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.