This essay originally appeared in the September 4, 2016 (Labor Day Weekend) edition of the Durham Herald-Sun.
I have been working for two years on a project to encourage people of faith to talk about labor unions on Labor Day weekend. The most radical thing I wrote about our effort is this: “You are the very best person to compose a prayer or story for your faith community.” I was brought up in a faith community (Methodist) that is at our best when we stay with a set of practices for worship. When it comes to matters of conscience, however, people should formulate their own words and thoughts.
Praying, like dancing, is a gift best lived when you do not care who is watching.
Some friends have complimented me for sharing my time to “advocate for workers.” I continue to explain that I am a worker too, and that I am volunteering my gut and brain to work with the AFL-CIO because I think everyone who works needs labor unions. I teach, and I have written before on why teachers need labor unions. I am also a writer, and I want to explain here, in writing, why people who write for a living need labor unions.
Writers need labor unions like dancers need labor unions. Writers need to be free to write or dance like Fred Astaire and not be pressured to write or dance like Ginger Rogers. Robert Thaves noted that Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards, and in high heels. I am not downplaying the brilliance of Ginger Rogers. The point is that Ginger Rogers had to follow Fred Astaire’s lead, and look as free as possible, while following his lead. She had to dance backwards, following a leader, while in high-heels. Writers need the freedom to write forward, seeking our own best footing.
Without labor unions, writers can become liars for-hire.
Two writers who wrote against lying are Augustine of Hippo and Immanuel Kant. If I were to give a bumper sticker version of their insight it would be this: the gift of language is for discovering truthfulness together, so, using words to lie to one another is to make our lives into nonsense.
To believe that language is a gift that allows us to discover things together, and to consider truth together, does not mean we are forbidden to use words to tell jokes, make up fanciful stories, or come up with zany combinations of words that allow for play, irony, sarcasm, or poetry. (I often use a Sesame Street vaudeville routine “Kermit the Frog here,” and then say something true about a fairy tale being told in the media.)
But, to believe that words are a gift for truth does mean that, if I use my words intentionally to mislead people, it will eventually make my soul sick. Or, put differently, if I use my gift of words primarily to please someone who is paying me to write, then my sense of the world will wither. Humans are creatures who best live together when not primarily trying to deceive one another or to please someone who pays us to be well-versed liars.
I write in Christian Ethics. If there is a field where someone ought to feel free from the pressure to dance backwards in high heels, it should be someone writing from their own faith, about “ethics.” But scholars from many disciplines can testify to the pressure at their institutions to stay away from certain questions, to shy away from subjects, and to fudge the truth as they see it if a student asks them a tricky question. This is different than “knowing-one’s-audience.” Understanding what words a group of readers will or will not be able to hear is different than trying to please a funder. When considering my “audience,” I should not have in mind a foundation or a corporation . . . or my institution’s development office.
It did not serve Mr. Inadvertently Naked Emperor well to surround himself with people who were afraid to use their words for truth. Journalists, scholars — writers of every kind — help people from being fools. At our best, writers help us to see the truth we know when we look in the mirror, keeping us from lying to ourselves about ourselves. Writers are at our best when we are neither biting our tongues nor speaking through a forked one.