It’s not a new idea that writers can be social critics and even possible change-makers, but the exact mechanics of the process interest me.
These days, in first-world countries the looming social problems of racism, sexism, coercion, oppression and all the rest tend to be invisible to most privileged people. There’s this belief that somehow just because Obama’s president or there are women CEOs, things are equal and just for all. Or at the very least, the excuse comes that things are “on the right track” and therefore we can emotionally check out from the oppression still extant in the world.
This is because most people don’t try to see past their own eyes.
Unless, of course, they’re reading fiction. Scifi (or “speculative fiction” for the precision geeks) is ideal for this purpose, because it speculates on futures that could be. My favorites always showcase how these “could-be” futures are really not so different from the present or from some subset of the present. They create distance so we can enter into what feels like a completely new world, then create emotional resonance to inspire understanding (as distinct from “knowing”) of how the world being discussed is actually the reader’s own, which the reader then sees, but from outside their own eyes. Maybe they recognize themselves.
The social justice theory is that the rousing story of the characters’ struggle, paired with the complex emotional resonance described above, could inspire moments of bravery in readers when the time is right.
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I think the world changes in an amalgamation of individual pivotal moments. Major rulings and changes in politics and business just chase (loudly) the shape of the world. The choices people make in their pivotal moments determine not only the shape of their lives but the shape of the world as a whole. Like when I made the decision to stop pursuing work in the retail world and work full-time as a freelance writer/aspiring novelist. It determined the shape of my life but also put a “working for myself” energy into the world, a “follow your dreams, no matter the cost” energy added to the swirl of my family and extended community.
Or when people decide to devote their lives to raising awareness of the sorts of things that most people don’t want to see. Lose friends, strain family relationships and feel isolated, all because awareness is the right thing that’s needed in this moment.
Or when people take a job in an unethical industry because they’re terrified of not having a job and being poverty-stricken.
Or perhaps more to the point, with MLK Day so close, it makes me think of all the people who decided, despite the risks of losing jobs, physical torment, jail records, professional blacklisting and even death, to go and march for the sake of the civil rights struggle. Pivotal moments for so many lives; history for the rest of us.
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What’s behind moments like those? People wake up one morning and know what they have to do, but how do they know that? What makes some people stand up and others not?
I believe it’s the stories they hold in their memories and the myths they hold in their hearts. People get these from so many sources: upbringing, schooling, leaders, television, books, commercials. Incidentally, these days commercials are the greatest myth makers in this country, telling us we can be happy, rich, successful and beautiful if only we buy in.
These and other such social messages not only keep us from seeing the oppression that so many including ourselves face (because we’re always seeking the my stuff, the today, the good feeling), but it’s a sort of empty soul calorie content that may cause us, in those pivotal moments that define us and the world, to default to cowardice, security and generally unprincipled actions taken out of fear. We’ve all done it; we all know how it feels. Sometimes to me, it feels like I’ve let the entire world down for the sake of a $20 payday or box of Oreo cookies. Other times, it’s all I can do to pay the rent, and that fills me with sadness and anger at a world that once again outmaneuvered me and what I want to stand for.
While there’s always the next moment, they’re fewer and farther between than we might think. Many people only experience a few dozen of them in their lifetimes. The rest is just traveling down the paths and being the people we’ve chosen to be.
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As a writer, my first loyalty is to the characters I’ve created and the story they want told. This is a whole separate topic about how fiction writers are like spiritual mediums for the spirits of their art. Not important. The sneaky second role is as a myth warrior. A sort of medicine person. It doesn’t feel like a conscious intention, more like the previously mentioned art spirits reaching out to touch the world.
My theory is that a great story can inspire the reader so that when the pivotal moments come, they may notice where they stand, recognize the emotional resonance, be aware of their options, resist the Meld and stand up for the Struggle. The Struggle crosses all races, genders and classes. When deciding who you want to be, there’s always a right decision no matter where you are, no matter what your means or position, and you probably know what it is, even if it excites or scares you so much you can only think on it for a few seconds. The lasting impression from the best stories is that while the heroes may end up broken, scarred and tattered from their fight, they also become the sun.