A right to an opinion?

31 Aug

In my last post, I discussed the reaction to authors whose opinions we disagree with. The flipside of such a topic, one I’ve touched on before when discussing the film of Ender’s Game, is that if an author’s work and an author’s identity become entwined in the reader’s mind, it results in it becoming difficult for an author to hold any public opinion at all.

Say the wrong thing and you could find your books being boycotted. Of course, some authors will quite happily court controversy, knowing that it has the potential to attract the curious and has the potential to bring forth readers from amongst those who agree with you or just like to see themselves as ‘politically incorrect’. But, that requires either a strong will and solid ideology or an extremely cynical mindset that most people lack. Instead, most people either say what they think people want to hear or else backtrack on their genuine opinions following a backlash. Given that you can only have controversial topics when two groups strongly disagree, backing down before such a backlash or attempting to say ‘the right thing’ is equally likely to bring the wrath of some other group down upon your head, so the more observant soon discover that the best way to avoid being attacked is to say little or nothing at all (or, at least, to say it from behind a pseudonym).

Unfortunately, once an author begins to worry about how their comments may be perceived (and one only has to remember how Benedict Cumberbatch’s anti-racist comments were construed as racist to see that even positive comments can be interpreted negatively and that attacks are more likely than gentle correction to see that there is a risk in saying anything), the less likely they are to speak out at all and that is both unfair to the writer and an erosion of free speech and honest debate. Indeed, if debate is stifled, unsavoury opinions are likely to fester in secret and grow worse, rather than disappearing.

Ultimately, it’s about striking the right balance and that is always a tricky thing. Nobody wants to feel they are endorsing or, worse financing, something they disagree with, but a society in which writers daren’t reveal their opinions lest their sales suffer isn’t a healthy one, either. Can we find that healthy balance? I hope so.

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