Podur is an activist, writer, and academic in Toronto. His academic work has to do with environmental science, but his organizing and political writing -- often published at his blog and/or at the Z family of media projects -- cover a wide range of topics. I had been reading his stuff for years before I found out he was an academic, because he doesn't write like one. Which may be a strange compliment for me of all people to give, since I am not an academic but my writing, at its weakest, can take on some of the less useful attributes of writing that comes out of the academy. Anyway, his essays are always clear, accessible, and politically insightful.
This particular piece is the text of a talk that he gave at the Rabble.CA Media Democracy Day that was recently held in Toronto. The goal of the talk is to encourage people not only to develop a critical understanding of the dominant media and to support alternative media, but to realize that there exists now more than ever before opportunities for ordinary people to contribute in meaningful ways to the flow of ideas and information. Podur writes,
Anybody can start a blog. Anybody can post videos to the web. Anybody can start a mailing list. There are people to help with the simple technical aspects of these. As a result, we can build audiences by producing steady streams of credible, quality material.
He argues that the problem is a lack of quality content: "We need more people thinking, writing, producing, and filling this space with good stuff."
I have to say, I agree. Good stuff is harder to find than it should be.
To get the full impact of Podur's advice, read the whole thing. I'm going to summarize some of the points that particularly struck me. A lot of what he says feels simple and commonsensical after you read it, but gets right to the heart of the matter.
To begin with, he takes two points from Eqbal Ahmed:
- Read critically -- that is, you don't need magical, privileged sources, you can start from whatever is in front of you if you read actively and critically.
- Intervene -- that is, say something, and communicate what you know to other people who might not already know it.
If you can do those two things, you can usefully engage in do-it-yourself political punditry. He also advises that it is a good strategy to pick a few people whose work you admire and just imitate them -- noone will likely be able to tell, and it's a good way to learn.
He advises that you ask several questions to figure out how to present your material:
- Who is your audience?
- What do they already know? This is so you can adjust your presentation to what they know, i.e. figure out how to tell them.
- What don't they know that you do? This is so you can figure out what to tell them.
- What do you want your readers to do?
He also presents a number of things to keep in mind while writing, some of which I'm reproducing here:
- You don't need to be original. Don't plagiarize, but don't worry that you are not doing something of value if you don't happen to come up with a thought that's never been thunk before.
- Get the facts right and don't exaggerate.
- Unless you are intentionally writing to communicate with people who are already leftists -- and he is basing this on the idea that we need to get better at communicating outside of our own circles -- you should avoid lefty codewords. Or, put another way, put the effort in to translate these words out of activist shorthand...or, show rather than tell.
- Use the hypocrisy of elites and of "the system" to your advantage, and hammer away at how it does not live up to its rhetoric.
- Use congruence of basic values as a way to connect with people...or, as he puts it:
Congruence with values is what it is all about in speaking to people who are not already on side. One problem leftists have is that we give off the vibe that if you're not a leftist you don't have values. The vibe we need to give off is that you do have values, they are good values, and to be consistent with them you need to be a leftist. Obvious and clear.
- Don't surrender to one of their key ways of marginalizing us. He writes:
[W]e like to position ourselves rhetorically at an extreme. But rhetorically it is always better to be in the middle. Your position is always the most reasonable one! You are the moderate! The other side are extremists! ... This has nothing to do with diluting politics or the message. This has to do with how to communicate an uncompromised message to someone who doesn't already agree. That is the skill to learn.
Now, I would assert that it is a little more complicated than this in some ways. Language that comes across is obscure might be a sign of bad writing or pointless academicking, but it can also be a powerful tool for us reclaiming our ability to name our realities in ways that dominant discourses have erased. Sometimes the point is not to avoid unfamiliar words, and certainly not unfamiliar ideas, but to figure out how to do it in ways that won't be an instant turnoff.
Anyway, like I said, a lot of it really seems like common sense once you read it, but what makes it so powerful is that so few bloggers (and other sorts of do-it-yourself pundits) actually follow this advice. I mean, on this site I mostly don't do the kind of commentary that he is talking about. But I see it as important work and often think I should be doing more of it -- putting radical analyses of the issues of the day out there in plain language. It is much more a part of my practice when I write pamphlets and so on, and in modified form was a lot of what I tried to do back when I wrote magazine-style new articles for alt/indy print publications on a regular basis. In any case, on this site, often enough when I do posts that gesture in that direction, in the interests of rushing through it I often enough am pretty half-hearted about really following the most important aspects of the advice.
Of course, I don't subscribe to the liberal notion that if you just presented the right facts, the right ideas, the right analysis to the public, the world would become what it ought. There's a lot more to social change than that if you want to really get at the roots of problems. But even granting that, without increasing numbers of us getting good at communicating in ways that work -- while also listening respectfully and attentively in ways that feed into our everyday practices, including our writing -- then things aren't going to change.