The dangers of emotive writing in a post-rational era

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Hot damn! We writers never had it so good — and we all know the reason why: the written word has never been as pervasive, powerful or emotionally loaded as it is today.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a copywriter, UX writer, journo, speech writer, influencer, blogger, swivel-eyed Facebook ranter or whatever. You’re still a writer: a purveyor of select truths, a builder of ideological edifices and a creator of emotive constructs. You’re a shaper and destroyer of worlds.

At the very least you help other people maintain their existing worldviews, no matter how dangerous or ridiculous they may seem.

And that’s why we need to watch ourselves.

Image caption: Painting of the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat by Girondist sympathizer Charlotte Corday on 13 July 1793
The assassination of Jean-Paul Marat by Girondist sympathizer Charlotte Corday on 13 July 1793

Shapers of worldviews

Before I got into UX writing I was a decent copywriter. Not bad. Not great. Just decent. I would have been better if I had stopped my brain from moralising over the subject matter.

Take loans as an example. A personal loan is either:

[A] a handy single-shot wish-fulfilment device
[B] a financial enslavement perpetual motion machine

The reality is usually [B] — but I couldn’t talk about that. I got paid to talk about the fantasy that is [A]. That’s why I avoided writing about personal lending, because I disliked the idea of leading people — usually poor people — into disasterous financial decisions.

My point is that words and the emotions they elicit can make or break people, even entire societies. Writers are helping shape the future in a post-rational world where people are more interested in how they feel and what they want to believe rather than what’s rational or objectively true.

Words matter more than ever, so let’s be careful about what we write.

An infinity of sub-truths

We live in an age of superfluid truths. Words and the stories we tell with them will resonate with somebody, from greyscale normcore baseliners to deathspiral nutcore nichefreaks.

Let’s imagine you’re watching a video of a man being assaulted by several other men wearing uniforms. The caption you write for that video might be:

Criminal accidentally dies while violently resisting arrest by peacekeepers
Man pleas for mercy before being murdered by uniformed thugs

Strictly speaking, neither of those captions is entirely wrong or entirely right. What really happened lies in an abstract realm that none of us can quite reach. At best we can write up interpretations of the event that inhabits different worldviews. Some of those interpretations are more accurate than others, but they’re still sub-truths — and telling a sub-truth is just another custom user journey.

Now here’s a thing to remember: the world is crazy and irrational enough to embrace your wacky sub-truth and a million other permutations too. Sure, a picture or video clip tells a thousand words — but we writers choose the words. Well, we’d better choose them wisely, because pushing emotional agendas is a dangerous game.

Rosseau reigns, Voltaire sleeps

That’s not to say there’s no place for emotive writing. Having emotions is part of being human. We’re emotional hominids, but do remember that we’re thinking hominids too. Before you publish something, ask yourself whether it will make us slide deeper into this dangerous post-rational world.

Image caption: Bolsonaro, Trump, Putin. Their currency is emotion — and we’re buying. Image credit:
Their currency is emotion — and we’re buying. Image credit:

We’ve been in this situation several times before, you know. The first hard post-rational slide started with a gig called the French Revolution, followed by an extended power trip by a certain little Corsican.

The World Wars were triggered by irrational nationalistic emotions too, simply because emotions win more elections than facts. The more such leaders and their stories abound, the less rational our world becomes.

These big bosses / populist leaders / chest-thumping demagogues always win their positions by feeding us emotive stories — and in their stories there’s always a villain.

And it’s just a matter of time before that villain is you.

Blowing custom reality bubbles

Image caption: Rosseau’s stock is on the rise.
Rosseau’s stock is on the rise.

But hey, we’re just writers. It’s up to the readers to figure out what’s real and what’s bullshit, right? Fair enough — but writing sub-truths causes problems when there are a lot of feelings flying around.

People today are outraged, defensive, offended, distressed, annoyed, paranoid and indignant. Mostly people are just scared and trying to find ways to express their fears. While that’s a natural reaction it also means that clear thinking is in short supply. Right now Rosseau reigns supreme while Voltaire lies silent in the Panthéon. We’re in the golden age of the troll factory.

What’s even more worrying is there isn’t a clear way out of this mess. The world is awash in sub-truths. Feeling scared? Pick a sub-truth that slots into your worldview and stick with it. Don’t like a viewpoint? Reduce the volume or mute that sucker. Unsubscribe. Block this profile. Report that post. Better yet, scream at the offending sub-truth. Shout it down, then shut down the fool who wrote it, just to be sure. Cancel the voice/s you don’t like.

The trouble is that we we’re not really interested in facts. We’re more interested in affirming pre-existing sub-truths we already believe in, sometimes unconciously. Today, more than ever, it’s possible to coccoon oneself into a custom reality bubble.

This is good news for writers, because it means we don’t need to substantiate what we say. It’s easier for emotions to become the truth in their own right rather than write up a sensible piece based on careful research, facts and measured discourse. It’s easier for writers to scream out sub-truths that merely serve to lock more and more people into their custom reality bubbles.

But shouting it loudly doesn’t actually make it true. Repeating ourselves doesn’t make us right either. Believing in something because it feels right doesn’t make it real. Truth is not merely a belief. Truth is proof.

We have a right to express our emotions, but we also have a right to live in a rational society. It is impossible to enjoy both? I don’t know.

The UX Collective donates US$1 for each article published in our platform. This story contributed to UX Para Minas Pretas (UX For Black Women), a Brazilian organization focused on promoting equity of Black women in the tech industry through initiatives of action, empowerment, and knowledge sharing. Silence against systemic racism is not an option. Build the design community you believe in.

The dangers of emotive writing in a post-rational era was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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