Fiction as Activist and Escapist

Not only are people in the United States creating and participating in more protests, the largest protests in  American history are happening right now–in the US, and in the world, as witnessed on March 15 of this year when 1.4 million students across 123 countries walked out of school in a global strike demanding action on climate change. There’s a lot of things at play here, including the rise in authoritarian and non-democratic regimes in power and the push for using digital platforms to organize protests and disseminate information (for instance, as seen in an uneven distribution of successthroughout the Arab Spring). And if there’s one refrain I hear a lot in times of political and social turmoil, even from inside myself, it is this: “why are you engaging with and creating fiction? Create real change and get your head out of the clouds!”

For those of us whom these sentences stir something angry and inconsolable inside, take a moment. I know from experience that these comments may have worked their way into our subconscious mind without meaning to. And that’s okay.

Fiction has long been a leader in forging and organizing change (not always for the better, to be honest) and exploring a conversation between the privileged and the marginalized, the past and the future. Walidah Imarisha, in a powerful keynote from 2018, states “Science fiction as a genre doesn’t just allow you to throw out everything that’s possible.  It demands it!” and then goes on to describe themes such as that of empowering racial justice in the instituting of new dreams. Star Trek’s Uhura helped relieve racial tensions at least to some degree (and inspired technology such as the cell phone); 24 impacted the United States’ policies on torture; the changing realites of the climate have inspired the genre of climate fiction.

These are only some of the true to life events and analyses I could cite from within the past forty or fifty years. A lot of research has been done on symbolic annihilation–a term in social science and media criticism to indicate the underrepresentation of marginalized peoples that maintains social inequality. (You can read more about it here). Essentially: the more people see themselves represented in media and the more people see positive representation of people different from themselves in that same media, the better we can do things like buck stereotypes, foster understanding, and empower oppressed groups. The power of fiction in this sense is well-documented.

But what about the activists who get told that they’re wasting their time enjoying fiction? Or the critics who are told to do something more meaningful with their skills? Or even the creators who just want to explore, dive into another world, and build beautiful things from only a thought? I honestly don’t think I would have survived into 2019 like I have without escapism, a word often associated both with extreme privilege and extreme negligence. 

These takes lack nuance.

This brilliant essay from Kelly McCullough (content warning for mentions of suicidal ideation and mental illness, including schizophrenia) discusses the role of escapism in saving lives during times of extreme stress. It says what I want to say much better than I can, so I’m just going to elaborate a little here on his (accurate) comment that criticism of the arts as “escapist” comes from a place of privilege (focusing briefly on data for the United States and the United Kingdom).

The current times in the United States are a source of significant stress for Americans; in particular, for Gen-Z and people of color and especially Black adults. In 2018, about 74% of the UK stated they had been overwhelmed or unable to cope at some point in the past year. This all probably comes as zero surprise; tell me what else is new, right? In psychology, the term minority stressrefers to the stress and anxiety that accrues over time in marginalized individuals that suffer from systematic and consistent interpersonal prejudice, oppression, and discrimination; this eventually leads to poor and failing mental and physical health. (This is a well-researched field of study and honestly, the Wikipedia article is a great place to start finding references if you want to read a variety of studies.)

In what universe would you not want to escape that reality? Stress is alleviated by things like a vacation, but these same groups are often financially unable to afford a physical vacation–so they take the one that comes in a book, or a movie, or a TV show, or a podcast. It’s less expensive, and also has longevity, as there is little to no time limit on potential repeated exposure. How many of us have read the same book over and over again, or listened to the same podcast ten or fifteen times because it is a comfort? Accusing someone of being unwilling to engage in bettering society because they want to listen to a romcom podcast is not only a deeply ignorant statement, but an unkind one.

I am a language rights advocate and an activist; I work in activism-oriented academia and networking in order to help my communities. I am highly privileged in some senses, and underprivileged in others, and I still have work to do in unpacking those things. Without the escape of fiction, I would have burned out a long, long time ago. If you ever hear that voice telling you that you shouldn’t be enjoying your science-fiction sitcom in a far-off space station, tell it:

“Hey. I know you’re worried about the world, and how it will affect us and the people we love. There’s a lot to worry about. But I need some time to recharge, and I can’t do that here. Let’s talk later about making a plan, or what to tackle next.”

Be gentle with yourself, and with others. We need balance in all things–do engage actively in challenging yourself and your family and your communities to do better. But also, take the occasional vacation and go to a country that has too many apostrophes in the name. We’ll be ready to grow and fight some more when you come back.

This essay was originally published in Audio Dramatic Issue #32, July 8, 2019.