Does a writer have to eschew ideology in favour of empathy?
This topic was heavily explored in an online writing course on Identity and Social Issues that I have just finished with the University of Iowa. Ruel Johnstone, for example, argued that a writer, even a political writer, must take off ideological lenses. You have to look at people, he says, much more closely than in ideology. Jane Bledsoe argued that explicitly trying to push a political agenda or a social justice agenda usually fails. Kia Corthron, Inara Verzemnieks, Tim Bascom, Janine di Giovanni, and Vladimir Poleganov all argued similar points.
When so many people agree, they must either be expressing an obvious truth, or they must be speaking from a similar point of view. It is, of course, a defining characteristic of a dominant ideology that its adherents believe they have no ideology. George Orwell wrote that “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’” How might we tell the difference between these two alternatives?
There does seem to be a self-evident truth to the Iowa argument. As readers, we identify with characters, and so a writer must approach political or social issues through their impact on the character. But, then again, who anyone is and what they want depends on where they sit in society.
And several of the presenters in the course acknowledged they were still expressing an ideological position, and that the reader would probably figure this out. Some offered advice about how to slip information in, so the reader wasn’t aware of it. So the neutral empathetic stance of the writer is not all it seems to be at first sight. Sneaky people those writers!
The dominant view in Western cultures is some form of liberal tolerance. But that’s not necessarily how things really work. Equality of opportunity, for example, is meaningless without the opportunity of equality first. It seems to me that it’s a writer’s responsibility to explore and expose how things really work, to show the clockwork beneath the mask.
Ideology is part of character
I think we need to approach the question by thinking carefully about what ideology is. Ideology is not false consciousness. On the contrary, it only works because it makes sense of a person’s lived reality and experience. For the investor, it is his (or her) money that creates wealth. For the worker, it is her or his labour. For the person who loses their job to a foreigner, immigration will seem a problem. Ideology isn’t false consciousness, any more than being kind or religious or miserly is false consciousness. It’s simply reality as viewed through the personality and experience of an individual.
In other words, ideology is a part of character. When we render the mental and spiritual world of a character, we are, among other things, rendering that character’s ideology – that character’s understanding of why the world is as it is. If we don’t understand our characters’ ideology well, we will render it as a stereotype. And that will lead to stereotyped characters because it’s poor writing, not because it’s ideological.
If, for example, we want to explore why ordinary decent people in the right circumstances can be persuaded to engage in genocide, it just won’t do to label them as monsters and say “never again”. Because it does keep happening again, and again. We need to get inside their heads and explore their ideology, and the very human hopes and fears that drive it. They’re people pretty much like us.
We never just let the reader come to their own conclusions
I think it’s a fantasy that we allow the reader to come to their own conclusion. How could they? We select the events, we craft the order in which they’re told, we polish and shape in order to create the effect we desire. Creative writing describes events in the light of the ends we ordain for them. The open-endedness is an illusion. Of course, no two readers ever render exactly the same story in their minds, I accept that. They may even disagree with our conclusions, depending on their own concerns and life experiences. Even so the writer is not only witness, but also advocate, judge and jury.
An alternative approach
If we want to authentically render the way the social realm shapes character, we have to build character on more than just individual psychology. In the Iowa course, Karim Alrawi advocated starting from relationships, rather than just the individual. He described his own practice as in his novel Book of Sands set in the Arab Spring, of seeking out and dramatizing the underlying metaphors, not people or events. And Jennifer Cognard noted that identity is never singular, it’s always plural.