A debate rose up on Twitter today on the responsibilities of writers and the role of fiction in influencing societal change. A lot of interesting points were made, and one of the questions on “fiction with an agenda” led me to bring up the example of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe’s work played a significant historical role, capturing the dilemma of slaves in her time, and pushing her contemporaries to join the abolitionist movement. Some interesting questions that the Twitter discussion raised over her work (and fiction writers with agendas in general) were:
1) What counts as a piece of propaganda? (We seemed to agree that Uncle Tom’s Cabin does)
2) Is it okay for fiction to try and alter people’s behavior?
3) If so, do writers have an obligation to use their work to positively influence society?
Below, I have posted the response I wrote mainly to the second of those three questions. Please feel free to discuss in the comments.
Before diving into what casts much propaganda and evangelism into a bad light, it is worthwhile to examine aspects of both that are not negative.
I do not think they are negative because they are pushing an agenda. Some people need to see perspectives outside their own before they empathize with others. Some people will not think to enact positive change until they are compelled to. For these reasons, not many would say that people should *only* question and *never* compel others to act. Reformation doesn’t happen because a bunch of people just thought about changes they’d like to see (though that’s an important first step). Rather, people like Gandhi and MLK are celebrated for their ability to peacefully inspire others to actions that no single person could accomplish.
Instead, when I see propaganda and evangelism demonized it is generally because:
-Complex ideas are horribly oversimplified
-The opposition is flagrantly strawmanned/misrepresented
-Opposing viewpoints are censored, such that readers never see viewpoints to challenge the popularly circulated ones
My earlier example of Uncle Tom was perhaps a mixed bag here. I think there were definitely some instances of oversimplification and misrepresentation, and these detracted from my reading experience. But areas where Stowe succeeded were in her constant attempts to address the views of those who disagreed with her, and in her general acknowledgement that not all slaveholders are evil. She aimed (with admittedly varying effectiveness) to pose an empathetic view of both sides of the slavery issue, while still adhering to her own. She was not silencing any opposing views. Quite the opposite–she was trying to communicate a view that her society consistently silenced. She and other racial minorities of the time were legally voiceless, and so she created a voice through the medium of literature when many other avenues of expression had failed.
Stories touch empathetic strands that straight facts frequently do not. And in that way they bring comprehension to people who would otherwise retain narrow views. And yes, fiction can be manipulated such that perspectives are misrepresented or censored. Propaganda is an easy tool for authorities who do not want the opposition’s arguments to be examined too closely.
But it is also a tool for the minorities who want their arguments to break past the cultures that misrepresent them. It can either increase or stifle broader understanding. My view of fictional stories with specific agendas or calls to action is therefore as neutral as my view of hammers. It depends entirely on how skillfully they’re being used, and to what end.
For a blog entry that addresses more of questions 1 and 3, as well as a differing perspective on 2, check out Remittance Girl’s Unsafe Sex and the Representation of Ideals.