Writing satire stories is a great skill that isn’t universally held by everyone… but what about those of you who are even more ambitious, and want to write some big non-fiction stuff, and maybe even about socially, politically, historically, or religiously sensitive topics? Well, here are a few things to think about! They’re probably all things we can think about off the top of our head, but a lot of these things are classic examples of things we ‘know but forget…’ Which is convenient, but ALSO pretty damn INCONVENIENT, if you catch my drift… Still with us? Good! So let’s begin!
1. Know your Audience.
You might be writing with more than one language in mind, and of course cultural differences come into play here. However, just as a difference of language doesn’t necessarily mean unbridgeable gulfs of understanding, you can also find huge cultural differences within the same language. Commonly held views on moral topics in the USA, Canada, UK or Australia, may be not only held commonly in those countries, as opposed to universally, but in addition, may be considered fringe or dangerous or extremist views elsewhere. For example, there are perspectives on sexual morality that may be held by a majority or plurality of English speakers in many Western countries, apart from people with traditional religious or social views, that would be considered obscene and offensive in Uganda or South Africa. Often, what is at stake is not necessarily self-censorship, but more a kind of tactical writing in the good sense of the word. See the next point.
2. Tactical Writing
There are two kinds of tactical argumentation. One is to be dishonest and say whatever is ‘true for you,’ or otherwise expedient. The other is to be truthful, but not overplay or underplay certain factors, for the sake of expediency. For example, if you are advocating for Tibetan independence and you would like to encourage people to appeal to a North American or European leader, you don’t have to litigate and relitigate, in obsessive detail, the history of Western imperialism past and present, and emphasise elements of self-interest. If you are doing persuasive writing, as distinguished from history, let people read between the lines if they need to, but you don’t have to unduly emphasise things that most people already know and it is not ‘politically correct’ to emphasise. Also, if you want to help people who are undergoing historical injustices and long term suffering, it really doesn’t help matters to personally attack the people who might be able to help said people, even IF the political, media, religious or other elites figures in question may have mixed motives. Be ESPECIALLY careful if you are an outsider, as well. Tibetans may be frustrated at times, but they are also likely to have a clear understanding of boundaries. Be careful not to risk sabotaging your cause by carelessly attacking people from your own country, or aligned countries, with regard to this particular issue, and inadvertently undermining the efforts of grassroots activists from Tibet. This doesn’t mean Western politicians are above criticism. So this bring us to the next few points.
3. Single Issues and Context
There is a time and a place for certain arguments and psychological speculations, as mentioned above. Don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Bring your hardest or most moderate criticisms to the right place. If you say ‘Boris Johnson’s Tories killed tons of people with austerity and now he wants to throw the Tibetans under the bus as well!’ in a book or article about Tibet, how do you think the Conservative Party (or Labour, or Liberal Democrats, or other UK parties) are going to respond? Or if you say ‘Clinton/Bush/Trump obviously don’t care about Taiwan, but then again, they’ve got past form on racism!’ such comments, whether true or not, might be out of place in the kind of single issue place where you genuinely want to help the Taiwanese.
4. Tone and Civility
In the age of the internet, being polemical is an eternal temptation, at least for many of us; but don’t forget that while criticism and even severe criticism is OK in principle, you also want to minimise (not to say eliminate) the risk of blowback for others. In some countries, crude comments about the perceived sexual hypocrisy of leaders at home or abroad may not result in any serious consequences for you, but if you let such writing bleed into otherwise serious non-fiction communications in prominent media outlets, broadcasters or book publishers, then others elsewhere might suffer more than you do.
5. Pick the Best Angles
I spoke in broad outlines above about cultural differences within the same country or language, and between them as well. This is not however just a matter of norms, but also about the angles you focus on. For example, if you wanted to talk about the problems posed by Iranian clerics or the Chinese Communist Party or the North Korean regime, angles might include political ideologies, economic approaches, religious perspectives, secular perspectives, gender or other identity/demographics-related lenses, or more. You don’t always have to focus on just one topic, but don’t delude yourself that you can give all perspectives equal time and energy, and thus ensure quality and quantity of output. You don’t know as much about all of these topics, and while it’s perfectly fine to try and learn more as you go along, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using your discrimination, and being realistic about the quality and quantity of your past knowledge, anticipated future learning, and final output. All this is especially true of large scale projects like books and documentaries. Anyone who tells you it is ‘exclusionary’ and ‘discriminatory’ to ‘privilege’ one angle over another is trying to emotionally manipulate you. These kinds of shallow gaslighting tactics come from a bad place of egotism and resentment, rather than any sincere and genuine attempt to help people. Nobody’s perfect, and there’s no point seeking a God’s-eye view on a human, material world. By all means be reasonably open to new angles, but don’t go over the top and risk derailing your project by spreading yourself too thin. Remember, whether or not a certain range of foci is objectively the best or not, it may be, practically speaking, the most realistic way for you to do it. That may be expediency, but if it’s expediency, it’s the right kind, Don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t give in to insincere bullying and harassment from people who appear to live online or are otherwise detached from the world as it is, not as it merely ought to be.
6. Critical Empathy
If you are dealing with a deeply religious culture, and your own religion is very different from theirs, or you don’t follow a religion at all, you may still find it possible to empathise fairly well. Or, you might find some of the ideas of the people you are dealing with crazy. Remember, suffering does NOT necessarily, and in all cases, bring nobility. In some cases, the moral character of a people may be more degraded by their circumstances than uplifted, whereas in other cases, their moral character of the people group, their customary values, views, customs and religion may be sustained or even improved by suffering. And in either case, we are dealing with generalisations, which can obviously vary greatly from person to person. Critical empathy is not only better than indifference and a lack of empathy, it’s also better than uncritical empathy, which has nothing to do with compassion, and has everything to do with egotism and self-obsession. It is really just an alternative kind of empathy deficit.
7. The Golden Rule: KNOW YOUR SHIT!
Howling and shrieking ‘MUH HUMAN RIGHTS!’ may be all very cute and woke, but don’t forget that not everyone in any country or globally agrees on what count as human rights and what don’t, and how each individual right, in turn, should be interpreted and applied. Indeed, some may even doubt that human rights are the best angle for dealing with human problems, and there are many different angles on this. This is not to say that everybody is equally right, and there is no universal and objective truth. Just be aware that indoctrination and ideology are not just things found in Communist countries or in deeply religious societies. Free market liberal democracies have their own ways of conditioning people, and critiques of human rights, whether from countries governed by the market or by other ideological phenomena, are not always wrong, just because your views are more familiar. If you wonder why people in other countries are so ‘dumb’ for believing what seems to you to be palpable propaganda and religious and political fraud, but you can’t recognise your own prejudices, then (not to put to fine a point on it)…
You are part of the problem.
Unfortunately, in today’s ‘postmodern society,’ I have to quality this severely:
It could be that your views on a particular topic are correct, and someone in China or North Korea or Iran are wrong.
But in order to determine that, you need to work through your own prejudices first: and yes, that does require a reasonably adequate amount of historical knowledge not only of a foreign country with a different culture and history, but also of your own country, and related countries. So for example: if you are using a liberal or socialist approach, or basing your views in Catholic or evangelical approaches (for example), you need to know about Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the history of Judaism and Christianity, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, 20th century totalitarianism, postmodernism, the post-cold war human rights consensus, or whatever else may be directly or indirectly relevant. You don’t have to be an expert on ALL these things, but you have to take your broader intellectual and moral responsibilities seriously. Similarly, if you want to advocate for Tibet, there’s no point doing that if you know nothing about the history of China and the various other imperial powers in the region, from early times through to modernity and postmodernity.
So, there’s no need to fall into a nihlistic, relativistic view: but if you want to appeal to moral universalism and moral absolutes, and undoubtedly you SHOULD want to do this, make sure your knowledge is well-grounded. And if you want to influence the fortunes of another country, make sure you know what you’re talking about not just in terms of ethics, religion, international relations theories, economics, or whatever, but also the large scale historical forces. And last but not by any means least, don’t forget that some countries take history a great deal more seriously than others. Ancient loyalties and ancient grievances alike are the stuff of history, and while you may not find many people in the UK who hate the French, or vice versa, this is not a universal attitude. Similarly, you might well find some Hindu resentment against Christianity in some parts of India than in Australia or New Zealand. Whether you think these attitudes are correct or not, you need to remember that right or wrong, they are not necessarily inconsequential.
Also remember that while in some countries, ‘patriotism’ is a word often associated with national chauvinism and racism and other negative tendencies, there are plenty of people elsewhere in the world who will find the conflation of ‘patriotism’ with ‘nationalism’ incomprehensible. And be careful of assuming that the same class divides on such topics exist in other countries, that exist in the UK (for example). If you are familiar with Chinese or Vietnamese students in the diaspora, you will search for a million years and never find a single ‘citizen of the world.’ They may be studying abroad, but for many of these students, home is where the heart is, and even if they don’t say it, they will be secretly judging you for any pretentious talk that distances you from the working class in your own country, or from patriotically-minded people elsewhere. If you insist on assuming that recent ideological assumptions in much of the Western world just obvious and common sense, but don’t strive to weigh up your own views, then you are likely to find that people worldwide will be laughing up their sleeves. University educated intellectuals in pretty much any country in East Asia, South Asia or Africa will just see your words as pompous and self-important, and while they may tell you or may not, their sympathies will be with the working class on certain important matters, and not with you.
Seven Amazing Rules, and One for Luck!
So, seven rules for non-fiction writing, especially on sensitive topics and intercultural themes.
Know your audience.
Write in a principled but tactical way, without hammering home things that, at least in this context, don’t necessarily need to be emphasised.
Beware of unnecessarily alienating potential allies in your own country: consider putting some of the harshest critique in some other, more appropriate context.
Consider whether you’ll be undermining your cause by placing uncivil or crude content in a single issue book article, or indeed anywhere at all; especially when it’s not primarily your cause, but only secondarily, and other people in other countries might get hurt, regardless of your intentions.
Think about appropriate angles, theories and perspectives, but also be realistic about what you can do, and know your own limitations. Don’t give in to bullying from people who expect you to be the next Leonardo da Vinci!
Critical empathy: don’t be unempathetic, but don’t be uncritically empathetic either. Nobody is perfect, so you shouldn’t be naive; but by the same token, it is sometimes good to help people who aren’t perfect. Use your judgment and weight things up carefully.
Golden rule: KNOW YOUR SHIT! By all means take a morally rigorous approach to the topic, but there’s a difference between moral relativism and working through your own prejudices. The latter is actually good, and moral relativism is bad. If you end up believing the same when you’ve worked it all through, then that’s great; but don’t cut corners.
Oh and one for luck:
Don’t ever, ever, ever self-flagellate.
NOBODY FUCKING CARES if you are a rich, privileged straight white cishet Christian male with ten million hysterically virulent strains of normie privilege. If you just want to grandstand and flaunt your self-obsessed false humility and narcissistic wokeness, then get the fuck out of advocacy and become a Tumblr personality.
I mean like, jussayin’…