Thursday, November 10, 2011

Writing For The Public About Ethical Issues

Earlier this year I was asked to speak to an agricultural communications class titled Communicating Ethical Issues in Agriculture, and I chose to relay how I would write a book about ethical issues, if the book was intended for the general public and my ambitions were for a bestseller.

Writing For The Public About Ethical Issues

During my work as a graduate student in agricultural economics and economics, and for the first few years as a professor, my research efforts focused mainly on mathematical issues, such as the constructing of economic models and the creation of novel statistical techniques.  I did this not out of a love for math (though my love is ardent) but to acquire degrees and secure tenure.  Math is unambiguous and uncontroversial.  That is why it enhanced my academic career, but gave me little personal pleasure and almost no social recognition outside of economics.
When tenure was secure I altered my research to focus on controversial ethical issues, such as farm animal welfare.  The contribution of economics lies primarily in its ability to organize thoughts.  Ethical issues can make for frustrating deliberation, as answers are not easy to acquire and mistakes are punished deftly by bloggers and comments to internet articles.  However, a little knowledge of economics can clarify the world in profound ways.  It doesn't often give you the answer to ethical riddles, but it does allow you to talk about the riddle intelligently.
Writing about farm animal welfare was the best professional decision I have ever made, as it was only then I was invited to speak at conferences, asked for media interviews, and talk about.  I will not hide my desire for attention from society, and if attention is what one desires, writing about ethical issues can have desirable outcomes.
In these ethical adventures I have perused a sundry of ethical writings, from blogs about egg production in 2010 to the most daunting and erudite works of the eighteenth century.  When invited to speak to you today, I was conflicted about what I should say.  This is an unusual audience for me, and after careful consideration, I decided that I can best serve you by describing my conception of ethical writing by paid professionals.  Not amateur bloggers, and not academics who write one unprofitable book after another.  I am talking about professional writers whose pen provides their paycheck.  It is my impression that you seek to be one of these professionals, and if your desire is not to write but to conduct public relations campaigns, all of what I write extends to you nicely.

Genres of Ethical Writing

Non-fiction communication of ethical issues can be parsed many ways, but to facilitate clarity, I will group all writings about ethical issues, excluding fiction like Uncle Tom's Cabin, into one of three groups.

(Genre 1)  Reporting of DetailsThe front pages of newspapers typically provide straightforward narratives about who, what, when, and how.  An example would be an article about how Smithfield Foods is delaying their transition away from gestation stalls to group pens, written without any context as to why their transition was forced upon them by activist groups and consumers, and written without any apparent opinion of the writer about whether the transition is “good” or “bad.”
While such writings would ostensibly seem to provide valuable information, I argue that details provided without context is avoid devoid of information.  If you are trying to learn about the farm animal welfare issue, and are not told why some people avoid gestation stalls and why companies love them, the aforementioned article will provide you information but not understanding.
An issue is made into an ethical issue through context, by the ardent support of an action by one group and fierce opposition by another, through insight into why one group's opinion differs from another, and the objective consequences of either side winning.  Without this context, it is difficult to write about ethical issues and simultaneously export knowledge.
(Genre 2)  Holistic Academic BooksI consider my book, Compassion by the Pound, to a holistic and academic treatment of the farm animal welfare issue.  The term holistic is used to signify that my book attempts to communicate and scrutinize almost every view of how animals should be treated, to reflect almost all scientific studies about the issue, and to “connect the dots” in every perceivable pattern.  By academic I mean that the book has a dispassionate irreverence for the reader.  Although the book is certainly written for an audience, the logic and science employed should stand on its own, such that all eager readers with a panoramic intellect and long attention span should arrive at the same conclusion.  The author cares little for whether the reader agrees with the book's conclusions, because reader approval or disapproval has no impact on the book's logic, and hence will have little impact on the author's view of her own work.
Initially, one might suspect that these holistic academic books might be the best reference for ethical issues, the verbosity, length, and erudition typically asks for too much of the readers' time.  These books do not sell well.  They are not read.  They have little to no impact.  Indeed, they are not written to have an impact, sell well, or obtain social approval.  The motivation resides solely in the author's personal and relentless search for truth.
(Genre 3)  Short Works Imparting Partial UnderstandingIt are these books that make a difference, make money, and meet social approval.  Every point made is done so succinctly, like the farmer who strives to grow one-hundred-eighty-five bushels of corn using the least amount of fuel and fertilizer possible.  Yet, because these books must facilitate understanding while also remaining profitable, they must be tailored to the readers' interests, and while they may read an article for its intellectual treats, these treats must be found concomitant with other rewards.
Note that the term short works does not imply a work short in number of words, but in relevance to the number of issues on trial.  A book on food may be long, but as long as the author is stingy in regards to the supporting evidence for their claims, it belongs to this third genre.

Successful Advocacy Through Communication

In an ideal world—ideal from the viewpoint of an academic—I would help you learn how to communicate an understanding of ethical issues, you would communicate with efficacious narratives and speeches, and you would be appraised based on the actual learning imparted.  However, to be successful, meaning your communication is profitable, the world is not so simply and your objectives are not so simple.
In what follows, I outline what I believe to be the steps of effective writing.  A good writer may remark, “Is there any need to also way 'what I believe' as you would only say what you believe,” but I use that verbose statement to warn you that my writing is not profitable.  While I have some valuable advice to offer, anyone who seeks my advice alone will eventually regret not seeking additional advice.

What Your Readers Want
(1)  The author is a personal consultant to the reader, and readers seek a relationship with their media.  Readers know that details are not necessarily information, and that because communicating context concomitant with the details is so important, readers seek to develop a relationship with the author, or with a publication.
Furthermore, there is no one “context” for everyone to report.  The context partially depends on your reader.  The setting surrounding Prop 2 in California[1] was far different for a farmer and a consumer.  Prop 2 entailed higher egg production costs, which can not only hurt egg production profits but even corn prices.  For consumers, Prop 2 meant some of the animals used to produce their food would experience less suffering.  Differences in personal values dictate different contexts, and so readers will patronage an author or publication who shares their values.  There is a reason Democrats read The New York Times, and Republicans read The Wall Street Journal.
The world is a complicated place, and yet our nature requires us to develop an identity, one dictating our view on most every subject, an outlook with a resolute idea on how the world would be better.  Thomas Huxley stated, “Try to learn everything about something, and something about everything.”  To do the latter, we cannot perform vast readings on every conceivable subject.  Instead, to learn something about everything, we must read or hear a condensed version of everything.  Yet a subject can be condensed infinite ways: whose condensed version will you read?  Answer:  those who share your values and beliefs.
(2)  The communication must be consistently bias and slanted towards the reader's beliefs and values, in order to reinforce the relationship between reader and author.  Face it, if you are to be read, you must tell small lies, distort other people's statements, and neglect to tell the whole truth frequently.  Disagree with me, and you will be the first profitable communicator to defy this assertion.  The reader needs to know they can trust you.  The reader needs to be assured of your values and intellect.  To achieve this, you must repeatedly speak the mantra of your loyalty.  Just as English subjects shouted, “Long live the Queen,” throughout their empire to demonstrate their loyalty, so must you cower—at times, not all the time—to your reader as if she were Queen.
(3)  The reader must finish your writing with more confidence in their identity, a sharpened depiction of their adversaries, and tools for defending their identity in public.  Christians do not visit Hindu priests or Mosques to hear another point of view.  Young adults do not thoroughly investigate all religions, they take the religion of their family.  Catholics attend Mass to be reminded of their divine rituals, and Protestants attend fiery sermons challenging them to read the Bible themselves, to be reminded why the Protestant Reformation occurred and why they are its offspring. 
Similarly, writers who consistently challenge the values and beliefs of their readers do so at their professional peril.  Readers who are urged to doubt themselves will doubt the author first.  You are the reader's guide to an intricate and complex world.  If you make them doubt their destination, they will doubt you, and every word you write.
(4)  To provide readers with intellectual tools that remain with them after your article is put down, they must be given a few lines of logic, a few carefully selected scientific results, and nothing else.  The whole truth cannot be imparted. 
People memorize selections from Alexander Pope's Essays on Man (The monk's humility, the hero's pride / All, all alike, have reason on their side; Hope springs eternal from the human breast / Man never is, but always to be, blessed) but never the entire poem.  Your reader asks you to arm her with a few implements for intellectual battle, but has only two hands for battle.
(5)  Readers need to hear a story.  Have you ever wondered why books written by your English teachers can't be found in Barnes and Nobles?  For almost one-hundred years it has been fashionable among the literary avant-garde to write books without a plot, and with poor character development.  Yet, their books are shunned by the vast majority of people, who patron crime, mystery, and romance novels—for good writing, but mostly for plot.
We understand the world through story.  We hear the “story” of Christian salvation and the “story” of how America triumphed over evil in both world wars.  We emphasize the ease of salvation but hastily skip over the part about the meek and poor inheriting the earth.  Americans revere the World War II soldiers who triumphed over evil Hitler, but try to forget that we are also guilty of eugenics, and performing medical research on black Americans without their consent. 
“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” a friend of mine often remarks, not entirely in jest.  Let that also be the advice for you.  I am not asking you to be entirely dishonest, but advising you to gloss over aspects of ethical issues which contain excessive nuance; twist the story so that your reader is either the victor or the martyr; claim that for space considerations you must ignore details which blur the qualities of the protagonist, soften the harshness of the antagonist, reduce the intensity of the conflict, or complicate the story's moral—so long as you do so with the readers' consent.
Of course, never alter the truth such that you are vulnerable to attack from your reader's adversaries.  The beauty of writing short narratives is that you can use its succinctness as justification for the omission of details.

The Denouement—You are a storyteller, a guide to a complex world, an entertainer, and your reader's embellished reflection.
There is a poem that states:

Man sees the world not as it is,
but as what the world can be.
He rearranges the stars, from where they are,
to their every possibility.

Your reader is looking for something in the world: her place within it.  You must help her find this place, amidst a thousand frustrating ethical dilemmas.  Your reader is looking for a pattern of stars in the sky, and for you to be her guide in the universe, you must help her find it.  They will only follow the trajectory of your finger as you point in the sky if they trust you, and to trust you, they must be assured you are looking for the same pattern.  In this pattern, there must be beauty, and it is no coincidence that constellations are often named after characters of Greek myths.  You are the storyteller, and well-crafted stories are beautiful.
Throughout this essay it may seem that I have asked you to repeatedly forsake your integrity, your honesty, your character.  To some extent this is true, but so long as you write for customers, you must comply with their desires.
Yet there is one place where you can make your moral stand, where integrity is preserved at all costs, and you will sacrifice customers for the sake of your soul.  As your readers look to the stars for a pattern, and seek your counsel, you must trace out a pattern among the shimmering lights:  but only—and this is the essence of your moral constitution—only trace that pattern if it truly exists.  Never let the stargazer attempt to rearrange the stars, because there are same facets of ethical issues that are as immovable as the distant stars.

[1]Prop 2 was a referendum whereby voters cast their ballot for or against a measure which would provide laying hens, hogs, and veal calves larger space allotment.  For sows, this meant the ability to merely turn around!

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