I took one such risk with the eulogy I wrote for my Grandmom. It was a small risk, I grant you that, but a risk none-the-less given the audience and the situation. You see, my Grandmom was a Stephen King horror fan, like me. My parents let me know this was so when she was 88 and I took great delight going to bookstores and letting clerks know I was seeking the latest horror novel for my Grandmom. That was a lot of fun! I decided to take the risk of including that story in the eulogy because, as the author of that document, I felt I had some latitude to include something I wanted to say personally. Now, as the moment approached, I began to have my doubts. The service was in a church and the gathered crowd was mainly older folks. I began to wonder if I should take the risk at all. Emotions were running high and the chance of causing offense was equally high. Still, I have a stubborn streak and took the risk. It paid off. After the service at the reception I heard more wonderful stories based on that story than any other in the eulogy. I even met a one time next door neighbor of Mr. King from Maine. I was glad I'd taken this particular writing risk.
I think now of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail risked a great deal more and managed to change the way many in the United States felt about his role in positive, non-violent action for civil rights. He risked much and gained greatly. We'll return to him at the end and give the great man the last word.
We can apply this lesson to much larger issues with much greater stakes at play. These days there is a dangerous trend afoot (and not a new one although the methods of its dissemination have advanced). Many good people who mean well are being cowed into silence by a noisy fraternity/sorority of cynics who make a buck by denigrating positions they are not paid to uphold. Rather than advancing a position by informed argumentation in which an opposing side might learn something valid of the position advanced and by which both side might have a constructive dialog and perhaps reach some valuable compromise, these folks prefer to attack the character of all who hold positions opposed to their own. They prefer to make spurious, ridiculous attacks with such vehemence and repeated so often that the absurdity of the charges are lost in the repetition of such vitriol. Sadly, this terrible trend has trickled down to everyone else and today constructive argument has been replaced by empty talking points created by others, which create alienation and terrible divisions amongst people. Worse, it has scared many good people into silence, fearing they will be the next target of a McCarthy-esque attack on their character. In that silence, we lose much. Writers must take the risk of opposing this terrible trend and speaking out through every media available. Speak out for justice for all, for a fairer, more open society living in peace and helping each other.
Martin Luther King wrote of this in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He told of those who were silenced and who struggled to maintain a status quo and false sense of order rather than strive for justice. Sadly, what he wrote is equally applicable today. In one of the most powerful portions of his writing, in which he takes far greater risks than many, he stated:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I'm so glad Dr. King took the risks he did in that dark moment in his life. His risk taking changed perspecives and gave us a more just futue. What will you do, fellow writers?