Buckle up, dear readers: this is the most political that I’ve gotten on the blog to date. It’s also the most that I’ve publicly discussed current events. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.
The United States has undergone some significant political upheaval this month. Regardless of where you stand on the matter of the election, we can agree on that much. A cultural upheaval came along with it, and between those two phenomena you have very passionate people being very vocal and often aggressive with each other. One common target for frustration and aggression, from both sides of the proverbial political aisle, seems to be entertainers.
Whether someone writes books, plays music, or acts, there seems to be this notion that they need to do only that much. With a few exceptions, it seems that high-profile celebrity creators can get away with speaking out about relatively politically neutral causes—starving children and planting trees are almost universally considered good as long as the associated policy or financial details are glossed over. But for moderately popular artists, or even celebrities taking stances that are more explicitly political (or that have become political in recent years), there are cries for creators to mind their own business and stick to writing/acting/playing.
I’m not sure when or where this started, but it’s not just a way that fans think. I went to a writing conference where one of the penultimate pieces of advice was to stay neutral, especially if you’re an unknown. Unless you plan on developing a brand related to politics or religion, you completely stay out of discussions on the issues. Either own it completely or don’t touch it at all.
I understand this from a business standpoint, especially as a new writer. You want to win as many people over as possible in order to build your brand and audience. Politics and religion are divisive, and if you own either as a writer without having it be a part of your brand, you’ve knocked out a significant number of people that might otherwise have given your work a chance. This neutrality is at least part of the reason why writers online (myself included), when they’re not posting pictures of their pets or food, will either only post writing tips, insights into the business side of the industry, or calls to “Buy my book!” I imagine that something similar happens in other creative industries, but my question is whether or not that should be the case.
What got me thinking about this was the appeal by the cast of the Hamilton musical to Vice President-elect Mike Pence after the November 18th, 2016 performance. Once again, there were cries for actors and writers to stick to entertaining people instead of talking about policy or social issues. Even people who didn’t support the GOP candidates in the election were quick to point out that the theater is not the place for that kind of discussion. There were suggestions to take Pence backstage and address him privately rather than make a statement at the end of the play, or else to get in touch with him in a phone call, email, or place other than the stage. There was a theme, in the comments sections that I scrolled through, that actors are there purely to entertain, and that audience members didn’t pay for what many of them called a “lecture.”
My stance on the matter? The audience didn’t pay for the lecture—it was after the show’s conclusion during the time when people would be leaving anyway, as opposed to during the show itself, when I could maybe understand having an issue with it. More than that, though, is that I’m of the belief that the stage, as well as art on the whole, is the perfect venue for such statements.
There’s historical precedent for entertainment as a means of commenting on politics and world issues. The entire purpose of a jester was to deliver bad news in a palatable way (for the jester as a political figure, the heading “The Importance of Being Jest Earnest” will be of particular interest, but the entire excerpt of Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World is an interesting read). The jester was not just someone that cracked jokes or told happy stories in the throne room: they were one of the only people in the kingdom with the ability to deliver news to the rulers that no one else would. They were the only people that could criticize or satirize the people that ruled over them. Sure, they were entertaining and kept people smiling while they did it, but they used what little power they had with humor, creativity, and amiability to be on the side of both the King and his subjects. Without that platform to speak out, a lot could have gone wrong.
Artists are citizens of the world and the country, too. What we see, feel, and do out in the world becomes a part of our work in one way or another. By not getting involved or engaged in one way or another, we run the risk of not being able to create the stories that inspire positive change and touch people’s lives for the better. And if we don’t care about something enough to pay attention to it, let alone speak out for it or fight for it, how can we care enough to write about it? If we’re not aware of what other people, including our fans, are experiencing or feeling, how can we reach them with our work?
I don’t have the greatest track record for being brave. I’m hesitant to even engage in online debates, let alone attend protests or political rallies. I write about people that are braver than I am and hide behind them. I took the writing conference advice about staying neutral, being delicate about my words, and hiding my views readily because it fit my personality perfectly: you probably noticed it in this post. For the longest time, though, it’s felt wrong because I know I need to fight for the things I care about. If I can’t back up what I say or write with my actions, then how good are my words really? It doesn’t matter how well I write if I’m not saying anything of value.
I’m a coward. I always have been, and that’s not going to be an easy thing to change. But I’m also working on becoming a kind of modern-day jester: one way or another, I’m going to have to find a way to use that power. It’s my responsibility to reflect the world in my work and do my part, however small, to make it better.
Readers, I’m thankful for you. If you’re someone that’s celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow, have a great one. May your travels be safe, your conversations civil, and your meals delicious.