The role of writers as truth tellers – and the threat to freedom of speech

Last night I was involved in a fabulous event in Hamilton organised by Browsers Bookshop (a wonderful second-hand bookshop) and The Meteor Theatre (a really great venue). Called a ‘Literary Salon‘, it was an intimate audience limited to 50 people (and sold out – yay Hamilton!) where four diverse speakers talked about anything writing related that took our fancy, with audience discussion after each speaker. A really great idea.
I thought I would post here what I said, for your reading pleasure!

The role of writers as truth tellers – and the threat to
freedom of speech

For the last year and a half I’ve had my mind in 12th century France and what’s really fascinating – but also scary and depressing – is that it isn’t that much different from today.
It was just after the 1st Crusade, and encompasses the 2nd Crusade – that great clash of civilisations, Christianity against Islam – which was as much about resources as about divergent ideologies (hey, what’s new?) There was a systematic grab of power and property, a consolidation of all the wealth away from peers and the landed gentry and back into the coffers of the head of state (the king) and his representatives. This was achieved with the help of the Catholic Church, which held enormous sway over its faithful congregation – a church rocked by sex and corruption scandals and intense factional infighting …. Sound familiar?
It was also a time of systematic silencing and side-lining of women too – before this women of better birth had a little agency – could own property, had rights to inheritance and education and could live in religious communities with the support of the Church – but, again, during the course of the 12th century all these rights were pretty much lost – and women were effectively silenced for several hundred more years as a result.

 All this has had me thinking about the freedom to give voice to ideas – as a woman and as a writer.
I’m going to leave the gender issue aside for now as I want to talk about the voice of writers, and how (from the earliest times through to many countries right around the world today – including, I would suggest, an increasing number in the so-called Western world), all dysfunctional regimes make quick work of silencing their writers and other artists, as the first step in controlling and securing their power over the population. It is almost as if artists, educators, academics and writers are the canaries down the mine shaft when to comes to signalling the undermining of human rights and basic freedoms such as freedom of speech.
Why, then, are writers seen as so subversive and dangerous that they need to be silenced? I think it’s because as writers we have the capacity to describe our world, to analyse it with a beady outsider’s eye, and to think about the wielding of power and its effects on human behaviour – and also how human behaviours affectour world. Why this outsider’s eye is both powerful and dangerous is because writers understand some very fundamental things about human nature – the same things that are required to be understood if creating a powerful story.
To start with, writers understand that story is fundamental to life – that we engage in storytelling many times a day without ever knowing it (today I did… I saw Clare and she…. did you hear about….) – and that story was the first currency used to try to communicate the big ideas and the vital information that our earliest ancestors needed in order to survive. Myths and legends as the precursors to scientific explanation (why that big shiny thing crosses the sky every day), the way we impart our values (fairy tales, cautionary tales, tales of valour and bravery to identify who and what we define as heroic and great, right and wrong, good or evil), and is also the way we exchange information (don’t eat those red berries – last week Og did and he died… over that hill there’s this bloody great hairy beast that just killed Og Jnr.)
We also understand that at the base of all this lies human ego – that, as a tribe of social animals, we are really only interested in stories about people (aka characters) – and, most of all, stories that reflect ourselves in some way, or can give us a glimpse of other worlds from the safety of our own cave – in other words a window peering into another world or a mirror reflecting back a life we recognise.
Writers and other artists take ideas and transform them into something that will have an impact at a deeply intimate level – both intellectually and emotionally – on the person receiving it – and when we are touched by something in this way it can have a profound and powerful effect. It is persuasive, it invites empathy, it offers exploration of ideas and an opening of the mind.
Say, for instance, I want you to think about the plight of refugees. If I throw statistics and policy at you, you’ll shudder and reach for the remote, but if I tell you about my experience last year, while living on the border of France and Italy for 5 months when we watched the police playing cat and mouse with kids who had already braved the crossing from Africa at sea, and were now being chased down by armed police, spread-eagled in alleyways, plucked off trains purely on the basis of the colour of their skin, vilified by the French, hungry, homeless, beautiful young people who were their villages greatest hope . . . you get the idea. Heart to heart, human to human, I can engage you in a way that is deeply threatening to those who would control your thoughts and behaviours for their own means.
One of the other reasons artists – including writers – are considered a danger is that we have learnt how to tap into the potential of our creative mind – and we understand that this is like tapping into the power source of the entire planet – that ideas are limitless, and that there is never only one way of thinking or only one answer. This makes us less likely to accept without questioning, and more likely to be interested in nuance, honesty, analysis and close observation – which usually leads to a pretty clear-sighted view of the real dynamics of any given situation – from party etiquette through to the hairy-eyeballing of your neighbouring superpower. And, seen in this light, these tools a writer learns to use transform to very dangerous weapons in the eyes of those who wish to dominate a population and therefore need to control the way they think. 
Writers and other artists are generally lower down the income ladder as well – and in many ways that’s a good thing, because I think that when we struggle to hold onto any personal and financial agency in a society, we are often privy to (and more sympathetic to) the real suffering of those at the bottom of the heap in a way that those insulated by power and money are blind to (or chose to be blind to in order not to feel that inconvenient thing called guilt). We worship at the altar of ideas, ideals –  and innate humanness-  rather than competition, consumption and the mighty temple of greed.
As a result of this I write books that invite empathy and which encourage the questioning of the status quo. They have a strong bent towards the upholding of human rights and fairness, and I would hope that they also have the ability to grab the reader by the heart and really move them – and make them think. I abhor the cult of meanness that has slipped into our culture – and the kind of competitive, corporate mindset that insists there must be losers if there are winners, and that blames those who end up at the bottom or are falling through the cracks. And what scares me the most is that such callous, ego-driven greed is now quite literally putting us all at risk.
I’ve just become a grandmother and I look at my little grandson Leo and wonder what the world will be like for him. I cannot even be confident he will live to see old age, given the total lack of commitment of governments all around the globe to make any significant attempts to tackle climate change and its resulting misery. If you’re sitting there thinking this is over dramatic, then I would humbly suggest that you are watching the wrong TV news channel, reading the wrong newspapers, listening to the wrong radio station and browsing the wrong websites! Remember: words have power – and we live in an age where the media is now a corporate entity which has been handed free rein to manipulate stories to meet their shareholder needs. No longer is ‘the press’ the upholder of free speech. Orwell’s Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, and Newspeak are now reality.
I have had to make a decision to put my neck on the block because, dammit, I gave birth to my two beautiful children, and now my son has gone down the same path I feel responsible for the wellbeing of his son as well. Therefore I will do as much as I can to protect their futures. But I have to tell you that it is becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous to speak out.
I’m sure you will remember the outrage when Eleanor Catton voiced her feelings about our current leadership – howls of outrage, including those who said how dare she speak out against this government when she had received funding from Creative NZ and a tertiary institution (both of which are taxpayer funded and are supposed to be independent of political influence), and I have met many people in similar situations – many artists, as well as professionals and academics who are experts in their fields, who suddenly find themselves subject to budget cuts, lose their jobs, become the butt of social media smear campaigns, are publicly vilified by people as high up in the hierarchy as the Prime Minister himself (who called Eleanor a ‘fictional’ author, bless his little designer socks!) When I was appointed as Writer in Residence at your university, the National Business Review wrote a nasty little veiled piece suggesting it was inappropriate for me to accept funding from a university if I did not support this current government. Have we really come to this? Is this okay with you guys? When did it become a law that only those who support a National-led government are entitled to a share of the tax-payer dollar (that we have all contributed to)? Anyway, for goodness sake, I’m hardly Che Guevara! I’m a boring middle aged granny who cries at movie trailers and who is so wimpy I catch and release blowflies rather than kill them!
However, because I am that granny, I have decided not to shut up, despite the unwanted attention. But I’m scared. I went to be with my niece on the day she was woken by 5 police banging at the door of my brother’s house when they knew he was out of town. She was forced to dress in front of a policewoman, who even went through her knicker drawer in case she stashed some state secret while dressing; they took her phone and laptop, despite the fact she was a week off having to hand in her Honours thesis. They spent over ten hours in my brother’s house (**here I talked about some details that I can’t go into on a public website – but suffice to say watch very carefully when his case goes to court next month – the police have not been honest or lawful in their dealings and it is evident this was a political action to shut him down.) 
All this, and he is supposedly not even a ‘suspect’ in the case they are investigating (only a witness), and merely a writer who is doing what writer’s do – trying to speak the truth and ask the questions that writers since the beginning of time have felt compelled to ask. His apparent crime? Passing on information that is vital for us to be aware of, and saying that we deserve honest governance from leaders who care for ALL their people and respect the concept of democracy. (wow, wouldn’t that be nice!)
The same reasons he has been harassed are the same reasons tens of thousands of artists and writers over the centuries have suffered similar and, sadly, much worse fates. Asking questions. Opening minds. And those wielding pernicious power hate this – they can’t control free thinkers – and they have to control the narrative and monopolise the messages that go out in order to control the population.
Yet a writer’s uncomfortable attention to detail, our kind of up close examination and analysis of human nature and the rights and wrongs of our behaviour is also what I love about writing – and the imaginative leaps – and the total, utter stimulation of summoning up and weaving together a group of varied and fallible lives to make a moving whole that will, perhaps, shine a light into the dark corners.
The great composer and music communicator Leonard Bernstein said: “We must encourage thought, free and creative. We must respect privacy. We must observe taste by not exploiting our sorrows, successes, or passions. We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man. We must not enslave ourselves to dogma. We must believe in the attainability of good. We must believe, without fear, in people.”
There is nothing more incredible than communicating to fellow human beings at a direct and profound level, engaging in a discussion deep inside the sanctuary of someone else’s mind. It is a privilege and a gift –and I will keep on doing it until the fire that has been lit in my imagination finally goes out.


  1. A wonderful, though-provoking piece. The truly hopeful thing is that before the fire in your imagination finally goes out your words may well have kindled fresh fires in new writers.

    Martin Lake


  2. Bravely spoken. The 'I am innocent' series on TV also illustrates the profound effects on people of manipulation or 'not seeing truly' because it doesn't happen to fit someone's theory. I look forward to hearing you as a speaker in Tauranga on August 1.


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