Writers and Violence: Our obligation to at least wonder if there’s anything we can do

I have written the first draft of the article describing the publishing panel at the LitFest in Anguilla last weekend, an event that seems somewhat seminal to me – situated as it was amid the mudslide of turmoil that surrounds the impact of electronic technology on our industry. So it is taking me a while to write that post. But today did not seem like the right day to be polishing sentences. After several days of relative isolation from the news online, and the shock of coming back to it, I felt I needed to stop and think about the bigger picture for a moment.

Today in Seattle, a gunman killed five people and himself. Here in Toronto, a young man shot another at a subway station after an altercation on the train. These are just two senseless incidents of violence out of thousands I could report from today’s headlines alone that have not only affected the hearts and minds of those immediately concerned, but aroused the horror of bystanders and online readers and viewers everywhere.

A few days ago, a drugged-up man in Miami ate the face off another man, and was shot to death by police on camera. A man in Montreal killed another man, chopped him up, put his torso in a suitcase and a few of his other body parts in packages and mailed them to innocent recipients: the murder scene is now open for public viewing. A couple in England has been charged with setting fire to their home and killing their six children. A young woman in Sudan is about to be stoned to death for adultery.

It makes me wonder if there is any justification at all for sitting around and writing stories. We should be doing something more constructive. Jackie Chan is starting to look like the only sane person in the news.

On the other hand, the eminent and distinguished speakers at the conference last weekend seemed to be fairly unanimous that it is the loss of story/heritage that leads to a lot of this insanity, drug abuse, and senseless violence. We must give people back their voices, and we must tell our stories. This new publishing era is certainly facilitating that.

But I think at the very least the endless endless horrific headlines should make us, as writers, think about our ethical responsibility to push away the chaos, instead of adding to it.

Along with talent, growing expertise at writing, the universal ability to publish whatever we want to say, and our increasingly fevered and competitive efforts to reach (i.e., capture) audiences, comes responsibility. That’s all I’m saying here.

* * * * *

June 6, 2012: Adding a link to PEN International, and one to Amnesty International. We can at least write letters.

7 responses

  1. This was a truly beautiful statement. You are right, in all its complexity. But, yes, we must tell our stories. Perhaps we will be heard — perhaps not.

  2. Mary, I have also been away for 3 weeks and I am just getting caught up with all the news I wish I could have ignored permanently. You echo my own thoughts and feelings except I feel utterly overwhelmed with horror, shock and, I’m ashamed to say, a feeling of helplessness. Stories are a start but are just a drop in an ocean of overwhelm while we witness man’s inhumanity to man over and over again…and change the channel, switch to another site, click on another, hopefully less gruesome news item. And as you point out, the disgusting truth that people actually want to watch these horrors again and again…what on earth has happened to us? I desperately want to avoid it all and yet it is my duty to know and to act.

    • As long as we have that feeling that something terrible has happened, I have hope. I wish we didn’t have to have that feeling, but if we get over it, we are doomed.

  3. Writers have always been at the forefront of social and political changes. Powerful elites have tried to silence us; lest the truth gets out to the otherwise loyal masses and they then should dare to forget their places in a carefully-structured society – places designated by those same powerful elites. Education and literacy are the best tools against tyranny and oppression. A number of journalists, for example, have been murdered in México in recent years, as they covered that nation’s ongoing war against the drug cartels and linked the violence to government and law enforcement officials. I know, however, that the writers will win in the end. We always do – even if we have to die for it.

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