Propaganda and the Role of Fiction

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.

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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.

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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.

NaPoWriMo 12: …is everyone okay?

Not sure if this is technically a poem, but this is what I wanted to write today. News snippets pulled from this article on The Verge. 

~Smithy

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hey, is everyone okay?

im ok

I was just about to send this message, thank you. I’m fine.

Yeah

wtf even happened

oh good

Justin and I are both fine

I don’t know, here’s the live news feed [link]

Explosions at the marathon have been reported widely across Twitter and…

nope, I died

thanks Karen.

hahaha hows heaven?

No problem. Has anyone heard from Marie?

wouldn’t know. hell’s having a great party though

Guys that’s really not funny.

its kinda funny

I texted Marie Ben and Maggie. Maggie’s gotten back but not the others yet

It’s not even a little funny. People are hurt right now.

Not yet? I’m calling them.

Hey it’s Ben, sorry, just got back home, saw your texts.

what took you so long?

humor is a useful coping method sometimes.

Ben! Oh good. So just Marie then?

…photographers catalog a disaster whose cause is still unknown..

Downtown looks like shite.

call volume is slowing down calls and texts. phone her again in a few.

It’s not coping, it’s mocking.

Alright I’ll do that

geez

the two are not mutually exclusive. but I wasn’t trying to mock.

I’ll call too, one of us should get through eventually.

Well I find it offensive.

u find evrything offensive

Police Department initially said that 23 are injured and 2 dead after briefly reporting 22 injured. Now that number is believed to have risen…

People have DIED. How is that finding everything offensive?!

sorry Karen. I do think though that it is important to be able to keep humor in these kinds of situations. mocking isn’t cool, but I don’t think all jokes during a tragedy are inherently mocking.

Okay, I’m going to try calling her again.

Danny don’t be an asshole

fuck it was just joking

what did I do?

…to 64 injured and at least two dead. Police broadcasts indicate…

No answer. I left her a voicemail

“What did you do?” “You were just joking?” Were you dropped on your head as a child?

yes and u just brought up my chilhood trauma good job i am very offended

Does anyone know whether Marie was actually at the race?

Okay, guys, just chill a second.

You’re disgusting.

lol

GUYS.

Sorry, you’re right. I’m not sure.

Anyone seen a yellow Penske truck? The FBI would be pretty happy to know

sorry karen

What?

Thanks Danny. It’s okay. -I’m starting to get worried.

On the police scanner. Apprently a yellow penske truck was seen trying to access the scene with “medical supplies”. The FBI put an alert out for that

And then took off? Damn.

To be fair, it is Marie. It wouldn’t be uncharacteristic for her to show up in five days asking “what explosion?” Let’s not panic right off

…law enforcement is looking for potential explosive devices…

I guess so. I mean, it would also make sense that someone was just genuinely trying to get supplies in?

heh, true

This is an extenuating circumstance though. Alex, maybe it’s your service provider. I’m going to try calling myself.

20 something injured in the whole city out of like a billion ppl id say her odds are fine

Okay

I think it’s 64 now though. better to get in contact and at least check.

…it’s now set at 90 injured and two dead as of 5:45pm ET…

Oh, dammit. No cellphone reception.

So Maggie’s coming over to me and Justin’s, we’re going to stick together indoors anyone else who wants to come is welcome, stay safe

thanks, I might just do that.

Towers are down, try sms? Or Facebook?

can i bring beer?

She’s not online on Facebook. I’ll text again.

Karen we know you’re a bit farther off but you’re welcome too of course

jesus the news is just blowing up.

thanks be over later

Um.

THAT WAS UNINTENTIONAL SORRY

lolol

Texted Marie. Nothing back yet, but it has only been a minute. I…think I would like to come over. Thank you.

well…calls and messages are getting really cut up and delayed. she’s probably fine.

is nobdy goin to answer the beer q?

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Oh my god wtf is wrong with this city, moving to Europe bye guys #BostonMarathon

Prayers go out to those involved/hurt in #BostonMarathon

Law enforcement confirms that 8-year-old girl was victim in bombing [link]

Update on Boston explosions: [link]

President Obama: We are Americans, united in concern [link] #BostonMarathon

After bombing, American flag still flies #BostonMarathon #prayforBoston

Law enforcement confirms that 8-year-old boy was one of the bombing victims [link]

MORE: Video captures explosion, #BostonMarathon panic! [link]

Update: While we’ve seen countless real reports on Twitter, there’s also clearly some misinformation: an apparently fake Boston Marathon account is promising to donate money based on retweets. Officially, a press conference has been called…