Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Last week in the comments to my blog post on social media as the new locale for public shaming, Carrie Padgett mentioned that a lively online discussion was taking place elsewhere about whether authors have a moral responsibility to speak out regarding their views on social and political issues.
If you’re an author, do you have a moral responsibility to express your views in open forums such as social media?
To keep us from getting lost in philosophical deep weeds, let’s define what moral responsibility is and what moral authority is.
I see moral responsibility as an act deserving praise or punishment, depending on whether one has fulfilled one’s moral obligation.
Moral authority is the capacity to convince others of how the world should be.
So if a writer has a moral responsibility, that means the author has a moral obligation to express his or her opinions. In essence, the author has no choice but to speak out. Not to speak out becomes moral failure.
On the other hand, if a writer wields moral authority, that person has the ability to persuade others to see what should be done. The President has moral authority by the sheer power of the office he holds. Pastors, priests, even entertainers and comedians can have moral authority. That’s why film stars publicly support certain political candidates; they are exerting their moral authority.
New York Times best-selling memorist Ann Voskamp recently used her moral authority to raise $500,000 in three days to aid Iraqi women and children fleeing from ISIS. You can read her blog about what stirred her to raise the money here. I believe Ann would say that she felt a moral obligation to speak up, and she recognized she also had the moral authority to do so.
Those who regularly read Ann’s books and blog wouldn’t be surprised that she would take such steps. Her decision is true to the authentic, open-hearted, mission-minded person Ann is. She regularly takes trips to developing countries to help others build better lives, and she photographs the beautiful people she meets as she works to enhance their existence. We know this because we read her books and her blog and see her photos–all of which are depictions of her life as a nonfiction writer, mother, and wife.
What Ann did makes sense on every level. We experience no dissonance when we hear of her actions.
But what if you’re a novelist? Do you proclaim your views on social and political issues via social media? I don’t believe you should. When you chose to be a novelist, you might not have thought of it this way, but you slipped behind a veil. Readers know you through the imaginary world and made-up characters you’ve created. That world and those characters are your surrogates through which you speak. (By the way, one definition of surrogate is someone who is deputized.) Yes, readers see your photos on Facebook and read your newsletter, but what they look to you for is story. Plain and simple.
Now, you can–and should–confront all sorts of issues, beliefs and philosophies through your stories. But you’re always doing so in veiled ways. A novelist’s job is to keep from ripping down that veil and breaking the dream she has created in her novel.
We expect nonfiction writers to expose us to their ponderings, research, prognostications, and opinions. But novelists must preach their sermons through the filter of a great story and compelling characters. Moral authority–showing us how the world should be often is most powerfully delivered through story.
One final thought: If you believe that, as a writer, your moral responsibility is to express your views on social issues, how do you determine where to draw the line? Which of these topics, taken from today’s headlines, demand you tell us what you think is right? Why those topics and not the others?
- abuse (animal, human, sexual, emotional)
- natural disaster relief
- gay rights
- sexual identity
- racial prejudice
- equal pay
- religious equality
- international trade agreements
What do you think? Do writers have a moral responsibility to showcase their social and political views online? Why? Have you ever thought about this before?
Do authors have a moral responsibility to tell us their opinions on social/political issues? Click to tweet.
Join the discussion: Should writers tell us their views on social and political issues? Click to tweet.