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Writing with Conscience is a Moral Imperative, Not a Misstep

By Kavita Das

Man writing
Image credit: StockSnap

I remember a conversation I had with an editor at a literary magazine soon after I had transitioned from working in social change to becoming a writer close to ten years ago. I had shared with the editor that I was committed to developing my craft as a writer but that I was also committed to continuing to lift up social issues, even if I now would focus on addressing them on the page rather than in real life settings. I was floored by the editor’s response. He warned me to make sure that my work did not turn into propaganda.

Fast forward a decade, and I’ve published my second book, Craft and Conscience: How to Write About Social Issues, on how to write about social issues in ways that are compelling yet do justice to intractable, fraught social issues. A cogent review of the book published in feminist magazine Liber opens with a scene where the reviewer has a post-pandemic meet up with a friend from her MFA program who is now an editor at a literary magazine. The editor friend laments to her about how, after George Floyd’s murder, they were receiving so many pieces that were “too political.”

Celebrated writer George Packer wrote a misguided and meandering piece in The Atlantic entitled “Why Activism Leads to So Much Bad Writing.” Before we examine why social conscience has actually inspired and animated the work of some of our best writers, I feel compelled to point out what these three literary voices have in common: they belong to white male writers.

Some will roll their eyes and grunt, “Here we go again, using identity politics as a wedge issue for writers.” Well, for many writers, especially writers of color, like myself, identity politics is not a wedge issue in our writing; it is central to it because it is central to our lives. Our identities have played significant roles in not just who we are but how we see and move through the world. Meanwhile, for many of our white hetero male counterparts, whose writing and perspective and aesthetic choices are considered the default, addressing issues of identity or other political issues can be viewed as an artistic choice rather than a moral imperative. That choice is a luxury afforded to the few and privileged. But the truth is one cannot consider writing craft without addressing issues of identity, whether it be the identity of the subject or the writer.

Packer opens his piece with a directive that writers should not insert politics into their art, and if they do, they put the caliber of their work in peril:

“When artists turn to activism or introduce politics into a work of art, it’s usually taken as something virtuous, an act of conscience on behalf of justice. But artistic and political values are not the same; in some ways they’re opposed, and mixing them can corrupt both. Politics is almost never a choice between good and evil but rather between two evils, and anyone who engages in political action will end up with dirty hands, distorting the truth if not peddling propaganda; whereas an artist has to aspire to an intellectual and emotional honesty that will drive creative work away from any political line. Art that tries to give political satisfaction is unlikely to be very good as either politics or art.”

I want to begin by deconstructing this false notion of the writer inserting politics into their writing by posing the question I ask my writing students on our first day together: Is all writing political? After some discussion about which types of writing might be political and which might not be, I share with them my own belief: All writing is political because it reflects a certain perspective or worldview which either directly or indirectly acknowledges social issues, or eschews them, which too is both an artistic choice and a political statement by the writer. Irrespective of the intentions of the author, all writing is political, intentionally or unintentionally, because our work ceases to belong solely to us once it enters the world.

We need only look at the ever-increasing, alarming efforts to ban books in this country to know that writing is viewed as political. According to PEN America, books are under a “profound attack” with 3,362 book bans in the 2022-’23 school year, a 33% increase from the 2021-’22 school year. When we examine the titles, content, and identities of their authors, we see a clear pattern of targeting books by and about Black people, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. And this alarming trend is not new. Important works by treasured authors now considered classics including Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 have been banned in years past because they contained ideas that were considered dangerous to conservative political agendas, namely revealing the horrors of racism, the stigma against talking openly about puberty and sexuality, especially for girls, and ironically, the perils of censorship under authoritarian conditions. Did their engagement with these issues sully them or make them essential and timeless works of art?

Packer cherry picks quotes from prominent writers of color, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and James Baldwin, that seem to suggest that they unilaterally support his notion of separating politics from art. Ironically, these are some of the most socially-engaged writers whose work courses with social issues including race, class, education, gender, and sexuality. Packer blithely ignores Adichie’s probably best-known speech about how writers must avoid the danger of a single story, a story that narrowly defines our subjects by our perceptions and stereotypes rather than by their expansive humanity. “I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

Is Adichie speaking of the artistic or moral aims of her work? I believe she’s speaking of both.

When it comes to Baldwin, who became one of the most outspoken Black writers on the ravages of racism during the Civil Rights era, once again, Packer chooses to use a 1949 quote from Baldwin that suggests that he takes issue with the “protest novel.” The truth is more nuanced. In “Autobiographical Notes,” the opening essay of Baldwin’s 1955 collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin acknowledges the influence of the writer’s identity and life experiences on their work, and how his identity as a Black man and his calling as a writer were indelibly forged. Baldwin ends this essay by declaring “one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping this center will guide one aright . . . I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

It is true that one can find in Baldwin’s essays and writings contradictory statements about the role of “social affairs” in the work of the writer. But one can also perceive a growing commitment to the notion of the writer as witness and chronicler of the issues of his time as Baldwin aged. Baldwin, like most artists of conscience, struggled with how to balance his artistic aspirations with his moral integrity. It is a struggle that I and other writers who engage with social issues in our writing understand all too well. But rather than viewing political issues as corruptible forces which need to be eschewed in the pursuit of our aesthetic, it is in that very struggle, between our art and our conscience, that we find our voice and our story.  

The suggestion that writers engaging in activism risk corrupting their art because the values of art and the values of politics are different is a misguided notion that chooses not to reckon with Baldwin’s moral imperative as a Black writer to participate in the March on Washington, to secure his own human rights or, to leave his birth country because it did not recognize him as a full and equal person or writer. Perhaps these were as much political acts of artistic survival as they were acts of political protest.

Most irksome of all for Packer is the idea that his own essay itself is an act of political writing because his assertion that artists inserting politics into their art is a choice is a bold political statement, even if a wrongheaded one.

Ultimately, the masterful words of Baldwin from a 1979 interview with the New York Times, sums up the essentiality of grappling with social issues to the work of writers: “If there is no moral question, there is no reason to write.” Baldwin goes on to confess, “I’m an old-fashioned writer and, despite the odds, I want to change the world.”


About the Author 

Kavita Das has taught nonfiction writing at the New School and Catapult and has written about social issues for ten years. Previously, she worked in the social change sector for 15 years, addressing issues ranging from community and housing inequities to public health disparities and racial injustice. Das is also the author of Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar and Craft and Conscience: How to Write About Social Issues. Find her online at kavitadas.com and on Twitter (@kavitamix).