Hello SE friends, Gwen with you today. When we last met, the topic was 1984, and we focused on writers who predicted the future. Several of the mentioned books were banned because the content was controversial. Of course, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley were two of those authors. SE writer John Howell had an excellent post on banned books earlier this year. If you’d like to check it out, you can find it here.
What was so threatening about these books that they were banned? Let’s answer this by looking at the present.
These days we hear a lot about folks being canceled. Basically, anyone who doesn’t accept the popular narrative is a potential target. That narrative covers topics such as sexual identity, COVID vaccines, demonstrations vs. riots, border walls, gun control, and the list goes on. The finger-pointing is everywhere present.
For writers, this blame environment is challenging. We’re not a group that easily rests inside a box that’s not of our own making. We like to stretch, think about possibilities, and dream. We regularly test the waters and forge paths into the unknown. This is what we do. We’re adventurers and we travel through our words.
Unlike a business or a profession, we don’t have a Code of Ethics. We don’t have perimeters that confine us to certain topics or certain positions. What we do have, however, is an unspoken code. We all know, for example, that plagiarism is anathema, but what else?
Let’s explore this a bit and look to three writers who had multiple books banned. Each of these incredible authors received the highest recognitions available to writers, but that did not stop the attacks against them.
Harper Lee (1926-2016) earned the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
John Steinbeck (1902-1968) earned the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize.
Toni Morrison (1931-2019) earned the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize.
For Harper Lee, writing was a way she could take a stand. She wrote, Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what. John Steinbeck wanted to experience all of life and this comment underscores his stance: Maybe the hardest thing in writing is simply to tell the truth about things as we see them. And Toni Morrison brought her passion for truth into her writing and said, It is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.
Determination, courage, truthfulness, and trust in self. Familiar, right? So, what are the ethical issues in writing? To answer this question, I’ll start with a story.
In a prior life, I was the Dean of Students at a university in the Northeast. One of my roles was as chief judicial officer. For all serious violations, I had a jury of faculty who joined me in adjudicating the cases. I’ve seen/heard just about everything, and I want to share the bare bones of one case.
A prominent athlete attacked a female student. The evidence was clear – medical confirmation, visible physical injuries, witnesses. I brought the jury together, and we questioned the accused and the accuser. Then we sequestered and deliberated. This case was simple because of the evidence, but it was not simple because of politics.
I delivered the ruling, removed the athlete from the college, and then faced the wrath of the athletic department.
That was 25 years ago. I’m pretty certain I’d have been canceled if I handled that case today. Facts are facts unless they challenge the desired outcome.
How does this relate to writers? I suspect we all tiptoe around certain topics. At least, I do. We’re careful about what we write, lest we offend someone. But we’re fallible and don’t have all the answers. We make mistakes.
If I were to create a rule book for writers, I’d take my lead from Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, and Toni Morrison. It would look something like this.
- Be steadfast – summon determination and write what you need to write.
- Be honest – hold tight to ethical integrity in all that you do.
- Be attentive – listen to your deepest self and write from your passion.
- Be kind – choose your words carefully and build bridges even when you challenge.
- Be accurate – research the facts. Know what you’re writing about.
- Be courageous – when your writing takes you into rough waters, don’t give up. Ride the waves.
I suspect the beloved writers below, all of whom have at least one banned book, would endorse the above and offer additional advice. How about you? What would you add to the list? Canceled and/or beloved, we’re in this together.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, and I look forward to our next conversation in a few weeks. Till then, ride those waves well, my friends.