/agenda-driven content like you might expect from the mass media). Content in this new media world is democratised.  For more on this check out Tom Standage’s conclusion in the superb Writing on the Wall (review here), or his TEDx talk.

Eloquence sits beside virtue for Cicero as must have elements of the ideal person/statesman (his ideal person was pretty much himself – so he probably doesn’t embody my cardinal virtue for writers in a new media world. Humility). If it excites you, you can read most of a chapter on how Cicero’s views of the ideal orator, and the relationship between virtue and eloquence, were developed by Augustine on Google Books. In Brutus he calls eloquence the “marrow and quintessence of persuasion.” For Cicero, the ideal person was an orator-philosopher-statesman, and the only speaking or writing worth bothering with was persuasive.

Persuasive writing or speaking transforms. It moves. It excites. It stirs the emotions. It does what good writing should. Persuasive writing must be interesting – or it won’t persuade, and, as a reader, I want to read stuff that challenges, changes, or deepens my thinking – so persuasive writing is, I think, the mark of good writing. For Cicero, good oratory (and for us, good writing) is judged on its fruits. Its impact. While the good orator or writer is judged on their eloquence and virtuous character.

“When a Citizen hears an able Orator, he readily credits what is said;—he imagines every thing to be true, he believes and relishes the force of it; and, in short, the persuasive language of the Speaker wins his absolute, his hearty assent. You, who are possessed of a critical knowledge of the art, what more will you require? The listening multitude is charmed and captivated by the force of his Eloquence, and feels a pleasure which is not to be resisted. What here can you find to censure? The whole audience is either flushed with joy, or overwhelmed with grief;—it smiles, or weeps,—it loves, or hates,—it scorns or envies,—and, in short, is alternately seized with the various emotions of pity, shame, remorse, resentment, wonder, hope, and fear, according as it is influenced by the language, the sentiments, and the action of the speaker.” – Cicero, Brutus

Good writing does this. Good writers seek to do this for stuff they truly believe in and care about. They don’t create these emotions if they don’t first feel them, they don’t persuade people to think things they don’t think themselves. Perhaps to demonstrate Cicero’s ongoing relevance, but also to engage with new media realities, I’ll also feature a heavy smattering of insights from Jonah Peretti, one of the founders of the Huffington Post, and the founder of Buzzfeed. If anyone understands how to write for the new media world it’s Peretti. He gave this great (and incredibly long) interview on Medium that I’ll be quoting. You can read the whole thing – but according to Medium’s time calculator, it’ll take you 91 minutes.

I’ll break down my own vision of this virtue as it pertains to the new media world into three key (overlapping) elements authenticity, presentation. All of these qualities are important – but excellent, or virtuous, writing in this new media world requires all three, or at least two out of three (and I’d argue that for writing to be virtuous the content always needs to be excellent – it can either be packaged well without an authentic/credible author, or have an authentic/credible author and be packaged in an incredibly boring way).

An authentic voice

“I have been so much transported, not by the force of my genius, but by the real fervor of my heart, that I was unable to restrain myself: —and, indeed, no language will inflame the mind of the hearer, unless the Speaker himself first catches the ardor, and glows with the importance of his subject.” – Cicero, The Orator

Orators weren’t famed for authenticity – in fact, there was a whole stream of oratory – Sophistry – that was all about the triumph of style over substance, that lauded one’s ability to speak passionately about anything, even while not caring about that thing. I like Cicero because (outside some of his speeches as a defence lawyer) he was big on authenticity. Cicero literally embodied the values of the Republic in the face of the Empire, even to the point of martyrdom. These were something like his parting words – they come from the Philippics, a series of speeches that saw him executed.

“I defended the republic as a young man; I will not desert it as an old one. I despised the swords of Catiline; I will not fear yours. Indeed I would gladly offer my body, if by my death the liberty of the state can be immediately recovered, so that finally the suffering of the Roman People may bring to birth what it has long since labored to produce.” Cicero, Orationes Philippicae

These weren’t empty words. He died for his convictions. After he was executed his tongue and hands (that spoke, and penned) these words were nailed to the forum for all to see. He knew it was coming when he published the Philippics. Part of eloquence is embodying your message, beyond your words, and speaking from the heart. One of my other favourite orators, the apostle Paul, also embodied his message with authenticity, as demonstrated by the scars he carried with his message about the crucified Jesus.

“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation… From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” – Paul, Galatians 6:14-17 “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. ” – Paul, 2 Corinthians 4:10

Authenticity is so important in this new media world, and is one of the determining factors in what gets read and shared online (cat videos not withstanding). And it’s certainly the determining factor in what, or who, I choose to read. BuzzFeed might have a reputation for promoting the trite and the trivial, but for Jonah Peretti, and for BuzzFeed, the need for authenticity is part of the editorial process – and this feeds into the site’s voice.

We also have our no-haters orientation. We tend to be enthusiastic and we tend to avoid snarky articles about mediocre things. It’s not like there’s some hard rule. In general, we tend to avoid a post that is designed to make the author feel smart and superior and the reader to vicariously feel smart and superior because a Hollywood film is mediocre or because something in culture is mediocre.

Interviewer: Honest enthusiasm is a sort of default stance at BuzzFeed.

Peretti: If there’s something that is worth someone’s time that is interesting and is worthy of being excited about, we should cover that. If there’s an egregious miscarriage of justice or corruption or fraud or something that needs to be investigated, those are both strong things. In the middle, there’s a lot of things that are kind of a waste of time. Mediocre things that you can write cynical comments about. – Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed.

Writers in the democratised new media world don’t have the credibility that comes built in to writing for a mass-media platform, they build credibility on the basis of who they are – their expertise, what and how they think, and how they express themselves. I want to read people who say interesting stuff about interesting things, but I especially want them to be interested in those things (preferably with skin in the game), not professionally detached (like a journalist). It’s almost like in this new media world subjectivity is more interesting than objectivity, and we build our own objective view of ‘the facts’ (whatever they are) by choosing to hear from multiple perspectives.

An interesting voice (with an interesting message)

“It is of little consequence to discover what is proper to be said, unless you are able to express it in a free and agreeable manner: and even that will be insufficient, if not recommended by the voice, the look, and the gesture. ” – Cicero, Brutus

“Our style must be pure, and correct;—we must speak with clearness and perspicuity.” – Cicero, The Orator

Other beauties of composition which he will not fail to pursue;—such as brevity where the subject requires it;—a lively and pathetic description of important occurrences;—a passionate exaggeration of remarkable circumstances;—an earnestness of expression which implies more than is said;—a well-timed variety of humour;—and a happy imitation of different characters and dispositions. Assisted and adorned by such figures as these, which are very numerous, the force of Eloquence will appear in its brightest lustre. – Cicero, The Orator

It’s possible to be interesting when you’re talking about boring stuff – provided you talk about that stuff in an interesting way, or from an interesting angle. Some of the best stuff in the new media world, I think, involves putting the spotlight on stuff we take for granted. One of my favourite books is a biography of salt. I’m currently reading a biography of paper. I love all those videos on craftsmen making bespoke stuff like scissors and shoes.

The way to achieve this is to present that stuff with eloquence, such that the presentation makes the content sing.

Cicero basically defined eloquence in terms of knowing what to say, where to say it, and saying it well. In Brutus, Cicero speaks of Caesar. His frienemy (who ends up being exclusively his enemy). Cicero was trying to win Caesar over by painting his oratory in such glowing terms (a little bit of an authenticity fail on Cicero’s part), but his depiction of praiseworthy oratory is worth pondering.

“He [Caesar] is absolutely master of his trade, and, neglecting every other profession, has applied himself solely to this; and, for that purpose, has persevered in the rigorous task of composing a daily Essay in writing. His words are well chosen; his language is full and copious; and every thing he says receives an additional ornament from the graceful tone of his voice, and the dignity of his action. In short, he is so compleat an Orator, that there is no quality I know of, in which I can think him deficient.” – Cicero, Brutus

Cicero is pretty big on the idea that practice makes perfect when it comes to speaking and writing. He mentions Cicero’s essay writing to this end, but he also says stuff like:

A good voice, indeed, though a desirable accomplishment, is not in our power to acquire:—but to exercise, and improve it, is certainly in the power of every person. – Cicero, The Orator

He thinks the ability to speak (and he’s talking about the vocalisation of words) comes from nature (or the gods), but there are ways to improve (this is where a ‘voice’ analogy between writing and speaking fails because he’d also suggest anybody can become a writer, if not a speaker). Cicero has a second character in Brutus note that Caesar dedicated his own writing on oratory to Cicero, with this axiomatic definition of eloquence: “an accurate choice of words is the foundation of Eloquence.” Cicero compares eloquence to carefully displaying art in a gallery – where the framing matters, the lighting matters, the height you place the painting on the wall matters… eloquence is about featuring your content like a gallery curator features the star work in an exhibition.

“Accordingly, to the purest elegance of expression, he [Caesar] has added all the various ornaments of Elocution; so that he seems to exhibit the finest painting in the most advantageous point of view… Besides, his manner of speaking, both as to his voice and gesture, is splendid and noble, without the least appearance of artifice or affectation: and there is a dignity in his very presence, which bespeaks a great and elevated mind.” – Cicero, Brutus

This eloquence includes the choice of words, the structure of sentences, the flow and structure of the piece – and in this set of virtues the impact of humility on these matters discussed in the previous post (charity and clarity) come first. You can always make choices in these areas to look or sound impressive. But there are always choices to make on behalf of your audience, rather than for yourself. For Cicero the audience was king when it came to deciding if something was eloquent.

“The taste of the Audience, then, has always governed and directed the Eloquence of the Speaker: for all who wish to be applauded, consult the character, and the inclinations of those who hear them, and carefully form and accommodate themselves to their particular humours and dispositions.” – Cicero, The Orator

Different people like different stuff – and that’s fine. Different forums require different styles – and that’s fine. But the eloquent person writes to the audience they have selected.

“Different men have different opinions;”—nor is it easy to determine which is best. Thus also in painting, some are pleased with a rough, a wild, and a dark and cloudy style; while others prefer that which is clear, and lively, and well covered with light. How then shall we strike out a general rule or model, when there are several manners, and each of them has a certain perfection of its own?” – Cicero, The Orator

“We are not to speak upon every occasion, or before every audience, or against every opponent, or in defence of every client, and to every Judge, in the same invariable manner. He, therefore, is the man of genuine Eloquence, who can adapt his language to what is most suitable to each. By doing this, he will be sure to say every thing as it ought to be said. He will neither speak drily upon copious subjects, nor without dignity and spirit upon things of importance; but his language will always be proportioned, and equal to his subject.” – Cicero, Brutus

He, then, is an Orator indeed! who can speak upon trivial subjects with simplicity and art, upon weighty ones with energy and pathos, and upon those of middling import with calmness and moderation. – Cicero, The Orator

Cicero calls the ability to select a style that is apt to your audience and purpose ‘decorum’ – and this is basically one of his virtues for the orator. The key to good writing is to tailor how you present your content to the audience you write to. This means making sure your ‘voice’ matches your platform (or medium), and your content. Conversations about writing for the online world invariably end up talking about length (in my experience, though perhaps this is because I like to write such unwieldly posts). There’s no real ‘golden rule’ for packaging when it comes to length, or even style – except that it should achieve what the writer sets out to achieve. Length can work for, or against, eloquence. This is true according to both Cicero and Peretti…

“For as language is ever soft and yielding, and so amazingly pliable that you may bend and form it at your pleasure; so different natures and dispositions have given rise to different kinds of Elocution. Some, for instance, who place the chief merit of it in it’s rapidity, are mightily pleased with a torrent of words, and a volubility of expression. Others again are better pleased with regular, and measured intervals, and frequent stops, and pauses. What can be more opposite? and yet both have their proper excellence.” – Cicero, The Orator

“We see with our longform stories that, in some cases, the sheer length and rigor of a piece will make the piece have a bigger impact. Just the fact that it’s 6,000 words or 12,000 words.”  – Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti

Peretti does suggest that it’s possible for things to be too long. Even if they’re well written. The key is delivering value to the reader in proportion to the length and the time spent reading.

Saying things in an interesting way isn’t just about packaging or length. Cicero is also big on two features of eloquent writing – the use of metaphors and the use of humour – and these, too, must be appropriate to the context.

We have slightly touched upon the ornaments of language, both in single words, and in words as they stand connected with each other;—in which our Orator will so indulge himself, that not a single expression may escape him, but what is either elegant or weighty. But he will most abound in the metaphor; which, by an aptness of similitude, conveys and transports the mind from object to object, and hurries it backwards and forwards through a pleasing variety of images;—a motion which, in its own nature, (as being full of life and action) can never fail to be highly delightful. – Cicero, The Orator

When it comes to getting laughs, Cicero makes a distinction between witty repartee and ‘humour.’ Humour is used to make narratives “lively and entertaining,” witty repartee is used to ridicule, or to respond to ridicule. He has some rules which are timeless tips for using humour, so I think apply to the new media world, and especially to the written word, where humour is so hard to pull off.

“The powers of ridicule are not to be employed too often, lest we sink into scurrility;—nor in loose and indecent language, lest we degenerate into wantonness and buffoonery; —nor with the least degree of petulance and abuse, lest we appear audacious and ill-bred;—nor levelled against the unfortunate, lest we incur the censure of inhumanity;—nor against atrocious crimes, lest we raise a laugh where we ought to excite abhorrence;—nor, in the last place, should they be used unseasonably, or when the characters either of the Speaker, or the Hearer, and the circumstances of time and place forbid it;—otherwise we should grossly fail in that decorum of which we have already said so much. We should likewise avoid all affected witticisms, which appear not to be thrown out occasionally, but to be dragged from the closet; for such are generally cold and insipid. It is also improper to jest upon our friends, or upon persons of quality, or to give any strokes of wit which may appear ill-natured, or malicious.” Cicero, The Orator

If a virtuous modern writer is defined by humility, I think it’s reasonable to expect most humour from this sort of writer should be victimless or self-deprecating. The democratisation of this new media world is a throw back to the time of Cicero. Everyone who creates or shares content online is an orator. Everyone has a platform. And it’s the audience that determines if something is eloquent or not. Cicero suggests eloquence takes the taste of the audience into account. One of the downsides of this democratisation is that every voice is, in some sense, given equal weight (note: this isn’t quite true, big platforms still exist, mass media outlets have a presence online, but it’s true when bits of writing are exported from their original context into other platforms – except when algorithms give greater weight to bigger platforms, which some do). This means that there’s a lot of noise to wade through. Cicero has some advice for the kind of voice that will cut through that chatter…

“A crowded audience, and a clamorous Forum, require an Orator who is lively, animated, full of action, and able to exert his voice to the highest pitch.” – Cicero, Brutus

Figuring out how to do that in writing is, I think, the key to packaging stuff for world we live in. It’s what thrusts sites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed into Facebook newsfeeds and the twittersphere. But packaging alone is not enough. If I’ve presented Cicero’s views on eloquence accurately – that it’s about using the right words in the right place in the right way, as defined by your audience, then it’s interesting to see how closely Peretti’s modern views mesh with his ancient advice.

“We want the stuff we do to reach the maximum audience it should reach, no less and no more. If we make a wonky political scoop, we want every political wonk to read it. If we make “Which state should you actually live in,” we want everyone who lives in a city to read it. ” “When we have something that’s a hit, usually our response is not, “Let’s do more of those.” Our response is, “Let’s figure why this is a hit and make variations of this.” This was successful because it was tied to someone’s identity, it was successful because it had cats in it, or it was successful because it had humor, or it was successful because it tapped into nostalgia. If you’re making entertainment content, which is a big part of what we do, you look at that hit and you say, “Why was that successful? Can I do it again? Can I make something else that people really love and want to share?” And you try to vary it, even though you know doing something derivative would work. Long term, you want to have a deeper understanding of how to make great things.” – BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti

When you think about the media industry, it’s also, “How do you reach people and how do you get people to understand?” If you write something and nobody understands it, it’s easy to be, like, “Oh those are all the dumb people.” Sometimes writing something that’s very sophisticated and difficult and technical for a particular audience is totally fine, but you should be able to communicate in simple language… The thing is, there are dangers in this, because you can also explain something in a way that makes people feel like they understand it when they actually don’t… You can figure out a way to frame something and explain it so that it feels like it confirms what people already believe, including incorrect things they believe. – BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti

Peretti notes that to be eloquent (according to our definition) in the new media world requires thinking about what’s new in our media platforms and how that has to shape our approach (and our content).

“Early-stage digital publishers have stayed too close to print. They look like print. Their basic unit is the same kind of article structure. Some of them might be shorter or longer, but the front page is programmed almost like a newspaper. The formats of the articles are more like a newspaper. And it’s like, “Oh, let’s add a little video,” but when they add video it’s like they are trying to be TV, but it’s not quite as good as regular TV. The way to break through and to make something that can actually scale into something big is just to say, “What would this be if the readers and the publishers were not focused on making something similar to print?” If they said, instead, “What should this be if mobile is the most important thing; if things can be more visual; if things can be more shareable; if length can be anywhere from 140 characters to 12,000 words? In that kind of world, where things can be interactive, like quizzes—in that kind of a world, what should a media company be?… In a grand sense it needs to move away from mimicking print to doing what is natural for the web.”

The new media world has to shift our understanding of eloquent writing. Because the audience is shifting.

It’s not paranoid to think that the audience watching broadcast television is old. And it’s not paranoid to think people, particularly young people, are spending a lot of time on their phones and a lot of time on the Internet. It’s accurate to say that media consumption is changing in a pretty dramatic way and that if your marketing stays the same you essentially will be marketing to people who are consuming media the way people consumed media ten years ago instead of the way they’re consuming today. – BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti

(An interesting voice) with an interesting message

It’s hard to split the voice from the message when it comes to eloquence. What I think is virtuous when it comes to the “interestingness” of the content is delivering on what is promised in the packaging, and delivering value to the reader. Part of this is in the realm of a ‘content strategy’ or editorial policy, that’s a decision the modern writer makes based on who their audience is, and, because authenticity is important – who they are and what they’re passionate about. Content is king. Really. Content is where the value of a piece of writing lies. A reader may perceive writing as more valuable based on who it comes from, or how it’s served up, but good writing is inherently valuable to the reader (even if that value only lies in the reaction it prompts, and even if that reaction is only to entertain or excite the emotions), and good content is what should hold a reader’s attention. The virtuous and eloquent writer only holds the reader’s attention for as long as they want it to be held, they don’t employ ruses to entrap the reader. The virtuous writer makes it clear what is being offered, and delivers. It’s interesting how much debate about the relationship between content and packaging revolves around the headline. You can dress up your content with all the BuzzFeed or Upworthy tips and tricks, sensationalist headlines and listicles (here’s a neat article from Anil Dash, one of the prophets of the new media world about clickbait headlines that I quite like, and here’s an article about how headlines don’t actually matter because people who share stuff with their networks typically make up their own headline/description of the article). Peretti says BuzzFeed has made a conscious effort to have headlines that match up with, and describe, the content.

“You could show a picture of like an older guy at the beach and be like, “Guess whose body this is?” Then you click and it’s like, “Oh it’s Giorgio Armani” or whatever, and you could get a tremendous clickthrough rate on headlines that didn’t tell you what the story is about. The problem with that is that if you’re just getting clicks that would have gone to another headline on your front page, it’s sending people the content that might not be as good, because they’re clicking because they want to know what’s there. They’re not clicking because they’re interested in what’s there… You end up with lots of people who don’t actually want to see Giorgio Armani in a Speedo on the beach clicking that and then feeling like, “Oh god, why did I do that?” Like, “That was a waste of time.” The main problem for us is that when you think from the perspective of the reader, if headlines are all devoid of information and you have to click them to find out what they are about, all the social streams out there would become much less useful and much less valuable. When you think from that perspective it’s like, “Whoa, let’s just make headlines that describe what’s in the article and that’s better for the consumer and it’s better for the ecosystem as a whole. Then let’s make articles that people really want to click because they’re interested in them, not because they’re wondering what it’s about.”

Peretti talks a fair bit about appropriate metrics for this new media world, he doesn’t think time is the best measure, because people can do stuff to keep people’s attention for longer than they need to.

“The challenge there is that, like you said, if you create a long, meandering, boring story that’s just good enough to keep people reading, they might spend more time on that story than the short, condensed one that just tells you what you need to know. If you use time on that one, it will tell you to do the wrong thing… One of the reasons reality TV became so dominant was because people looked at time as being the metric. And the reason that reality TV works well for time is that the classic reality TV formula, in the beginning, was the tribal council and somebody getting eliminated. So you could have 50 percent of the show being boring filler and you’re kind of wanting to change the channel but you’re like, “Oh, but I wonder if my favorite person’s going to get eliminated.” So you have to watch to the end to see the elimination. In a way, that was a way of gaming time. You could look at that and say, “Oh, they spent an hour watching this show, including the commercials. That means it must be a really high quality show.” But it also might just mean that they figured out a hook that incentivizes you to watch to the end and then did a lot of mediocre content in the middle.”

It’s clear from the length of this piece that it’s in danger of being far from eloquent (but I haven’t claimed to be virtuous), so I’ll stop now.

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