Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Politics and the Pen

Barbara here. It seems right now politics is foremost on everyone's mind. As the world teeters dangerously closer  to war, as leaders rattle sabres and trade threats, it's difficult to keep our gazes resolutely turned away, ignoring the rumblings and avoiding any kind of discussion on the subject. I suspect not too many Passover and Easter gatherings escaped without a single mention of missiles and egomaniacs, no matter what one's political stripe.

My favourite social media sites are full of it, with the resulting flame wars, outraged "unfriending", and accusations of stupidity and heartlessness. There are those who insist they will always stand up for truth, equity, and justice. There are others who are overwhelmed by helplessness and just want a respite from the fruitless anger and fear. They have withdrawn from social media altogether or choose nothing but flowers and cute puppy pics.

Social media, with their instant communication, relative anonymity, and impatience with subtlety or complexity (why use a paragraph to express your thoughts when you can use an emoji), fuel this polarized, oversimplified discourse. And sometimes we authors find ourselves caught in the thick of it.

By nature, we writers are thinkers and communicators. We reflect on the world and want to share our thoughts and observations. If we weren't, we'd fix cars instead; it pays better. Crime writers in particular are concerned with questions of moral and social justice, of right and wrong, of good and evil. We grapple with heroes and villains every day. So not only do politics seep into our writing, we usually don't try to avoid them. We want to talk about the ills of the world.

Most crime writers I know lean towards the progressive end of the political spectrum. I realize this is an oversimplification, because even the "spectrum" is multi-dimensional, but in general our exploration of interpersonal struggles and our quest for social justice in the stories we tell, together with the empathy we develop as we step into the shoes of many different characters, leads us to a nuanced and tolerant understanding. As many scholars have observed, the less a person knows about a subject, the more certain they are. Conversely, the more a person learns about a subject, the less they "know".

Many crime writers prefer to leave behind the simpler world of black and white in favour of the grey zones of human frailty, conflict, and failings. Politics can't help but sneak in, whether in overt themes such as poverty, racism, and exploitation or in more subtle, personal themes of greed, family dysfunction and unattainable dreams. It's part of who we are as writers, and to ask us to stop writing about the challenges of today's world and simply focus on telling a "good story", is like asking a bird to fly without wings.

Sometimes we're not even aware of the political biases in our books, and we're surprised when a reader expresses their disapproval. Some readers go so far as to say they will never read another book by us. No writer wants to lose readers, but after a brief period of soul-searching, most of us dust ourselves off, shrug, and carry on, muttering privately that the reader probably wouldn't enjoy our next book anyway.

Socia media are a different story. As the recent horrific murder illustrates, social media have a dark, unpredictable side. Writers often have an eclectic mix of friends from around the world, some of whom we've met only casually through conferences and book events. Often a joy of reading has brought us together. With all of them, we writers enjoy sharing book talk and other thoughts of the day, including political opinions, without expecting flame wars, name calling, or unfriending. We react like anyone else; sometimes we block, unfollow or unfriend, sometimes we just delete the comment, sometimes we engage the commenter in a discussion.

But sometimes we feel a twinge of alarm. Social media trolls can be more that just a nuisance; they can be threatening and dangerous. Public figures can be the targets of extraordinary, unfiltered hatred, so much so that some have shut down their accounts, changed addresses, and retreated from the public eye. The more public and outspoken we writers become, the more vulnerable we are to this fringe element. Not just ourselves, but our families. Most of the time, it's all sound and fury signifying nothing, but it only takes one person ...

This should not, and will not, shut us up, but it does give us pause. Who knows where I live? Who knows where my children go to school? What invisible bear might I poke simply by creating this story or posting this opinion? I'd love to hear what others' thoughts and experiences have been, and how they have handled it.


John R. Corrigan (D.A. Keeley) said...

Barb, thanks for this. I've been off social media for a couple months. My daughter marched in DC following the election, and a simple post by a dad commending his daughter for standing up for her beliefs turned into an online fight between two people who commented on my post. The line between public discourse and something ugly is a fine one.

Barbara Fradkin said...

I'm sorry you went through that, John. When our children get caught in the crossfire, it's especially scary. Kudos to your daughter, though, for having the passion and the belief to stand up and be heard. Social media trolls are the hecklers and road rage instigators of the cyber world. I drive with caution in the real world, and in cyberspace.

Rick Blechta said...

The issue with the online world is that because of "distance" and anonymity, people feel empowered to say what they want because, well, they can. It's doubtful anyone is going to punch them out, except verbally. I liken it to driving and in the safety of your car, you can scream at all the other drivers whose skill you don't like.

That distance has made us less sensitive, and in some cases, downright cruel.

To make matters worse, there is also such venomous hate between left- and right-leaning politics, that polite discourse is nearly impossible online.

And I don't see it getting better anytime soon.

Barbara Fradkin said...

I agree, Rick. Another factor is the drama that they can stir up. They seem to thrive on the attention and the shock value. Posting I've videos of shocking crimes is an extension of that. Look at me, world!

Donis Casey said...

I'm afraid I'm one of those who has withdrawn from news-watching. I do the best I can to let my representatives know my opinions, but I don't normally share my opinions with the general public on FB. A few years ago I read an academic study which concluded that if people who have firmly held beliefs are presented with facts that prove them wrong, they will cling to their original beliefs even harder. Since then I've pretty much decided that most people on social media aren't interested in my political leanings and won't be swayed anyway. Unless they want my vote or money, that is.