Friday, July 16, 2010

Politics and the Power of the Written Word

I've been reflecting on the debate among many of my colleagues about whether they should express their political opinions in their blogs or on social networks. Some are concerned that their politics might have a negative impact on potential readers. Others believe that they are their political beliefs, so why not express those beliefs publicly?

I have strong political opinions, but I believe they are between me and my voting booth. However, those opinions do spring directly from my philosophy and my ethics, and those are a matter of record. Every book I write is a public expression of my ethics. Any one of my readers already knows what concerns me, what principles guide me, and what I believe is important, or should be important, to citizens of the 21st century.

So why not go ahead and announce my political leanings? Why not go the whole way and recommend candidates to support in the midterm elections, or the 2012 presidential election for that matter?

Because there's no reason any of my readers should be swayed by my political recommendations. I'm no political pundit: I'm a writer. If a reader of my books finds that he or she agrees with my philosophy, it's very possible that he or she would choose to support a political candidate that I would also like. At the very least, the process of his or her choosing would reflect moral principles that I'd admire.

But I can see real dangers in bluntly announcing my political philosophy, as opposed to showing my moral philosophy. While our ethics certainly inform our politics, it's way too easy to make a snap judgement about someone (and, by extension, about as yet unread books that person has written) on the basis of a hot button issue, rather than judging an author on the larger view of his or her moral principles expressed in their books.

One author I used to admire greatly expressed a political opinion that demonstrated his extreme bigotry in a way that his books never did. I have since been unable to look at his books, even the ones I particularly loved, in the same way. If he had only kept his political opinions between himself and his voting booth, I would certainly have purchased, and probably enjoyed, his new novel. Now I shall probably never read it.

While I am not worried in the least that my politics will brand me as a bigot, I would hate for those politics to chase away any potential reader who might disagree with me on a political issue, but who would discover that he or she shared my ethics if only he or she had the opportunity to be moved by the ideas expressed in my books.

Writers do have the power to move the world, with the fulcrum of our books and the lever of our principles. At the ballot box, each of us is only one vote, but we can inspire thousands and thousands of readers with our books. Why would I ever want to run the risk of alienating a single potential reader who might be at odds with their interpretation of my political stance, but who could be inspired by the ideas expressed in my books themselves?


  1. I never have understood the urgency people feel to not like the work of folks they disagree with. If they enjoy HP Lovecraft and aren't themselves racist, they'll jump through hoops trying to demonstrate that he wasn't really racist or that it somehow doesn't count. If they aren't conservative Christians they'll get all bent out of shape about CS Lewis - as if they had no control at all over how they read Narnia. Meanwhile, conservative Christians are rejecting him for - actually, I've never understood what they were rejecting him for. Writing well, possibly.

    If I couldn't be friends with someone who disagreed with me I'd be a lonesome person. And if I only read people whose every opinion lined up with mine, I'd be starving for books. It's possible to learn quite a bit from people you disagree with; often, more than from people you agree with. It's down to CS Lewis that I understand my own agnosticism as well as I do.

    Heck, I've even read William Mayne since he confessed to child molestation. Not in any way that would benefit him financially, though.

  2. That's interesting, Peni - you made me think some more. If I don't particularly agree with someone, but they differ in a "positive" way (I love C.S. Lewis' books, both Narnia and his science fiction for grown ups), but although I don't share his powerful faith, that doesn't bother me. Yet when I find someone who differs in what I'd think of as a more "negative" way (say, a bigot), it does bother me. Strangely, someone who was a racist in a time when racism was more the norm (like Lovecraft), I don't stress over it. But a 21st c. homophobe drives me up the wall. I wouldn't want to chase away reader who might find my politics too - whatever! for their tastes before they try reading my books. I don't at all mind discussing politics with friends who take the time to get to know me, but it's not possible for all readers to fall into that category, because our books fly far and wide!