I want you to look at this picture:
Maybe you’ve seen it before, maybe this is the first time. Maybe you’re apathetic about it, maybe it brings out strong emotions in you. Maybe you think it’s offensive, maybe you think it’s fine. You don’t have to share these thoughts and feelings. I have my own thoughts on the cartoon which I’m happy to share in the comments, but they aren’t the point this post.
I want you to look at this cartoon because when something is controversial, as this was last week, we’re often told not to look. By looking, discussing, researching, people warn us that we’re ‘giving air’ to unsavoury thoughts and ideas. But as writers we must look. Especially when something is controversial. Especially when something engenders strong emotion. Because we are in the business of human emotion and action and thought. We are in the business of distilling real life and its components into something that readers can take meaning and understanding from.
A while ago I read a blog discussing Veronica Roth’s books. I wish I could find the blog post now, but I can’t. If I do find it, I will provide a link because it was an interesting discussion and also because it would be hypocritical of me not to. The crux of the discussion was that Carve the Mark was racist. Having not read the book, I don’t have an opinion on whether it is racist or not however, I took issue with a line in the blog post which said (I’m paraphrasing), “…if you haven’t read the book, don’t go out and buy it. Take the word of those offended by it that it is racist…”
We must not do this. Not as people, not as citizens, and not as writers. It is true, just because you don’t find something offensive doesn’t mean it’s not but it’s equally true that just because you find something offensive, doesn’t mean it is. It’s a circular argument.
The ‘take our word for it’ approach to the truth is dangerous. It champions dominant voices and it fosters inequality and lack of mutual understanding. In short, it closes minds and no writer, regardless of your experience or ambition, should have a closed mind. You can’t understand life and people, and represent those understandings, if you refuse to look things in the face and form your own opinions.
There’s a danger in our technologically-connected world of becoming part of a hive-mind. Of only having access to ideas that are deemed acceptable and of only sharing thoughts that are within the dominant ideology. But as writers, we ought to resist this. We have a privileged position of being able to represent the essence of the world for our readers, of being able to discuss and raise questions about important ideas. And to do our jobs properly, we need to think for ourselves. After you’ve looked into something, you may form the same opinion as everyone else – but it will be an opinion formed you’ve formed yourself and therein lies the difference.