September 22, 2008

Blurring the Lines

It was a buzz, and today it's a launch. YA for Obama is a ning group started by "best-selling young adult authors," according to a Condé Nast blog, who are concerned with creating a place for the under-18's in the democratic process. Their goal? To get Mr. Obama elected.

It's a social-networking site, and it's open to everyone, even, curiously, people who don't support the election of Mr. Obama, and sentient cheese life forms. Those best-selling authors include Holly Black, Judy Blume, Libby Bray, Meg Cabot and of course, the group's founder, Maureen Johnson. There are really cool things on the site, including a link to The Living Room Candidate, which is a collection of scary political commercials since the dawn of televisions, and other spaces to discuss issues such as race and energy and how the economy is impacting people right now.

From many angles, this site seems pretty innocuous. I mean, it's social networking, and we all like the social, yes? There's a kind of sanguine bubbliness in the videos and posters, the slogan suggestions and the posters (and an eye-scalding overuse of the word "awesome"). Everything has a fun, positive vibe.

Except.
I'm not sure it IS positive.
I wonder about whether this site constitutes "undue influence" upon the young people at whom it is targeted.

Undue influence is about taking advantage of social position to influence someone to do or think something against what their will. It's about using one's authority to control people, really. It's nasty - subtle and kind of crazy-making, really, because it's hard to prove.


Undue influence is not as obvious as being forced to sign a contract at gunpoint -- or under duress. Undue influence is more insidious, and subtle. It's like being invited to your boss's church, or having a college professor ask you on a date. It's like your priest assuming you'll vote a particular way because the parish would benefit from a certain person being in office. It's taking a personal thing and making it someone else's business, and it's causing someone to do something they maybe wouldn't have chosen to do on their own.

I know that this site intends to provide a place for people who aren't yet voting age to enter into the democratic process, and use their creativity to help Mr. Obama get elected, and a venue like that is certainly a good thing. The content of the site isn't what I wonder about. I do wonder whether we're using our position as storytellers inappropriately. I wonder if we're overstepping our role, and using that privilege as a platform from which to push political views.

In the early American days of big slogans and Manifest Destiny, there was a popular phrase: "...the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world." I prefer not to think of YA'ers as a faceless, nameless force that is ripe for manipulation and direction, even in the kindliest meant ways. When I write for young adults, I write to remind them that adolescence doesn't last forever, and that they're not alone in being basically ignored, condescended to, or disenfranchised. It might seem like a social networking site aimed at including YA'ers in the voting process is a positive and inclusive step, but are we including young adults in a conversation that they want to have? Or is this another way of playing politics and using technology to reach kids "where they live"? Somehow, writers inviting young adults to join them as they stump for a political candidate just doesn't seem entirely ...kosher.

The other day, Liz posted that she votes for herself in terms of sanity, and keeping her blog politics free. I think I vote for me, too, and for keeping secret ballots secret, differentiating between what is politically or morally right and staying the heck out of trying to mix my readers with my politics.

Just thinkin' some thoughts this fine sunny Monday morning.


Please note that though this is a team blog, the opinions of one teammate are not necessarily those of the other member of the blogging team.

21 comments:

Liz B said...

Thanks for your post! You've hit on one of my issues with celebrity endorsements, the influencing in a way that is not related to the actual issues at hand. It is more of an "cool, smart, pretty people vote for x" statement than anything else, which means "if you want to be cool/smart/funny, you'll vote for x" as well as "if you're not voting for x, you're not cool/smart/pretty."

I've only skimmed the YA For Obama ning, and will return when there is a bit more content later this week, with it having a chance to have an official launch. So far, I cannot imagine a teen who is supporting McCain feeling welcomed at the site. As would be expected from a for Obama site, the Republican forum is mainly anti McCain. So I'm not sure how that pro McCain teen would participate.

TadMack said...

YES. It's all about the in-group, the cool group, the "fun" people -- "We're are doing x." It feels very ...disingenuous, because it's a high school tactic used by adults... to include young people. ...? I was very influenced by what my favorite writers, movie stars, people at school -- did, ate, thought, wore, said. It just seems a poor idea. And yes -- I'll be looking to see how it further unfolds.

melissa said...

What a great post! Thanks for talking about this issue, which I think is one that deserves attention. As you said in response to Liz B, it's a group of adults using the same tactics as high schoolers. Recently I've started to become disturbed by the "Cool Kids" YA author clique, and this just further reinforces my misgivings.

I will include the caveat that I haven't visited the YA for Obama site yet, and I'm sure the site was started with lofty goals. Yet if the point is to encourage young people to think, to decide for themselves, and to vote once they're legally eligible, wouldn't a nonpartisan site be more effective? Instead of encouraging clique behavior and groupthink?

Colleen said...

I did visit the site and found it very much a club atmosphere but a little light on information...in other words, where were the policy comparisons on stuff that teens would be interested in? Where were articles on the differences between McCain and Obama on energy or jobs or health care or college loans? Where were interviews with teens who had very real reasons for wanting Obama to be elected (everything from social issues to maybe foreign policy or immigration or whatever)?

What I'm thinking about would be a huge huge deal and require more time than you average person who is not a paid political consultant would have to donate. But if you're going to do this then I think you need to do it in as a complete fashion as possible.

In other words - there is a reason why there is no talk of Obama or McCain going on at Guys Lit Wire. I'm thrilled to have books on political topics but not one candidate over the other - it has to be balanced and let kids make up their minds.

I understand that these folks support Obama (hell - I very clearly support Obama at my own site) but this all reminds me an awful lot of my stepfather telling me who I had to vote for at my first election. The insinuation was that I couldn't make the right choice on my own and he was smarter and thus should make the choice for me.

This site reads as more for adult Obama fans who are writers of teen fiction then it does for teens themselves. I wonder if they realize that?

Jules at 7-Imp said...

I'm with Colleen. More information -- policy comparisons, as she put it -- are necessary. It's insulting to teens to not provide that information.

Jen Robinson said...

Excellent points, TadMack (and other commenters). It sounds to me that a site like this gives the impression that there's only one right way for teens to feel about this election (especially if they are part of the cool in crowd). That's simply not true, and it's ultimately divisive, because it dismisses other viewpoints. I haven't actually checked out the site yet, either, though. I will.

But thanks for what I think is a brave post.

a. fortis said...

I haven't looked at the site yet, either, but this is a fascinating discussion. I can't help wondering how this would be different if the site had been, say, created by YAs themselves and then had YA authors as spokespersons?

With a political site started by adults, I think that those adults have a responsibility to tread very carefully, whether or not the site takes sides.

TadMack said...

(Thanks, Jen. I still expect people to come out, screaming.)

Liz has a good idea -- go and look at the blog when it's not the first day of the launch. Maybe it'll balance out, and be more nonpartisan and informative.

gail said...

I heard about YA for Obama last week and visited the site then before it had officially launched. I just checked in again now, too. I have a lot of the same reservations you have.

I think a site to encourage political involvement among young adults is a great idea, but I wish they hadn't tied it to a specific candidate. As Liz B said, McCain supporters probably won't feel comfortable/welcome there, so it's not as if they're going to win over a lot of new 18- to 21-year-old voters for their candidate, anyway.

Unless, of course, they win over young people who wouldn't have become politically active without a push from authors they like. But, again, I wish they'd encouraged them to become politically active, period--to vote in municipal elections, school board elections, etc., and not just go out and vote for one person and then go home.

Bennett said...

i have a ton to say here but i will try to restrain myself and keep it to a few main points:

Trying to convince others of your viewpoint is not coercion. Public engagement and debate is the whole point of democracy. In times as dire as these-- my home will be slipping into the sea shortly, thanks!-- it is any artist's responsibility to speak up. if artists aren't allowed to do this then we might as well not have any artists.

When artists banded together in the eighties to make a stink about AIDS it changed history. Were they also self-appointed "cool kids" engaging in bratty highschool hijinx? I think they were just doing their jobs.

One might argue that the fact that our audience is made up of teenagers puts a greater burden on us to tread lightly with our opinons. I don't agree. I think most YA writers are YA writers partially because they assume teenagers are capable of thinking for themselves. (And, to be practical here, anyone who is going to be pulling a lever in November will be a legal adult anyway.)

To respond to Colleen's point that there isn't enough policy talk on the site: first of all, it's the first day with regular blog posts. I don't have any inside information, but I assume there will be all kinds of posts about all kinds of things, including, surely, The Issues.

And Colleen, you know I love you but I think it's disingenuous to suggest that ALL political discussion should focus on "Policy." The personal is the political! And anyway, a president's job, as much as anything, is to be a leader. That's not to say that this election should be fought on issues like Sarah Palin's hair and "who I'd like to have a beer with," but I think it's completely legitimate to take into consideration a candidate's ability to restore our morale as a country. That may not be policy in the strictest sense, but it's important.

I'm mostly concerned at the tone of this post, which seems to suggest that writers should shut up and sit down. That's exactly the opposite of an artist's role in a democracy. But here's the other nice thing about our (admittedly crumbling) free society: you don't have to listen to anyone!

Logical Thinker said...

To take in order the points bennett raised:

1) Trying to convince others of your viewpoint is not coercion.

No, it is not coercion, which would involve the direct application of force. Using your position to influence people can constitute undue influence, however, in particular when there's an aspect of power involved in the relationship. Celebrities influence all of the time without that influence falling into the "undue" realm ... but when the people we are influencing are minors, there is a definite problem, as they are not necessarily able to separate their hero worship from what they are being told to do.

2) It is any artist's responsibility to speak up.

Not really. If the aim of an artist is to change the world through achieving a bit of fame so that they can have political leverage, there is a definite evilness to whatever it is that you consider "art." Art should not be "instrumental" to some other gain. Doing art so that you had a platform to speak from is analogous to telling someone that you love them so that they'll sleep with you: it is simply not the right reason to do art, nor to "love" someone.

3) If artists aren't allowed to do this then we might as well not have any artists.

So ... artists' sole purpose is political ends? I really don't like the picture of art being painted here.

4) Again, with the "artists changed history" and "this is artists' job."

While it may be true that artists can affect change, and that change can be good, the situations are not exactly parallel. The AIDS effort was not aimed at children, nor was it aimed at something which which was debatably good. Rather, the AIDS effort was aimed at combatting a known evil.

(Are you now coming right out there to say that one of our political candidates is evil? If so, then you are part of the problem our nation is experiencing, in that we all must coexist, no matter who wins.)

5) We don't have to tread lightly with our opinions.

No, you certainly don't. However, people read your books, absorbing whatever it is that you have incorporated into the work, and are able to consider and discard it. It must feel real, to some degree, and must "work." That is your craft, your art. This other thing is merely expressing your opinions.

Tell me this: Why should teenagers listen to your opinion on the political situation? What have you done to convince them that you are capable of making a good judgment in this matter? Does the fact that you can tell a "real" or "true" story have anything to do with your ability to judge politics?

6) Teenagers are capable of thinking for themselves. Teenagers won't be voting.

This is really beside the point, and is particularly disengenuous. If the group is aimed at teenagers, then you hope to accomplish something with that effort. While you may not be attempting to get them to vote NOW in a particular way, you are attempting to indoctrinate them (in a particularly coarse manner) so that they vote as you would like 4 YEARS from now.

7) The issues upon which we focus shouldn't solely be those of policy, but should include an aspect of popularity, as leadership is something which is at issue as well as the ability to restore our morale as a nation.

I cannot agree with this statement at all, and you have provided no compelling argument for it. The idea that moral should play a part in our decision is to ignore the source of our poor morale. We may be depressed, as a nation, by any number of things which have gone wrong (the wars, an administration which advocates torture and kidnapping, two elections which may or may not have been won fairly, etc.). These issues, though, will not be resolved by a change in figurehead, but will only be resolved by a change in the policies themselves. If we were to have an absolutely uncharismatic leader (Dukakis, perhaps) who managed to affect a positive change in policy, I believe that our nation's morale would improve. How is it that a popular "leader" would do better?

Further, this statement sounds shockingly as if you are advocating the same type of administration which is in power: one which appeals to the lowest common denominator, yet does whatever it pleases, because the lowest common denominator does not consider policy to be important.

8) You are concerned with the tone of this post. You believe it to be saying that writers should "shut up and sit down."

I did not read that as being the intent at all. Rather, it seemed that the intent was to inject a bit of ethical behavior into the situation, rather than the Machiavellian machinations present upon the site under discussion.

Colleen said...

Bennett - I love you right back!! ha!

I'm fine with authors talking but what bothers me a bit about this is the purpose is to get teens talking about democracy/voting/the process, etc etc and yet....mostly it is just a big cheerleading site. Large-Hearted Boy has been running guest posts for months from folks on why they want to vote for Obama and I think that is very cool - he's not claiming to be anything else. But this site seems to have goals for one thing and yet be doing another. And the forums...go read the forums. The forum on Palin is full of a ton of falsehoods and I don't see any moderator stepping in there and setting everyone straight. People are writing about how they hate her - HATE HER.

And go see what happens when someone sticks up their head and claims to be pro-life. It's not pretty.

I guess my disappointment is I don't see anyone learning anything at this site and do see the spreading of a lot of bad information and, to be frank, a lot of junior high level dialog. The idea is good - but the execution is leaving me cold.

I guess I would have preferred a bunch of teen authors to take their popularity and use it in a broader way and personally yeah - I LOVE Obama. It just seems that you could talk him up without talking McCain/Palin (mostly Palin) down. (That's where I get into policy discussions.)

Maybe it will change and I certainly hope it does.

TadMack said...

Hey, Bennett, and everybody,
Thanks for stopping by.

I'm not sure I accused anyone of coercion, and I don't think I meant that everyone who's an author - or artist - should shut up and sit down. I know I'm a cautious person, but I'm not so cautious that I think writers should vanish or something. People also call it "fence sitting," when a person doesn't necessarily want to air their opinions publicly: I'm definitely not on any fence with regards to this election! I just want to put that out there, for the record.

I'm more remembering myself in high school. Some people -- probably the cool people like yourself ;) -- are really good at being self-determined and original. And then there's the rest of us, who are a little more (or a lot more) unformed, trying to figure out who or what we really think or believe.

What I was struggling to articulate was the fact that for some people, this sort of "bandwagon" approach really has the potential to be a negative experience. It all sounds really friendly and fun and "come join the fun people, the cool people, the right people," and there's no doubt that there are fun, cool, and right people and ideas involved here. But while it promises a shiny, inclusive experience, politics isn't a club, and the people asking you to join their team aren't really your friends. It all ends up kind of being a means to an end.

When I was teaching school, though I had political ideas, it would never have crossed my mind to share them with my students because in that sort of relationship, that just wouldn't be appropriate. I think maybe this comes down to how we view ourselves as YA writers. And, I'm willing to admit that maybe I'm taking myself too seriously, I've been known to do that. But, I'm not convinced...

I'm open to the idea that I might be misjudging this site, and as I've previously stated, I look forward to seeing how it all unfolds.

Again, thanks everyone for the discussion.

Bennett said...

dear logical thinker!

okay, so i probably shouldn't respond to this because it's going to take all afternoon and we're talking about some tricky ideas. but i will give it a try.

one thing I'd like to say first is that other than signing up for it, I've barely participated in YA for Obama so far and definitely don't represent anyone's opinions except my own.

let me also preface this by saying that my books and stories are not remotely political on the surface. i mean, you would have to dig pretty damn deep. so i am not coming at you from a Joan Baez kind of place.

With that being the case, I certainly don't think that an artist's sole purpose is political. If that were true, I myself would be SOL. But I do think that art and politics are on some level inextricable. Everything's political! Including YA chick lit mysteries with waterproof "beach read" covers!

Furthermore i really, really, one thousand percent don't think that "... the aim of an artist is to change the world through achieving a bit of fame so that they can have political leverage." That's a real misinterpretation. I'm by no means suggesting that writing is some kind of wedge to gain a platform for political speech. Instead, I'm saying that, to some extent, art and political speech are the same thing.

I think that the aim of an artist is just to speak. Art is saying what you mean. The goal is not fame or influence; the goal is just to say whatever you have to say. Whether or not anyone "should" listen or care about what I say is not really the point. People "should" do whatever the hell they want! The point, for me, is to say it. That's what an artist does. An artist says stuff. People can choose to listen or not listen.

As for the comparison to the role of art during the AIDS crisis: I'm not going to play around with the word "evil" because that is not taking the discussion anywhere productive. But do I believe this election is a matter of life or death? Sure. Among other things, there's a war going on out there. I don't want to get into a real political debate about the pros and cons of each candidate-- that can be done elsewhere-- so I'll just leave it at that.

It of course seems evident now that AIDS was an obvious menace in the '80s, but the truth is that there were many people who considered it to be literally a gift from God. So I don't think it was nearly as much of a clear case of right/wrong as you're remembering it. If it had been, there would have been no need for protest in the first place. The NIH would have been throwing money toward research. Everyone would have known it was something evil to be defeated. That's not how it went down. Instead, the problem was ignored until artists started screaming.

AIDS-era art was deeply political and deeply "partisan." (Hate that word, but whatever.) Reagan was held responsible by many for the crisis. In other words, artists weren't just protesting a disembodied "evil" disease. They were explicitly protesting Reagan and his policies. Does that mean Ronald Reagan is "evil?" Again I don't think that word is useful. (But I don't know that I would ask Larry Kramer that question.)

The point is that I think the parallel IS there. You see the world going down the tubes; you do what you can. A writer writes.

As for the (smaller) argument of strict policy discussion versus bringing more ineffable factors into the mix, I stand by my opinion that it matters. It's not a huge part of the equation, but it matters. The ability to unite people matters; the ability to rally people behind you matters. Is it the ONLY thing that matters? Clearly not (Ronald Reagan, hello again!) But at the same time: being a statesperson is pretty much undisputably in the PRESIDENT job description.

I feel like I've gone pretty far afield here going blow for blow, so I'll try to bring it back home:

Is voicing an opinion exerting undue influence only because our readers are teenagers? Well, if teenagers are such hothouse flowers-- so malleable and easily swayed that it's considered "Machiavellian" to express an opinion for fear that they might actually listen!-- then I'm in the wrong business to start with.

What about books that are themselves explicitly political? Is Grapes of Wrath, which everyone reads Sophomore year, going to turn everyone all commie? (Well, I suppose maybe it worked on me...) What about Wrinkle in Time, which was read in my school sixth grade? L'Engle deals with some pretty explosive ideas in that book.

If you're saying that those cases are different because they rise to the level of art, I can see your point to some extent. And I think Colleen raises some good points about the shortcomings that the YA for Obama site might have. (And anywya, I'm in enough "social networks" already, thanks!)

But I think creating some kind of distinction between storytelling and other kinds of writing is silly. Just because a person has published fiction doesn't mean that he or she can't or shouldn't write anything else.

TadMack is right this all does eventually circle back to what the role of a YA author is... that's something I've gotten into arguments with other YA writers about, and is therefore a topic for another day.

But to argue that by writing to our audience we are somehow engaging in sinister manipulation tactics is absurd. It's called speaking up.

(i hope this makes some kind of sense. it's been a long day.)

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Thanks for posting this, TadMack! I don't have anything new to add, but I do have misgivings over putting my name to anything these days that is a potential vehicle of misinformation. I've received emails from people whom I respect and love, about matters I agree with-- but the paragraphs used to support the matters aren't factually correct. I know how hard it is to get things right, but so much seems fueled by emotions first and fact-checking later. That's why I've been holding back on joining groups.

liquidambar said...

I've made a conscious choice not to blog about politics (at least, not the partisan politics of the election cycle; you could argue that other issues I do discuss, such as censorship, are political!). That's because I want to keep my blog's focus on the craft of writing.

But I don't have a problem with other writers expressing political views. I agree with Bennett that artists speak, and it's up to their audience to decide whether the speech is worth heeding. I don't think that just because a person (even a young person) has read an artist's book or bought his music that the artist's speech constitutes undue influence.

However, I do believe that responsible political speech focuses on transmitting facts and expressing opinions, not spreading misinformation.

And I want to clarify here that I haven't seen the YA for Obama site, and therefore I can't opine either way on that specific site; I just wanted to comment on the issue in general.

TadMack said...

Yay!
I woke up this morning hoping I wouldn't have to close comments on this, and I don't.

You guys rock the mature -- intelligent -- discussion/dispute model but very, very well. Thank you, mille grazie, danke, merci.

This is really mind opening. Appreciate it.

Laurel said...

I think this post is great, and I think the site seems pretty great too! I'm all for questioning everything...

I want to offer that celebs promote agendas all the time this way. As religious mission, to "rock the vote", as sex ed (or opposition to). I'm not certain I understand why its really any different when the support is for a single candidate.

I do think there's a responsibility, when you're famous, to be careful, to not spread gossip, to check your sources. You need to stand accountable when you're wrong, and answer for your position. But I don't think that celebrity takes away your right to promote an agenda.

I'm not famous, but if I were I'd still be a Jewish female democrat, a mother, wife, and American. I couldn't help wanting to speak as all of those people, and to use my influence to make the world a better place.

We can pick the site apart, but I don't think there's anything wrong with the idea of it. I blog about politics, and if my books should start to sell well, I wouldn't stop.

Maud Newton said...

The argument that an artist exerts "undue influence" over the public when he or she voices political opinions is as simplistic and inherently misguided as Neal Pollack's "shut the [redacted] up about the war, nobody gives a [redacted] what you think" argument, which infuriated me both times he made it.

An artist is as entitled as any other person to express political opinions. The fact that those opinions may be given greater deference by the public than someone else's is not the artist's problem and should not prevent him or her from voicing them. Besides, it doesn't always work that way. The artist who speaks out about convictions that don't jibe with those of his or her fan base actually runs the risk of career derailment. Consider, for example, the Dixie Chicks, who denounced the war only to find their songs banned by mainstream country stations, and a large sector of their core audience angry and alienated. (This may have been temporary; I haven't followed their trajectory since.)

Sure, neutral policy discussion and interviews with teenagers are good, and might be useful here, but impassioned and informed opinions about the candidates are important, too. And if the arguments on this site truly are, as someone suggested, reminiscent of hectoring lectures from parents, presumably teens will tune them out just the way they do would a father up on his soapbox.

I agree with Mr. Madison: Adolescents are not hothouse flowers. They are people with developing minds who in general prefer and deserve to be challenged rather than condescended to or coddled. Authors who feel compelled to speak their minds about the candidates should do so. Free speech is still, at least theoretically, one of the most basic promises of our democracy.

logical thinker said...

Maud, I completely agree: if what were being said were that an artist shouldn't voice an opinion, then there would be a problem. I think that you and bennett are missing the point, though, which is to consider what is going on at another site, and whether that other site is behaving in an ethical manner. It is not. The discussion begun here was in the hopes of exploring just why there is an ethical problem with that site. Those in favor of the site simply do not seem to be able to conceive of their behavior as wrong, probably because they are too invested in the political process, to the detriment of their readers.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, true, and to express that opinion.

Here's a parallel.

Consider a policeman coming to your house (in or out of uniform does not matter, because you know him to be a policeman). He knocks on your door, and says, in some very strong terms, that you need to trim your hedges into a different shape.

This should make you a bit uncomfortable. Why? Simply because he is in some position of authority, and he is expressing his opinion about something you need to do. Right there is the difference between simply expressing his opinion and exerting undue influence.

All of those who use their position in this way are abusing a trust.

TadMack said...

Hello, Again Everyone!
Thanks again for dropping by and making the random thoughts of one person into an interesting discussion.

I'm going to be annoying and close comments now, because ...well, because I can. Maureen Johnson posted a really interesting piece the other day further explaining her intentions with regard to YA for Obama, and you might enjoy reading it. I did. The essays posted by various authors are really thought-provoking, and there are tons of discussions to get involved with over there.

I'm not into arguing, and I actually kind of hate politics, and probably some of you think I'm a wuss and a fence-sitter, and I've heard other comments directed to those people who don't choose to make a huge stand about whatever. That's cool. One of the serious benefits of democracy is that everyone has the right to do it their way. So, this is mine: to listen, to observe, to think, and then to keep my own counsel.

Again, thanks, all. This has been really good.