In These Dark Times, the question of whether you’re with us or them can be a crude tool of categorization. But that usage is for simple minds. By turning the divisive equation into a question and using the answer not as a conclusion but as a premise, we can all build more powerful extended arguments.

To persuade means to move, and the force required to move something depends on the weight of that which must be moved. We apply a different force when an argument is pitched to us than we apply when it’s pitched to them.

When we pitch to us, we pitch to the people who already agree with us. It’s not that we don’t need to move these readers, it’s that we don’t need to move these readers to understand that a problem is a problem. They already understand the problem exists. Instead, we need to persuade these readers of the merits of our proposed solution–we need to move these readers toward our answer.

When we write for them, however, we write for the readers who haven’t yet identified the problem as a problem, or haven’t yet identified its relevance to them. We can’t yet move these readers toward our solution–that’s too big a step. Instead, we need to persuade them that the problem is a problem that’s significant to them. 

In this way, the answer to whether our argument is for us or for them determines its development. For us, we focus on identifying, describing, and explaining the solutions. For them, we focus on defining, describing, and supporting our identification of the problems.

A few examples make the difference clear. First, a manifesto, the ur book for us: The Lightmaker’s Manifesto: How to Work for Change without Losing Your Joy. From the title we know that Karen Walrond writes not for them, for readers who don’t know that a lightmaker is an activist and that activism is hard to sustain. The book is for us, for lightmaking readers who seek real solutions to the problem of burnout they already know they face.

Books for them look a lot more like Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. As their titles indicate, the pages of these books are devoted to naming, describing, arguing, and supporting the identification of a new (or newly articulated, or newly relevant) problem. The books seek to persuade readers that these problems exist and are significant to them. 

Answering the question of us or them can guide the earliest stages of argument development. But it can also act as a useful intervention. If you’re stuck, blocked, uninspired, or lost and confused about what you’re even arguing, ask yourself: Am I mostly identifying a problem and arguing for its relevance to people who don’t yet understand it? Or am I mostly suggesting a solution for people who understand the problem and are willing and ready to make change?

In other words, am I writing for them or for us?