Back in the early 1980s, when I was a history student at Victoria University, one of the other students took me aside and nodded towards the lecturer. ‘D’you know he’s really a Liberal?’
The Professor in question was one of New Zealand’s leading historians of the day on the Liberal party, which was in government 1891-1912 and imploded in the early 1920s. The world had long since moved on, rendering interest in them academic. Which, I suppose, is why this Professor was studying them.
That didn’t make him a Liberal, personally. But the distinction, it seemed, was lost on his students, to whom interest and personal advocacy were one and the same. The idea’s not unique to universities – though on my experience the angry, sanctimonious and half-educated youth who inhabited the history department at the time set the gold standard.
Post-Vietnam anti-war rhetoric was well entrenched. Post-colonial thinking was on the rise. Failure to advocate it was a fast road to social ostracism, buoyed on unsubtle intellectual bullying that enforced conformity to the breathless ‘new order’. Those who failed to conform lost out socially and found that career doors were not opened.
Conflation of interest with advocacy happens in the real world too – for writers it’s an occupational hazard. Freelance journos are bound to crash into the social no-no de jour sooner or later – they write on such a wide range, and even those who focus their brand into a particular subject get tarred eventually. Non-fiction book writers hit it. Want to write a book on how the Nazis took over Germany? Be careful.
Novellists hit it – I recall reading that Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven took a lot of stick for setting The Mote In God’s Eye in a human Empire. Were they advocating Imperialism? Not at all. This was simply the setting.
That’s not to say that writing can’t be a soap-box. Often it is. But it can also be abstract – and it’s important for the writer to understand how that works – to signal the difference. Also for readers to appreciate it.
For me the trick is stepping away from the bus. Looking back and figuring out just what it is that frames the way we think. It doesn’t mean rejecting that – but it does mean understanding it. From that, it’s possible to be properly abstract. Or, indeed, to get back on the soap box, this time in an informed way.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014
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