Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Writer's Role in Social Change

Tonight, one minute after midnight, the city of Portland plans to evict Portland's component of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Occupy Portland.  I don't know if this will happen peacefully or with violence.  Two sides of the 99% - the Portland Police and the protesters - may well end up pitted against one another.

Thinking about this impending event and what it means has lead me to think about the writer's role in social change movements.  We have a duty to bear witness, to ask difficult questions, to generate conversation, perhaps even controversy.  Sometimes, we come down on one side, sometimes another, but often the writer's role is to explore the complicated world of the in-between.

John Steinbeck's GRAPES OF WRATH is a powerful example of the writer bearing witness in an era of social change.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman, with her work THE YELLOW WALLPAPER, gave voice to the earliest frustrations of feminism on the most intimate, personal level.  On the nonfiction side, I think of Howard Zinn's radical, perspective-altering PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES.  Emile Zola, too, comes to mind.  Virginia Woolf's essay A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN is a stirring call to every woman to fight unceasingly for change.  One could argue that almost any writing has the potential to be a voice of change.  At a minimum, we have a duty to examine whether we are playing that role.

Perhaps the role of the writer in social change is clearest for writers of nonfiction - journalists, for example, or essayists.  For fiction writers, it may be more complicated.  Sometimes, the writer's position ends up being unpopular with both sides of the issue, because it is our duty to explore both sides.  The worst of social change literature is that which caricatures one side and therefore fails to speak to anyone but those who already embrace the author's viewpoint.  The best of social change literature casts light upon the dark corners and spurs action or powerful discussion.

In 1935, writer Archibald Macleish wrote a verse drama about the stock market crash entitled PANIC.  It features a chorus of the unemployed, and a group of bankers, and includes a scene in which angry radicals storm the board room of the bankers.  It gives heartfelt, beautiful poetic voice to the pain of the average person during an economic crisis.  It expresses the revolutionary anger such a crisis can engender.  And it commits the crime of humanizing even the bankers.  It ends with the declaration "Man's fate is a drum!"  It took me a while to understand this sentence, which seemed to be the culmination of the entire piece.  A drum must be beaten to make noise.  It requires a human hand and human action.  Macleish's simple statement is a call to action, but the action is left up to us.  Does any of this decades-old piece sound familiar?

Another well-known writer whose work came to mind as I thought about tonight's impending events and the Occupy Movement?  Dr. Seuss.  Specifically, HORTON HEARS A WHO, the story of a whole world so small the great oafs of the jungle couldn't, or wouldn't, recognize its existence until the entire community banded together and shouted "We are here!  We are here!  We are here!  We are here!"  It wasn't until the last, smallest member of the community spoke up - "because every voice counts" - that their presence became palpable to those in power.

In the wake of whatever happens tonight at Occupy Portland, and whatever happens in the other Occupy sites throughout the country as evictions loom, we writers must ask ourselves, what is our role?  How do we bear witness, spark action, generate discussion?

Postscript on November 19, 2011:  For an insightful and informative up-close perspective on Occupy Portland, check out David Loftus' series of blogposts at


  1. The whole Occupy Movement is both thrilling and frustrating. I love the discussion it has created, but wish there was something more concrete happening. Driven by my frustration with how things are progressing (or NOt progressing) in our country today. I hope Panic can add something to the discussion.

  2. The Occupy Portland link fails in your post. Here it is again.


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