Writing is a revolutionary act. Words are more powerful than bombs. They give voice to the voiceless, rescue the marginalized from the forgotten ghettoes of history, speak truth to power, resist silence. Because I am a writer, I am by virtue a political actor. That is my responsibility to society.
I did not always think so. As a writer, I didn’t think I had any responsibility to anyone but myself. I simply wanted to write. I still do. But I also recognize that because I am a woman and an African American my words have resonance. They have meaning. If I am being true to myself and honest in my observations, my words, by their necessity, challenge pre- and misconceived notions not only about the world at large but the world in which I inhabit. In this way, my writing becomes an act of resistance against silence or marginalization. It insists on taking a place at the table of beliefs and ideas.
Since the terrorist attacks on September 11th, writers have become an even greater necessity to society. They are voices of the people, and as a society we need a multitude of voices. We need a multitude of ideas challenging, agreeing or disagreeing with the so-called consensus. Without those voices or ideas, society becomes rigid, stultifying or, much worse, dangerous to its citizens. This was the case in the former Soviet Union, in Nazi Germany. In a dictatorship, writers are the first to be attacked. Their books are burned or censored. The writers themselves come under personal attack. They are imprisoned, or, like Nigerian writer-activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed. Even in the United States, in a period where people were told to watch what they say or do by their government, writers are vulnerable to attack. Those who dare to criticize the government or the status quo are labeled anti-American. They receive death threats or are further marginalized. That was the case when late writer Susan Sontag criticized U.S. foreign policy in a New Yorker essay in the weeks following September 11th. Criticizing dissenting voices is not meant to challenge views, to bring better awareness to problems or to articulate one’s own cause. It is not even meant to encourage debate. It is meant to silence.
The consolidation of the publishing industry, indeed the entire media, is also narrowing the debate, making it much more difficult for writers to speak honestly and truthfully. Michael Moore’s book, Stupid White Men, almost never saw the light of day after he refused to follow his publisher’s edict to tone down criticism of the president in his book following the 9/11 attacks. It took the mobilizing efforts of librarians across the nation, who sent critical e-mails to the publisher, to get the book into stores. Moore’s book would later climb up the New York Times bestseller list, proving that the national consensus is not always what we are led to believe it is.
In a time when words are eviscerated of any meaning, the writer, whose very tools are her words, becomes mute and bereft of purpose. Journalists today are unable to write about civilians killed during wartime (Afghans? Iraqis?) without referring to them as “collateral damage.” The language of the master has now become the language of the slave. To write in a language of resistance and meaning, which encourages thought and debate, is dangerous. As bell hooks writes, “We are often deceived (yes, even those of us who have experienced domination) by the illusion of free speech, falsely believing that we can say whatever we wish in an atmosphere of openness” (Talking Back, 16). Yet, it is important that as writers we do say whatever we wish, regardless of fears of repercussion. We must combat the meaninglessness of language with our words. For it is through our words, whether spoken or written in a treatise, a manifesto, an editorial letter, a memo, an e-mail or a web log, that we communicate, express, and exchange ideas. Such is the stuff of real dialogue, of democracy.
Some might argue that we have too much dialogue and too little action. Certainly Henry David Thoreau would contend that we’ve become a nation too obsessed with the sound of its own voice to commit to any course of moral action (at least its citizens, and not, as Thoreau would also argue, the government, which has its own agenda and acts in its own due fashion).
Yet, real change occurs through a mixture of action and dialogue. The modern Civil Rights Movement began with a single act – Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man – but it grew through continuing dialogue and debate, not only within the movement itself, but outside it, as well. Before any collective action must take place, dialogue must be held on an agreed upon consensus (democratic). And the door of communication must always be kept open to those who may disagree. Writers play an enormous role in encouraging that dialogue. And those citizens who are not writers? The suburban housewife, the student, the kid on the street corner? What responsibility do they have?
Read. Investigate. Learn. Then speak, create dialogue, return meaning to words, and bring back their power to change, to illuminate, and to teach.