If we’ve learned anything from the climate-change debate, it’s that humans are, in general, pretty awful at thinking about large spans of time. So, you regularly hear statements that defy evidence, like, “Record snowfall. Nice job, global warming,” or “If you think this drought is bad, you should have been around during the 1950s.” Our trouble with scale isn’t limited to discussions of climate change but is, in fact, present in almost all of our public discourse. I teach college composition classes, where students like to write “in today’s society” or “nowadays,” as if what follows could possibly sum up all of society or these days. It’s not just college freshmen, either. When faced with difficult-to-visualize things like societal trends, most people fall back on generalizations or false comparisons. (Someone, right now, is almost certainly comparing something to socialism or someone to Hitler.) Our impulse is good. Comparison is an incredibly useful tool for understand the world. Mathematically speaking, it’s how we figure out how far away the stars are. The key, though, is in finding the right touchstone for a comparison and in convincing your audience that it’s applicable.
A terrific example of a touchstone being used to make a comparison and, thus, an argument can be found in Mychal Denzel Smith’s essay, “The Rebirth of Black Rage.” It was published at The Nation, where you can read it now.
How the Essay Works
In the essay, Smith argues that black rage had fallen out of favor as a political movement. In its place was electoral politics, in which electability is strategically chosen over anger. For anyone born after, say, 1980, this new political discourse was the only discourse. However, as the essay’s title suggests, Smith wants to show how black rage has returned and that there is now a tension between practitioners of rage and those that would prefer to focus on electability. To convince his readers that such a conflict exists—and that black rage is truly back—Smith needs a touchstone, a moment to show that here is when the discourse changed. He finds that moment in a speech by Kanye West during a televised fundraiser for the victims of Hurricane Katrina:
Speaking as if he were reading from the teleprompter, his cadence straddling the line between stiff and natural, he looked straight into the camera and said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
This moment is well-chosen for a couple of reasons. First, everyone saw it or heard about it. Second, West’s statement is clearly made in anger. Third, it came from an unlikely source. West had talked about race before this speech, but he wasn’t known for it like an activist. For example, if Smith had chosen Cornell West instead of Kanye West, his argument wouldn’t have been as strong. Readers could say, rightly or wrongly, “Cornell West has always been talking like that. What’s new?” The speech by Kanye is important because it made people pay attention. It was something that seemed new.
Once Smith sets up this touchstone for black rage, he uses it to show how different electability sounds. As a primary example, he discusses President Obama’s Philadelphia speech, the now-famous speech in which then-candidate Obama addressed the inflammatory remarks of Reverend Wright, the preacher at the church the Obama family attended in Chicago. In the speech, Obama specifically addressed black rage and said this:
That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity within the African-American community in our own condition; it prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.
This excerpt can’t be farther from the Kanye West statement. The phrase “forging the alliances it needs” is pure electability politics. But that’s only clear—or, it’s clarified—because Smith has juxtaposed it with Kanye West’s claim, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
The Writing Exercise
Let’s create a touchstone, using “The Rebirth of Black Rage” by Mychal Denzel Smith as a model:
- Decide what your point is. This goes for fiction as well as nonfiction. In an essay, your point is likely an argument, usually some version of this is how the world works, or this is what exists. You’re pointing to something and telling the reader to take a second, closer look. In fiction, your point is more likely to be connected to experience: this is crazy, this is funny, this is sad, this is sweet, this is big or small or rich or poor. This often applies to character and setting descriptions.
- Figure out what is noteworthy about your point. In his essay, Smith nails what is noteworthy in a single word: rage. So, think about your point in terms of adjectives: size, color, normality, intensity.
- Choose a touchstone. The original touchstones were pieces of jasper used for testing whether something was gold or not. In writing, a touchstone plays a similar role. You’re looking for something that clarifies or reveals or highlights your point. In comedies, we accept this strategy without thinking; it’s called the “straight man.” In procedural police dramas, there is almost always a good cop and a bad cop. The point of the bad cop is to make the person being interrogated realize what a sweet deal the good cop is offering. In his essay, Smith uses Kanye West’s statement about Bush to the same effect. That statement clearly doesn’t care what people think; it’s simply expressing his anger. When juxtaposed with other statements, it will reveal even the slightest effort at rage-minimization, the least bit of trying to get along. In fiction, we put big characters into tight spaces and outlandish characters into serious situations, neat freaks with slobs, and sweet employees with horrible bosses. So, try to find a character or setting that will highlight whatever you’re trying to show the reader.
- Prove that your touchstone is a good one. When people talk about global warming and use the Texas drought of the 1950s, they’re using a touchstone. The problem is that it isn’t evidence based. Just because something stands out to you doesn’t mean it stands out empirically. In an essay, it’s important to prove to the reader that your touchstone isn’t simply idiosyncratic. In fiction, we often use descriptions to prove things. If something is small, we show how small it is. Try to write a sentence or paragraph that proves that the touchstone is as revelatory as you think it is.
The goal is to accentuate whatever is naturally occurring in your writing, to make it stand out even more so that the reader better understands your point and is more engaged.