A completely different…

A completely different quote, run across in a forum discussing Arundhati Roy's recent rejection of a prize that was partially funded by an Indian government she objects to:

"...the term "writer-activist" as a professional description of what I do makes me flinch doubly. First, because it is strategically positioned to diminish both writers and activists. It seeks to reduce the scope, the range, the sweep of what a writer is and can be. It suggests somehow that the writer by definition is too effete a being to come up with the clarity, the explicitness, the reasoning, the passion, the grit, the audacity, and, if necessary, the vulgarity to publicly take a political position. And, conversely, it suggests that the activist occupies the coarser, cruder end of the intellectual spectrum. That the activist is by profession a "position-taker" and therefore lacks complexity and intellectual sophistication, and is instead fueled by a crude, simple-minded, one-sided understanding of things. But the more fundamental problem I have with the term is that professionalizing the whole business of protest, putting a label on it, has the effect of containing the problem and suggesting that it's up to the professionals--activists and writer-activists--to deal with."

-- "The Ladies Have Feelings So...Shall We Leave it to the Experts?"

5 thoughts on “A completely different…”

  1. Only a couple of minutes before reading this entry, I was vaguely musing about the prospect of referring to John McCutcheon as a “singer-activist,” by which I meant (more or less) “a singer who goes out and gets actively involved with creating social change, as opposed to singers who only sing about social change.” I suppose I can see an argument that that idea demeans both singers and activists. But to me, it feels more like a compliment: taking two vocations I admire and saying that someone is a good example of both of them doesn’t seem problematic to me.

    The latter part of Roy’s objection seems to me to be an objection to the term “activist” in any form. Again, I can see where she’s coming from, and maybe in the context she’s talking about there’s a specifically professionalized aspect to the term. But I don’t think that’s true in most contexts—I don’t see the term “activist” used to refer exclusively to professionals. Perhaps in part because I don’t think there are that many professional activists.

  2. Addendum: I guess the emphasis in the first phrase you quoted is on the word “professional.” I think her argument makes more sense to me in the context of someone calling her a “professional writer-activist” (and/or in the context of someone in power who she disagrees with calling her a “writer-activist”) than in other contexts.

  3. Does it shade the meaning any better (or at least differently) to say “activist writer” — to use “activist” as an adjective instead of a noun?

  4. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Hmm…honestly, I don’t think I understand your positions on this. Maybe it’s because I know lots and lots of professional activists — most of my local friends fall into that category these days.

    Roy’s point seems to be that calling her a ‘writer-activist’ implies that writers generally aren’t expected to have political positions or be activist, and similarly, that professional activists aren’t expected to actually be able to write and think clearly about complex and subtle issues. I pretty much agree with her on that assessment of the phrase.

  5. (The danger of adding your feed to my LJ friends list is that I miss the comments until long afterward.)

    I pretty much disagree. Most writers aren’t activists, and most activists aren’t writers. I don’t see that statement as disparaging either group. A writer-activist is simply somebody who is both. I suppose one could go with “a writer and activist,” but I don’t see the distinction between that and the hyphenated term.

    Similarly I might be called “an editor, essayist, and kazooist,” or, to hyphenate, an editor-essayist-kazooist. That wouldn’t imply that most writers are by definition too effete to be concerned with commas and too rooted in words to be willing to hum; that most editors lack the creativity to write and are too stolid to kazoo; or that most kazooist couldn’t construct a sentence if their life depended on it. It just means that I happen to occupy the overlap between all three fields on the Venn diagram. Sure, they’re all compatible, and each activity can enhance the others (you’ll have to trust me on the kazooing), but that doesn’t mean it’s a common combination. No more, no less.

    In the larger piece this is taken from, Roy seems to be making a slightly different case, that “writers” specifically refers to writers of fiction, who are expected not to be political, while “activists” is applied to writers of nonfiction on contemporary issues; a “writer-activist,” then, is somebody who uses both genres, with the implications given. I frankly don’t buy this. It rests on the claims that she’s called a writer strictly because she wrote a novel (and nothing else), and an activist strictly because she wrote three political essays (and nothing else). Neither claim seems at all convincing to me.

    Roy’s final point in your excerpt does make more sense to me, although it’s equally true of all descriptive labels: they inevitably end up defining that which they’re intended to describe.

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