Art has a responsibility to guard society from what Bob Dylan called “the morals of despair”. It also has the onerous duty of standing up to those who seek to “choke the breath of conscience” writes Ng’ang’a Mbugua
A time comes in the life of a society when writers and literary critics must feel compelled to stand up and fight in the corner of democracy and the rule of law. These are the foundations on which the sanity of nations is built. John Dryzek once said that “if democracy is a good thing... then more democracy should presumably be an even better thing”. This is the point I am inviting writers — and readers alike — to ponder.
It was Doris Lessing, I think, who once said that whereas she chose her style, her themes chose her. However, there are seasons when writers cannot afford the luxury of sitting back and waiting for themes to choose them. At such times, they have a moral duty to actively address the pertinent issues of the day and act as the conscience of their society and the champions of freedom, especially the freedom of thought and conscience.
History is replete with instances when writers and artists stood up to be counted for speaking truth to power, be it in the colonial period in America, the revolutions that swept through parts of Europe, the colonial and post-colonial States in Africa and the civil rights movement which eventually culminated in February being designated the Black History month in the US.
In fair weather, literature can be its own justification. It can indulge in navel-gazing like Narcissus in Greek mythology; it can revel in its own beauty; it can take at its mission the celebration of the marvels of nature or the lamentation of the foibles and heartaches of youth and love. In foul weather, however, it is obligated to join the oppressed in the trenches and become a partisan for truth, justice and the higher ideals that man aspires to, such as tolerance, personal and collective freedoms, equity in the distribution of public wealth and equality of opportunity. In a word, those who love literature have a big role to play in building a just and open society where ideas are free to compete and where it is not criminal to hold divergent views. Literature, indeed all art, is therefore expected to engage in the difficult task of remaking society. It has a responsibility to guard society from what Bob Dylan, the Nobel prize winning crooner, called “the morals of despair”. It also has the onerous duty of standing up to those who seek to “choke the breath of conscience”. As the English Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley famously observed, “the most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry”.
Poetry is probably the most impassioned sibling in the literary family and easily morphs into song when the citizens seeks to reclaim their space in a democracy. As poets, essays and fiction writers demonstrated during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the decision by writers to stand up for freedom has never been a stroll in park. If anything, it has always been an open invitation to a life of pain, moil and struggle. Happily, this life of struggle has its reward in the achievement of a greater good for humanity and the advancement of society. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o once said, by striking a blow against oppression anywhere, writers strike a blow against oppression everywhere.
In his Democracy Papers series, Prof Melvin Urofskyt of the Virginia Commonwealth University, observed that “democracy is hard, perhaps the most complex and difficult of all forms of government. It is filled with tensions and contradictions and requires that its members labour diligently to make it work”. As he aptly observed, democracy is never a finished product, it is constantly evolving. That is why writers, and readers, are called upon to remain vigilant in the defence of democracy, freedom and constitutionalism, for without these, societies lose their soul and regress towards repression and ruin.
As Bishop Paget would have put it, the job of writers and the literati in a knowledge society is to pursue “the liberty by which a man is ennobled and realises himself and serves his generation.” But for one to serve his generation, it is important for those who love the written word to also stand for truth, freedom and an inclusive society.
In his 1996 essay, ‘Political inclusion and the dynamics of democratisation,’ Dryzek, then of the University of Melbourne, argued that “democratisation is largely, though not exclusively, a matter of the progressive recognition and inclusion of different groups in the political life of society”. The question then arises, what role can literature and the arts play in turning this ideal into a reality in a modern African State?
First, it is the job of the creative arts to celebrate diversity and make this the centrepiece of all democratic enterprises. This was the point that Ngugi was trying to make in his 1993 book, Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. Chinua Achebe amplified it when he said, while quoting an Igbo proverb, that where something stands, another thing can stand by it. He also said that where the eagle perches, the kite can perch, too. In short, these writers were preaching tolerance and inclusion. Their call remains as relevant to African societies today as it was when they first wrote those words decades ago. What does this mean for African nations? Does it not mean that freedom of thought ought to have a place of honour in our priorities?
The nature of truth and knowledge, like a garden with many flowers, is that it creates room for different shades of opinion to flourish and for the most compelling to emerge from this multiplicity and become the guiding principle. This, however, does not, at any one point, condone or compel a monopoly of ideas or uniformity of thought.
The arts, just like the laws that nations have made for themselves, anticipate that citizens will be free to exercise their freedoms as enshrined in their hearts and the books of law. That is where the safety and security of every citizen lies. In an address during a freedom festival at Brigham Young University in the US, James Faust argued that “that which is governed by law is also preserved by law”.
If all laws were to be congealed into one line, it probably would boil down to this: That all are called upon to build a just, progressive, inclusive and democratic society free of fear. These are the ideals that writers are called upon to fight for in their life and work. The question is: Are they living up to this noble calling?
Mr Mbugua is the editor of the Saturday Nation. firstname.lastname@example.org