9
May

When to Speak Up

20 Comments

What do China Mieville, Orson Scott Card and Frank Miller have in common?

They are all amazing writers whose work has fundamentally changed my life.  The Scar, Ender’s Game, and The Dark Knight Returns are some of the most important books in my memory. They’ve shaped me as an artist and a person. They are always at the back of my mind whenever I sit down to write.

But Mieville, Card and Miller are also vocal about their politics and religious views. They aren’t shy about stepping out in public and taking a hard line, conscious of the feathers it will ruffle and not caring (at least on the surface).

In a perfect world, art would be judged strictly on its artistic merits. I firmly believe that’s how it *should* be. But that isn’t how it *is*. The fact remains that the personal views of these three writers have colored my impression of their work. I cannot pick up a work by any of these artists without remembering who they are *as people* and what they believe. This taints my experience, interferes with it. It makes me wish I’d never gotten to know them.

There are so many momentous changes in this country right now. I want to talk about them. Hell, I want to shout about them. The words are burning a hole in my palette.

But I won’t.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I won’t *here*. You can bet your ass my friends will get their ears chewed. And should you catch up to me at a con hotel bar and share a drink with me, I promise you’ll get an earful. But I’m not going to take to social media to express myself on this issue.

It’s tempting. I’ve said many times in the past that I’m no Emily Dickenson. I got into writing because I’m an extrovert. I want to communicate. I want to influence. I want to have impact.

But I keep coming back to an old thought. I’ve said this before in interviews: when you go on a job interview, you generally wear a suit and tie. Why? Not everybody looks their best in that outfit. You do it because, in our cultural mileu, that clothing is invisible. The interviewer sees it, makes a mental note that you are dressed appropriately, and then focuses on what’s important: your qualifications. I want the same for my writing. I don’t ever want people to read me (or not read me) because I am liberal, or conservative, or champion a particular cause.

I want them to read my work because it’s *good* and for no other reason. I want my stories to be judged on their merit, and not based on the personal positions of the man who wrote them. I try really, REALLY hard to do this with Mieville, Card and Miller, with limited success. I don’t want to risk doing that to others who read my own work.

I have a further complication: I am a uniformed representative of the United States government. That means that *everyone,* no matter what their political views, has to feel like they can trust me to represent their interests. I can’t have a conservative feeling I’m not going to dive into the water to save him because of something I said on my blog. I can’t have a liberal be afraid to comply with me when I try to enforce maritime law because of a political tweet. My subordinates and superiors alike have to have full confidence that I will fulfill my duties without prejudice of any kind, at risk of my own life, if necessary. I can still vote (and by god I WILL), but I am subject to limits on free speech imposed by the UCMJ. There’s article 88. There’s the Hatch Act.

I read the blogs of John Scalzi, Chuck Wendig, Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow pretty regularly. Those folks have never been shy about expressing their political views, and almost always come across as real reasoned, even when they’re snarky. They’re brilliant. I admire the hell out of them. I pretty much always agree with them.

But I doubt I could do it as well. I think I’d come across cack-handed, sowing more discord than I resolved.

Part of me wonders, am I a coward? Am I abrogating my responsibility to speak out against injustice, to use my one ability (writing, communicating) to improve the world? Maybe I am. I wrestle with that question all the time.

But in the end, the primary purpose of my bully pulpit is to tell stories. Fiction. I don’t want to dilute that experience, especially when I see the John Scalzis of the world doing it far better than I ever could.  I am trained as a lifesaver and a warfighter, and I have stood in the gap twice since I first donned the uniform, dropping my life and heading off to handle a major oil spill and a major hurricane. I understand that’s a very *different* way to help people than wading into a public debate, but it’s still a way, and I comfort myself with the thought of doing that much.

Wanting to be a writer isn’t enough. I have to know the type of writer I want to be. Paul Krugman is a writer. So is Mark Steyn.

But political punditry wasn’t what got me through childhood and adolescence. Religious polemics didn’t show me the person I want to be.

Science fiction and fantasy did that.

  • http://twitter.com/LAGilman Laura Anne Gilman

    Thoughtfully thought-out, and your military responsibilities are certainly always foremost in your mind, as they should be.

    For some of us, though, politics isn’t a choice (or a desire), it’s an obligation.  As a woman, I can’t NOT speak up on political issues these days, because there is a portion of the population that is trying to reduce those rights, all the way back to secondary vassal status (as per recent Fox commentary, etc).  And, at the end of the day, if they have their way my legal status will be judged not as a writer, but as a female.

    This is my survival at stake.  Silence is not an option.

    If it loses me readers… I accept that cost.

  • http://twitter.com/SheckyX Shecky X

    FWIW, Myke, there’s a huge difference between “safe” and “cowardly”. There’s just as much to respect about a person who withholds their opinions out of respect for others as there is about one who goes to the wall in any and every public forum for their beliefs. Who decides which one is better? Answer: in my book, nobody. It’s nobody’s place to decide what other people should and should not say, when and where it should/shouldn’t be said, etc. That’s because there is NO ONE RIGHT ANSWER to the question of, “How should I live?” Anyone who claims they have the answer for everyone is full of it.

    … that being said, it’s hard not to give jackholes verbal what-for. Because, in the end, in any reasonable world, some folks are just askin’ for it. But, in the end, just because Bill is a good example of a public champion in jerk-jacking doesn’t mean that Bob is a poor excuse for a human being just because he chooses a quieter path out of respect for many others.

  • http://twitter.com/PrinceJvstin Paul Weimer

    No, Myke, you are no coward. You have very good reasons to hold fire on giving political opinions, and no one thinks less of you for doing so.

    Besides, such opinions are above and beyond, and not integral to  your mandate as an author.

    One thing you didn’t quite mention but I point out–from an economic business sense, as a *new* writer, holding your fire on politics is smart. You don’t want to alienate any potential reader. You don’t yet have a large built audience.  Yet.

  • http://twitter.com/LeahPetersen Leah Petersen

    Myke,

    I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer to this. Honestly, it has to be acknowledged that it’s less of a professional risk for well known, bestselling authors to take a public stand on a polarizing issue. They’re certainly still brave to take the risk, but not as brave as those who are just starting out would have to be. And there’s a fine line between bravery and recklessness. They have a platform because they’re already successful.

    I wouldn’t call it cowardly to keep political opinions out of your professional life. Practical, really. Not to mention the other factors you have as a member of the military.

    I don’t stay quiet on gay rights issues, but since my book itself goes there on that issue, it’s not something that my readers are going to be offended by anyway. (Plus I’m a small fish.) It’s a calculated decision and a complex issue.  

    You go with your bad self. 😉

  • RichardPF

    Myke, 
    Though you may not share your full views on Social Media, some of your comments that you do share may provide some illumination into your deeper thoughts. And some people might judge you based on their interpretations of your words. Others may judge you solely upon your career choices, from mercenary to the Coast Guard. Still others, who meet you in person, may learn much more about your political beliefs, and they could share that with others. Nowadays, it is near impossible to completely conceal one’s political leanings. 

    It is true that some readers judge an author by their political reviews, rather than the quality of their writing. I have been at SF con panels discussing that very issue. Though those same people often make exceptions for some classic authors, many who might be objectionable for a variety of reasons, from racism to misogyny. 

    No one is obligated to espouse their political positions on Social Media. There are many other outlets for doing so. Thus, I don’t see it as cowardly in the least for you to not want to air your views on places like Twitter and Facebook.  Though don’t be surprised if a few still judge you anyways. 

    Political bickering & name calling online can get very tedious, and counterproductive. Rational discussion is difficult to find. Maybe they need a Twitter just for political discussion, PoliTwit.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=19800468 Dan Adler

    First off, no, you’re not a coward. You express yourself publicly in the way that works best for you as a person. That’s what we all do (or try to do) (or should do, in some cases).

    You acknowledge that punditry didn’t get you through your early ears. Like you, for me it was Science fiction and Fantasy. That’s what I understand. It’s how I relate to many things in the world. It’s how you relate. So that’s what you do. And it works.

    I’ve met you in “real life” offline. We have cons in common. Does the experience of knowing you colour my perception of your books? Probably. That’s not necessarily a negative. The same would hold if you were to turn to punditry or polemics.

    But I kinda hope you don’t.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=19800468 Dan Adler

    First off, no, you’re not a coward. You express yourself publicly in the way that works best for you as a person. That’s what we all do (or try to do) (or should do, in some cases).

    You acknowledge that punditry didn’t get you through your early ears. Like you, for me it was Science fiction and Fantasy. That’s what I understand. It’s how I relate to many things in the world. It’s how you relate. So that’s what you do. And it works.

    I’ve met you in “real life” offline. We have cons in common. Does the experience of knowing you colour my perception of your books? Probably. That’s not necessarily a negative. The same would hold if you were to turn to punditry or polemics.

    But I kinda hope you don’t.

  • http://profiles.google.com/griffin9111025 Griffin Barber

    Right there with you, on every single point.

  • Moses Siregar

    Ain

  • Moses Siregar

    Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with that, brother. And from a business standpoint, it’s probably the right move.

  • KJ Kabza

    Okay. So the primary purpose of your bully pulpit is to tell stories.

    But what does your fiction say, Myke?

    What kind of a person has fantasy and science fiction turned you into?

    Perhaps your calculus is correct. Perhaps you’ve thought about it, and
    concluded that your fiction speaks louder than your actions, and pulling
    people from the sea betters more lives than giving voice to the
    voiceless–because when all is said and done, these are simply your
    strengths, and you must play to your strengths if you want to do the
    most Good that you can in this world. And perhaps, because such weighing
    results in no easy, everyone-wins answers, you’re still tempted to
    doubt what you’ve decided, even if you know that the decision you’ve
    made is the right one.

    But perhaps your calculus is not. Perhaps you have not considered that
    wrestling with this dilemma is a luxury that many of us are denied–we
    have no choice, because if we don’t stand up for ourselves, then nobody
    else will–and making a post about how you are wrestling with this
    dilemma, only to conclude that you can’t say anything, is a little…
    tasteless.

    *Are* you a coward? I can’t say either way. You’re the only one who knows what’s inside your heart.

    All I can say is: you had goddamn well better tell people in other
    contexts what you think. Otherwise, on the final, fateful question of
    integrity versus despair? You’ve lost.

  • SarahS

    I loved this blog, but I can not agree with it completely.

    I read Ender’s Game and thought it was okay. Then I read about his opinions and I will not be buying more of his books, simply because the issue he speaks out against is one really close to my heart. Should we drink coca-cola and never look at the corporation behind the product? That is how I see authors as well. They are artists of course, but they are selling a product, and to me, they are the ‘corporation’ behind the product. I will not support the product and put money in the pockets of an organisation that goes against my morals.

    I do understand your view. But I don’t agree with ‘In a per­fect world, art would be judged strictly on its artistic merits.’ I think people should be held accountable for what they say or do, that is a perfect world to me. Not one where someone can spout, what to me, is mean bs that hurts a lot of people, but hey, guy writes great books, so let’s just buy his products.

    It is also a matter of how vocal you are about it. If you choose to use your status as a platform to announce these views, then I feel I can reject your work, because that, in the end, is the platform you’re using.

  • Mazarkis Williams

    The question about whether you are abrogating your responsibilities in regard to injustice is one  I recognize. Last week in a fit of pique I posted my opinions. Since only 12 people follow my blog, it didn’t make that much of a splash, but I do feel better. It may be different for you, especially considering your military duties.

    In turn our readers must recognize that writing gives us no special insight into politics.

  • Ben

    I’ve heard your name thrown around in comparison to people I seriously respect, but this post is (perhaps ironically) what just convinced me to go sample (if not inevitably purchase) Shadow Ops: Control Point. Regardless of your views, the strength of your reason inspires way more confidence in the quality of what I’m about to start reading.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Justin-Watson/100001430719301 Justin Watson

    Myke,

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being circumspect with your opinion.  I think there’s a place for literature with a clear partisan bent and a place for stories that just don’t get into it.  I would say, however, that perhaps you’re fighting a losing battle there.  You’re writing about the military and therefore the government.  Even in a fantasy setting, people are almost inevitably going to draw at least general conclusions about your politics by how you portray the system and the people in the system. 

    That being said, being an Army officer myself, I agree that it’s important we follow Article 88 and good sense in being impartial servants of the country.  We’re going to have our opinions, but I agree we don’t need to beat people to death with them or express them in a way that’s guaranteed to plolarize.

    On a separate note, I think it’s important to be able to read and perhaps even enjoy work from folks who disagree with you.  Politics in this country are dangerously polarized and it takes real effort not to fall into the trap of dismissing everyone who disagrees with you as stupid or treasonous or bigoted or whatever.  America’s place in the world, the role of government in social welfare, education, health care, etc, these are real and important issues but we shouldn’t allow the discussion to degenerate into the contempt and hatred that it so often spawns.   I think one of the most dangerous aspects of public discourse today is that our most vocal and active citizens often only consume political monologue from pundits they agree with anyway.

    In which case, people with reasoned and sane arguments, even ones with which I disagree, need to be more outspoken… 

  • mia

    Few people practice restraint, tact, sensitivity and thoughtfulness these days. Many are quick to voice their beliefs and opinions, often unsolicited and without much thought.

    I don’t begrudge anyone their views. The sharing of informed opinions coherently and respectfully is the lifeblood of dialogue and progress. I will not stop reading a book simply because I disagree with an author. What I cannot abide is uninformed, condescending, judgmental and vitriolic speech.

    While some may reject a book for the author’s personal views, others may read it for the same reason. Reader behavior is difficult to predict. Besides, the more you share of yourself, the more points of connection others may find with you.

    Speak out or keep silent, that’s your decision. Just don’t decide based on what readers may or may not do.

  • Cody

    Good stuff as always, Myke.  I really enjoy your passion and thoughtfulness…it’s not always a frequent combination.  When are we going to get you out here to New Mexico for Bubonicon?

  • Cody

    Good stuff as always, Myke.  I really enjoy your passion and thoughtfulness…it’s not always a frequent combination.  When are we going to get you out here to New Mexico for Bubonicon?

    • MykeCole

      Would love to go. Shoot me an email.

      • Cody

        Myke, just notice your response and have sent an email…hope to see you there (this year or in the future).