Friday, August 7, 2015

Making the Write Choice

As a writer, not everyone enjoys what I have to say—especially if it's about them. 

While I try to make a point of complimenting people when they say or do something worth celebrating, I am also willing to examine choices that I don't think so favorably about (or when others don't think so favorably about mine). Mostly, if I write something that I think will land critically, then I try to do so without attribution. The biggest dilemma comes when the topic is compelling and the person's identity is crucial to my setting context for the story. Now what? This can be a difficult choice.

I can get in trouble for a variety of reasons:

1. I've inaccurately portrayed what someone said or did, or didn't set the context correctly, making them look worse than was the case.

2. They disagree with my perspective and are dismayed that I've broadcast it to the general public, where they may feel it is much more difficult to clean up, or to get their alternate viewpoint(s) across.

3. They may not want the light shined on their actions or words, perhaps because they fear it will reflect poorly on them.

When is it better that I not write—even if I think the subject is important?

I recently had a friend labor with me about this, arguing that I was, at least occasionally, being irresponsible choosing to tell my side of a story because it would make it that much harder for others described in the story to get alternate views in play—not because I was trying to slander them, but because I wasn't acting with sufficient sensitivity to the power I had. Here is dialog between us:

I'm not sure you have ever understood the violation that people feel when you use their stories for your purposes. I know you think it is innocent and even flattering at times and sometimes it lands that way. But at other times it feels like you are taking the person's right to frame their own story away in how you do it.

I do not agree that my telling a story in which I’m involved means that other players in the story have thereby lost their right to a different story, or had their rights delimited.

You are a well-educated, articulate, white, middle-class man with a voice of considerable authority who is prolific in using that voice. Whether you like it or not, your version of the story is going to have more weight than almost anyone else's.

And therefore I shouldn’t write?

Sometimes, yes. If what you are choosing to do with your voice is serving to reinforce all that privilege and is hurting the people you are writing about who don't have a level playing field with you, then yes it is appropriate to recalibrate what you feel like you have the right to do. This isn't a simple thing to sort out, and it isn't going to always be the same answer. But having some awareness of how automatically deferred to your voice will be because of all of that is a good thing to do. If you are going to keep writing using the same lenses you have used, then I think that goes hand in hand with having to deal with people's upset and also the fact that you will lose audience over this kind of thing. It also, obviously, means a loss of some trust with people you care about. 

• • •
The screens I use in deciding what to write about are relatively simple: a) topics that interest me (often because of their complexity in the context of cooperative groups), and b) topics that have touched me deeply. (Sometimes I also write about reminiscences or oddities, but I don't think those pieces are where the trouble lies.)

While I never write with intent to hurt others, neither do I duck issues solely because people have been hurt—as they are often the most compelling stories and illuminate poignant issues worth exploring. What I have to say is always my opinion. While I sometimes try to imagine what differing perspectives might be, those are just guesses. I don't own the Truth, but I do own my perspective and it's hard to accept that the world would be better off if I didn't write about what I'm experiencing or observing because someone may not like it or feel hurt by it.

That said, it's demonstrably true that sometimes people are upset with what I say. While I don't enjoy that, I am willing to accept that that's a price I'll pay for my candor and my willingness to wade into the swamp of complex human dynamics. It would unquestionably be safer to not write, but I wasn't wired that way at the factory. To be sure, I don't write about everything that comes my way. There are many experiences that are too volatile or too private (either for me or others), or ones where I don't feel I know enough to say something intelligent or insightful. 

That said, it is intentionally part of my social change work to attempt to widen the field of acceptable public discourse—because I have seen so much damage result from topics being hidden and unexamined. Do I always make the right call about where that line is? Absolutely not, but I'm fearless about giving it my best shot.

In many ways, this tension parallels my experience as a professional facilitator and cooperative group consultant. Not everyone likes what I do or where I focus the group's attention. But I haven't been hired to be liked; I've been hired to fairly examine complicated impacted dynamics and to try to pull the group out of the mud.

No doubt I sometimes make mistakes in my assessments, or make poor choices in how to engage certain people. And some people are loath to have their shit examined in group and therefore resent me for holding up the lantern. But I'm always going to try, because I always think I can make it better. Fortunately, I succeed a lot of the time—but not 100% of the time.

Similarly, some people don't like what I say in my writing, and I reckon my friend is right to point out that my approach probably costs me some readership, and maybe even some friendships. I'm sad about that, and think it's good advice for me to try to be more sensitive to how my writing may land badly—yet I'll still write, even if what I say is occasionally wrong.

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