8-25-12: Politics, Morality, and Fiction

I don’t think you’d know it from visiting this site or reading my books, but I’m a political junkie. I’ve even been a commenter on political blogs, although I did have to be nudged into online posting. There are certainly fiction writers who write with political agendas but, except for the background issues of Vietnam and race that were formative for me, I’m rarely one of them. To me, the best fiction casts a wide net, dividing and uniting characters according to basic human traits that precede any effort to identify them by label or to forward one set of opinions over another.

Eudora Welty’s attitude toward her characters is relevant here. Welty wrote that she loved them all. Viewed objectively, many of them are far from appealing, but I know what she meant. I think Welty understood the vulnerabilities of the people she put in her stories and was touched by their struggles and mistakes, their failings in their interactions with others. It was a sort of love that arose from deep knowledge. In fact, she wrote a story after the murder of Medgar Evans that so intuitively depicted the murderers that it couldn’t be published. She intimately knew the society in which she lived and the inner turmoil that drove actions and what those actions were likely to be.

The different characters that appear across the spectrum of fiction offer a parade of dysfunction, venality and drama, madness and vivacity, generosity and spite. These sorts of things are bedrock in people’s lives, while the happenstance of how individuals identify in ideological terms is secondary. Yet in a country and world divided in a faceoff of political and religious loyalties, we often forget that the mix of characteristics and behaviors we see in stories is something we all share in different ways. Instead we assign good traits to the people who hold our views, bad ones to our opponents, a situation that’s part of what makes political campaigns such intense rides.

An article in the New York Times, “The Moral Instinct,” written a number of years ago by the psychologist Steven Pinker, offers valuable insight into this phenomenon. It’s a piece I’ve returned to many times and, as both my writing and political self, I’d like to point to some of its observations. While Pinker discusses a wide range of biological and philosophical matters and includes many provocative examples as illustration, what I found most interesting is what he identifies as “the primary colors of our moral sense”: cross-cultural attitudes about “harm [when it’s appropriate to inflict it], fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority, and purity [dietary laws, sexual mores].” Pinker suggests that all people have strong moral feelings attached to each of these categories but that they are defined and weighed differently in different cultures. He goes on to say that “many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that [the West channels] toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres.”

To me, that’s a very insightful comment. While Pinker also says that “people tend to align their moralization with their own lifestyles,” what strikes me particularly is his assertion that these differing internalizations of morality are also true for people on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Referring to the results of a large Internet survey, he writes that “liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five.” It’s an interesting theory of how we wind up in different camps.

In this political season, I am adding Pinker’s ideas to my own to think about both politics and my feeling that fiction speaks to us more often when it doesn’t advocate for specific beliefs but instead focuses on the array of human traits and relationships we all share and that precede political or religious allegiances. We can disagree on candidates and policies; we can disagree on tenets of faith. But we often find ourselves loving the same books for their portrayal of basic human nature and experience. It’s life before the bumper stickers, life before the tags. And it’s pretty much the place where the characters of fiction—variable and predictable and drawn from a shared reality—read us all like a book.

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