Should Authors Talk about Politics?

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Yeah, this ridiculous advice reared its head again. As authors (or businesspeople or whatever else), we shouldn’t talk politics on our social media platforms. We risk upsetting people and driving away potential readers. We’ll drive away potential publishing partners if they think we’re too divisive.

A crowd of people holding banners showing their political beliefs.
Oh no, politics! (Photo: Rosemary Ketchum/Pexels.com)

To which I say: BULLSHIT.

Wanna know why? Even when you “don’t talk politics,” you are broadcasting a political stand loud and clear.

All Politics Are Identity Politics

I just finished up a fantastic political science textbook edit, and one of the concluding thoughts was that identity politics are hardly the boogeyman popular discourse makes them out to be.

The reasoning is that all politics are identity politics, whether you like it or not. Because all of us have an identity.

The question is less about whether we’re playing “identity politics” and more about which identity we’re occupying.

This is the crux of the problem: the dominant identity is so centralized, so normalized that it’s assumed it’s not an identity.

Think about that for a moment. Who gets accused of identity politics? Racialized folks, certainly. LGBTQ+ individuals, most definitely. Women? More often than not. Religious minorities? Absolutely.

Who isn’t practicing identity politics then? The following identities tend to be “normalized”:

  • white
  • male
  • Christian
  • allocishet
White men, like the subject here, are often assumed to be "normal" or the "everyman."
We’ve all seen this guy or some variation of him. (Photo: Arina Krasnikova/Pexels.com)

It’s like the issue of “default white” in books. If you don’t explicitly identify a character as non-white, people assume they’re white. Similarly, people assume the default identity is white and, more often than not, male. In much of the Global North, “Christian” is the default religious setting. People are assumed to be straight, cisgender, and allosexual.

If you occupy these spaces, you’re “normal” or “average.”
This is a creeping and dangerous assumption, because it implies everyone else—people who don’t occupy these positions—are abnormal.

And it’s that idea that then plays into demonizing so-called identity politics.

A Real-Life Example of How This Works

You might have heard the argument white people don’t have culture. We do, shockingly enough. It’s just that we don’t think of it as culture.

Case in point from my own life: the celebration of Christmas.

I never went to church or listened to the radio, but we did Christmas—songs, the story of Baby Jesus in the manager. There are five churches in my hometown.

It took me almost 30 years to realize that the traditions around Christmas are cultural.

How did I come to know this? I visited the home of a Jewish co-worker for our office holiday party. While we were there, my co-worker introduced us to one of her children. The child had recently switched from a Jewish school to a public school. She told us about her experience at the “holiday assembly.” “I don’t know any of these songs,” she lamented. “What the heck is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?”

Female reindeer, like the one pictured here, have antlers in December, so Rudolph might actually be a chick.
Let’s not start on how none of Santa’s reindeer are guys either, which is also some kind of assumption about identities. (Photo: Annika Thierfeld on Pexels.com)

To me, “Rudolph” isn’t particularly Christian—but as my co-worker’s child pointed out, Santa and his reindeer are intimately tied to Christmas, which is Christian. She hadn’t learned these songs; she hadn’t even watched the Rudolph TV special.

I didn’t think of Rudolph as being part of a larger cultural milieu until it was expressly pointed out to me that people outside that group don’t learn about Rudolph!

Thing is, I have culture—lots of it—but I don’t construct it as being culture.
Same thing happens with the “mainstream” political identity. White is default, male is normative, allocishet is assumed. Nobody thinks of these as identities—or politicized identities—but they absolutely are.

The Politics of the Margin

People decry identity politics because they’re “divisive.” The problem with this stance is that those divisions existed anyway.

Black people and Indigenous folks have had their identities constructed for them by governments for eons. Here in Canada, Indigenous peoples have been subject to the Indian Act since the 1870s. This document—written by white, Euro-Canadian, Christian men—defines who is legally “an Indian” in Canada and who gets benefits from the state because of that identity.

The US and other jurisdictions have used the law to construct the identity of who “counts” as Black or white. The “one drop” rule is infamous for this.

Even the category of sex is constructed by governments. Many organizations still require you to give sex information as indicated on “official” documents, such as a birth certificate. People need to move through the legal system to have this changed, and it’s often a difficult, time-consuming, and costly process.

Passports and other identification can be difficult to get without first changing your birth certificate to reflect your gender ID.
Try traveling without one of these, and try getting one of these without your birth certificate matching your application … (Photo: Spencer Davis/Pexels.com)

In short, the state defines your gender, and you’ll have to fight them to change it.

So, what does all this mean?

Governments are freaking out that we’ve realized they’re constructing identities for us.

Why is this such a big deal? Because awareness has led to people reclaiming those identities and redefining them.

In that, there’s a power struggle. The state wants to have the power to identify people so as to determine which groups get what and which groups don’t. As the marginalized identities the state has oppressed claim those identities, they also press for rights and better treatment. In turn, they seek to end the state’s absolute dominion over them.

Well, we know the state can’t have that—hence all the pearl-clutching about how bad identity politics are.

Everyone Has an Identity

Yes, even the wealthy, white, allocishet Christian guy sitting next to you. He has an identity!

We all have identities, so identity politics can’t be inherently bad. Also, all politics become identity politics.

That’s because the wealthy, white, allocishet, Christian guy is likely to have particular political opinions and advocate particular political policies precisely because of his identity. He might take an anti-LGBTQ+ stance or a pro-life stance on abortion. This guy may advocate for tax exemptions for churches.

He might also want lower taxes at the upper end of the income spectrum. He might support policies that give the rich tax breaks or make it easier for them to offshore money.

How is that not identity politics?

Even white blue-collar workers exhibit this tendency. Coal miners are likely to support government policies that benefit them or are perceived to benefit them. They might support tax breaks for businesses because they believe that will improve profits for business, which will then lead to more jobs. They might support anti-immigration policies, because they believe that employers will hire immigrant workers, who will accept lower wages than their white-citizen counterparts, instead.

Again: identity politics are in play here. To think otherwise is to be naive, to be unaware of your own identity and how it influences your political choices.

Should We Talk about Politics Then?

Trick question! If you’ve been following along, then you should have an inkling of where I’m going with all this. If everyone has a political identity constructed by the state, then all identities are political, and thus we are all political creatures.

In short: You can’t help but talk about your politics.

I’m serious. Take JKR. She didn’t specifically talk about what political party she supports, but she has talked a lot about anti-trans rhetoric. That tells me something about her own identity—and thus, her politics.

If you tweet about diversity in publishing, that’s a hint at identity. If you only ever talk about men and women, that’s a hint. And if you talk about Christmas, that’s another hint.

And note here, I’m not saying any identity is “good” or “bad,” but merely that they’re unavoidable. We support some things and don’t support other things. (Note here the difference between “political” and “partisan”—partisan espouses support for particular parties or candidates.)

Even saying you want to be “non-political” gives me a hint about your politics! It suggests that you’re likely someone who occupies a “normalized” space, that the current system benefits you, and you’re pretty happy with the status quo. You’re privileged in the sense that you think you can escape politics—like I said, the state constructs identities like “Black” and “Indigenous,” so Black people and Indigenous folks often have no choice but to be political. The “normalized” white default can retreat into this gossamer dream of being non-political—but it’s still a politicized space, much the same way that Rudolph is part of Christian culture whether I understand that or not.

An older woman speaks to her daughter. Maybe she wants to talk politics.
“I remember when women couldn’t vote, I’ll talk politics all I want!” (Photo: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels.com)

So you can say, “I don’t want to talk about politics!” all you want, but you’re still talking politics.

The Conundrum of Mass Appeal

Now that we understand that every single person on the face of this earth is political, whether they like it or not, let’s crack into the issue of a salesperson being political.

I’ve said before that all art is political—particularly because we’re inherently political creatures ourselves. Whenever we create something, it’s influenced by our views, our experiences, our beliefs and identities—the stuff that makes us, well, us.

Yet we see the advice for authors (and other businesspeople) persist: don’t get political. Keep your opinions to yourself.

At first blush, this would seem to make a lot of sense. If you talk politics, you’re going to turn off people who disagree with you. They won’t want to buy your books.

In fact, we see that all the time when it comes to authors. Someone shoves their foot in their mouth—like JKR—and outs themselves as being transphobic or racist or what have you. And people get mad and refuse to buy their books.

Oh no, you’ve lost a huge share of your market! This may not trouble JKR, but for a small author, it’s a Big Problem. You’re driving away your audience.

There Is No Such Thing as a Book for Everyone

This is a widespread mistake in not just publishing but almost every industry: “my book is for everybody!”

No, it’s really not. Ayn Rand fans, ultra-conservative religious types, and neoliberals will probably not find much appealing in my books. But that’s okay—my books aren’t necessarily for them. (That’s not to say we can’t read books that aren’t “for” us and enjoy them.)

We have to unsettle the idea of a book with “universal appeal.” No such thing, because human beings have vastly different experiences. Certain types of stories may resonate around the world—look at how many different versions of the Cinderella myth there are—but they need to be “translated” into cultural (identity) context.

The end result of this is that you haven’t lost any readers by talking politics. If people did leave? They were going to find out sooner or later that your work was not for them. All you did was help them discover that fact sooner.

People Want You to Stand for Something

This myth of universal appeal exhorts authors to stay “politically neutral.” There’s a certain amount of “you’ll offend people and lose sales” or you might even become a pariah in the industry.

Here’s the counterintuitive part. People actually prefer when brands (and authors, by extension) take a stand.

Why? It clearly communicates your values!

Today, we have all these amazing tools that let us connect with authors and other artists like never before. And as fans, it’s very important for us to feel emotionally connected. That’s why we want stuff like behind-the-scenes and livestreams.

So, your readers are having an emotional relationship with you. This principle is important for brands like, say, Coca-Cola, but I’d say we have more intensely emotional relationships with works of art than we do with cans of cola.

close up photo of crumpled cans
Big Cola can’t market on cocaine anymore, so they have to sell you on feelings instead. (Photo: alleksana/Pexels.com)

Since we’re emotionally engaged with each other, we want to know where our favorite authors stand on this subject or that subject. Are they a climate change crusader? Do they believe in the power of God?

We want to know, because we like to connect with people who share our beliefs and values.

What about “Problem” Beliefs?

All right, well, what if your beliefs and values are considered “problematic” or “controversial”? Is it better to just stay silent, to hide behind a mask?

No.

We can look to JKR yet again for the example of why. For years, JKR hid behind a “progressive” mask. She amassed legions of fans. Harry Potter is so important to many, many people.

And then she “outed” herself, leading to feelings of betrayal, rage, and upset from fans. Transgender readers felt so betrayed—they’d loved JKR’s work and now became aware that JKR doesn’t appreciate them back. In fact, she hates them as they are and advocates for what most trans folx see as active harm.

JKR’s strategy worked—for a time. She duped a lot of people into giving her a lot of money, a lot of time, and a lot of emotional labor. If you don’t give one rat’s ass about your readers, then I suppose leaving your beliefs and values (your “politics” and your identity) under a rug is fine.

And I suppose that, just like JKR, you won’t particularly mind when those same readers are gutted to find out you do not support them or even that you actively wish them harm and won’t stop (even when they’re telling you that you’re hurting them).

The Bigger Question: Where’s the Line?

By and large, there is nothing wrong niche audiences; in fact, cultivating them is probably a better decision than not.

However, that raises the “issue” of what’s acceptable and what’s not. Some people are neo-Nazis. There are people do deep down believe that white people are “inherently better” (or even supreme). Some anti-LGBTQ+ Christians believe that queer people are ill or need “saving” from a life of sin.

And there are markets for all these views—an author who has anti-LGBTQ+ views could certainly publish books and cultivate an audience among readers who share these beliefs.

This is where the lines begin to get murky. If it’s all right for me to cultivate an LGBTQ+ audience, what’s wrong with someone else courting the anti-trans crowd?

The obvious answer is that advocating harm against human beings is never correct. But both myself and anti-LGBTQ+ crusader believe that the other is the one actively cultivating harm.

So what seems quite simple becomes very murky when we consider it from the other side of the coin. I firmly believe that any philosophy that advocates harm against other human beings is beyond the pale, unacceptable, and anyone advocating it should be made into a social pariah.

Yet the author writing a Nazi romance sees particular groups of people as more worthy–worthy of forgiveness and redemption, even (a luxury often not afforded to people who don’t occupy that white allocishet space). Even certain strains of religious indoctrination work this way: we have to take religion to the “uncivilized” peoples of the world, who are backward or like children.

That line of thinking is very problematic, because it leads to harm. Yet the people committing the harm don’t see it that way.

We Can (and Must) Still Draw a Line

I am not advocating for Nazi romances or for publishers to court philosophies that harm people. Some of these are more obvious than others. Patriarchy harms women, but it’s so normal to us that many romance authors include tropes about “alpha males” that do nothing more than convince women certain patriarchal values are okay.

There are books out there that treat relationships between teen girls and much older men as romances. These narratives, in some ways, actively perpetuate harm against women, because they teach that this behavior is desirable.

They do nothing to correct the imbalance of power or the continued abuse and exploitation of other girls and young women. It does nothing to resolve the trauma anyone in this situation experiences.

How about books that advocate neoliberal capitalist economic policy? Or books that uphold CEOs (who tend to have psychopathic tendencies) as some ideal? In a very roundabout way, these philosophies also perpetuate harm against human beings.

So where the hell do we draw a line? We can say neo-Nazis are a fringe group and we can ignore them. That doesn’t account for the casual racism that creeps its way into plenty of books, the racist attitudes that many people aren’t even aware that they have.

It’s not easy to sort out the tangle. And even those who try to be “good allies” can run afoul of those creeping attitudes, get called out, and lose readers.

So it seems to be safer to not talk politics at all.

Politics should be about how we ensure every person on this planet has the right to live a good life as they see fit. We can have plenty of arguments about that—without suggesting some people aren’t “people” or that they’re lesser or that some need to be harmed or don’t deserve rights.

And if you want to argue any of the latter, then we’re no longer talking politics—we’re talking hate. Someone’s right to live a good life is not up for debate. Politics is how best to support them in doing that, in achieving their full potential. Or at least, it should be.

In Conclusion … Yes, Talk Politics!

Talk about politics. Talk about it until you’re blue in the face. Some readers will drop you; some people will shutter you out. Unless you’re advocating harm or hate, it’s unlikely that you’ll end up shuttered out of all reader circles or every corner of the publishing industry (and even then, you might find welcoming spaces, as unfortunate as that is).

And if you think you can hide, just know that your readers will discover your stances eventually. If you value them, be honest from the beginning.
Being an author is about being in relationship with your readers. We tell stories for so many different reasons—and we listen to stories, read stories, engage with stories for just as many, if not more.

And if you say “don’t talk politics” … I already know exactly what your politics are.

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