When we think of “activism”, most of us think of protests and direct action – occupations and placards and marches and lock-ons and petitions. And, although this kind of action can be cathartic, emotionally-connective, community-building, a whole lot of fun, and even occasionally valuable for making actual change, there are serious limitations to the practical usefulness of clever slogans painted on cardboard and angry rants shouted at people who don’t want to hear. For one thing, the mainstream media (as in, the people who have the potential to actually transmit that message you’re trying to convey to the millions of people who stayed at home) never report a protest the way it feels on the street: they only report that one moment when someone lost their cool and smashed a window, or that one bit where the police came in and tore it all apart with teargas and rubber bullets – in short, they only report it if it gets violent, out of hand, or in some other way distracted from the actual message. For another thing, even if they do report it, and they do actually report what actually happened, and it’s actually even vaguely accurate, it still only lasts in the public consciousness for a moment, it’s a bubble that pops immediately, it’s a flash of light that is gone almost as soon as it appeared, and it’s swallowed by the always-ravenous News Cycle.
(Don’t get me wrong: I totally love protests. But, while they can completely re-invigorate and consolidate tired and isolated individuals into a writhing energetic mass of concentrated rebelliousness, they often just don’t make much difference to the outside world.)
But there is a form of activism that is incredibly powerful, long-lasting, culturally-resonant, and continually overlooked by nearly everyone. And that form of activism is called “fiction”.
“But,” I hear you cry (muffled as it is through your Che Guevara bandanna), “fiction isn’t a form of activism! And how can it make any difference to reality? Fiction is, by its very nature, not reality. It’s untrue. Because, if it was true, it’d be called fact. You’re lame, old man, go home.”
I may be an old man, and I may indeed go home, but I also know that, whenever some government tries to pull some dodgy totalitarian surveillance move, no one says “ooh, it’s like it said on that petition we signed online last week” or “wow, that’s totally like all those protesters warned us about” – they say “eek, it’s just like 1984”. That is, they compare it to some fictional book written in 1948. Such is the long-lasting potential of fiction, that, even in 2017, the year 1984 is associated more easily with totalitarian regimes and mass surveillance and the power of propaganda and bad-tasting gin than it is associated with the actual year 1984. (I remember the actual year 1984. It honestly wasn’t worth writing about.)
Similarly: you can be listening to mainstream radio, and, right after the news bulletin completely failed to mention the protest you were just a part of (that was really actually fucking amazing and completely non-violent and really very very large etc), right after that conspicuous lack of coverage, you can hear a song urging people to ditch capitalism and religious dogma and nationalism. John Lennon’s “Imagine” is a song which asks mainstream listeners to just “imagine” a world without borders, religion, or possessive capitalism, topics mainstream audiences are typically completely closed off to when approached in a factual debate-type scenario – but this song has been played on mainstream radio stations, not only once or twice but almost continually, since 1971. More people have heard, and really listened to, and can sing along with “Imagine” than have ever been to one of our protests. And it works precisely because it’s fictional – like a sci-fi novel, it merely asks the audience to “imagine” a world without countries or possessions or religion, rather than trying to make an argument using facts or figures. It’s not presented as a fight, but an invitation: rather than a blatant call to action, it’s a hypothetical “just have a think about it”.
This is exactly the power of fiction: it is the power of imagination/story-telling to circumvent in-built defence-mechanisms and let emotional responses in through the back door. The power of fictional activism is the power to climb over or tunnel through the protective walls people build around themselves, and actually make change: to actually enter the echo chamber and make a difference.
I’ve experienced this first-hand in my own life: my novel Beef is set in a future-world where the exploitation of animals is just something that doesn’t happen anymore, everyone munches on lab-grown vat-meat and are really shocked – and profoundly embarrassed – that their ancestors were actually ever corpse-eaters (in much the same way that many modern day people are deeply ashamed that their ancestors actually really owned human slaves). Now, I’ve had many a fact-based argument with meat-eaters, and no-one has ever changed position: defences are mounted, walls erected, and battlements patrolled – nothing’s getting in there, factually-sound or not. But many still-omnivorous people have come to me after reading the book – after being invited gently into my fiction, rather than harangued by the truth – and said that they really looked at their corpse-meat differently after reading it, that it made an unsettling impact on their emotions and viewpoint. An impact that no amount of regular activism had ever made.
Now, I’m not saying we should all down placards and start furiously typing novels or penning piano ballads: after all, sure, 1984 had a big impact on the way people think about propaganda and surveillance, and Imagine is played somewhere every single freaking day, but it’s not like these problems have vanished as a result. But it’s a tool, a tool that we tend to overlook when we think about effective activism, and it’s a tool that may very well lead to more actual change than arguing, no matter how many facts and figures we bring to the table.
A Very Short List of Powerful Fictions
1984 – George Orwell
The Arrival – Shaun Tan (yes, it’s a picture fiction with no words, but it’s seriously amazing)
My Year of Meats – Ruth Ozeki
We – Yevgeny Zamyatin (many people believe this Russian book is actually where Orwell got the idea for 1984)
Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood (but most things by her, really)
Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
Jennifer Government – Max Barry (he’s light on believable characters, but great with ideas)
Anything by Kurt Vonnegut Jr
And of course Beef – Mat Blackwell