Note: Apologies to anyone who was expecting a new post yesterday. New content will be posted every Tuesday going forward.
How to negotiate personal politics with workplace demands
I don’t think a writer, or anyone else, should have to sacrifice their values for the sake of making money. Writers should not have to write about things they don’t believe in. I certainly don’t want that in my career. Sure, you could call me a naïve idealist, but then I’d just call you a cynical pessimist and we’d be back to square one. I know that reconciling my personal politics with the demands of the workplace will be a constant process, particularly as a writer, but I think a mix of critical job selection and on-the-job pragmatism is the best starting point for making a living by doing the right thing.
Writing is about expressing ideas; it’s about translating the thoughts in your head into a language and medium that others can understand and engage with. It’s inherently personal, and so there is always a potential for conflict when it is given professional requirements.
The biggest difference between writing personally and professionally is the audience, its quality and quantity. You can afford to be wordy, self-indulgent, and incoherent when writing for yourself. When writing for the public, for your organization’s board of directors, for an angry mob of parents, or for your school program’s blog, you need to be mindful and generous. You need to make sacrifices and negotiate. You need to package ideas in a way that appeases the audience and also allows you to make your point. As much as writing is about getting your own ideas on paper, it is also about communicating those ideas to others. As much as writing is inherently personal, it is also inherently about compromise.
The degree to which a professional writer has freedom in their workplace to write as truly to their values as possible depends on the workplace they choose. The best starting point is to stay away from organizations, businesses, and institutions that clash with your values. This is easier said than done when young people like me, with very little work experience, do not have much freedom of choice in today’s economy. Beggars can’t be choosers, and unfortunately young people are begging in the current job market.
Another strategy is to be pragmatic: make the best out of whatever situation you are given. Earlier this school year, I learned a lesson about thinking of my audience when writing. I wanted to write something about the Ontario government’s new sex education curriculum and the controversy surrounding it. It’s a topic that I have a lot of personal feelings and some knowledge about. I started writing a “parent’s guide” to the new curriculum, the idea being that I would try to counter some of the hysteria and misinformation about the changes to try to persuade parents who are hostile to the new curriculum.
Audiences matter. I learned that hostile audiences, like these angry parents, need to be spoken to with a mix of sympathy and directness. As tempting as it would have been to say “you’re all ignorant. Just read the actual curriculum instead of the Toronto Sun and we’ll all be better off,” that would not have had the desired effect. That might have alienated my audience even more and further contributed to misinformation and hysteria. Sometimes you have to sacrifice your own ideas for the sake of the desired outcome. Writing has to be a means, not simply an end in itself. This has taken some to get through my head, particularly right after four years of history and philosophy in university.
The parent’s guide assignment taught me that different groups of people need to be persuaded in different ways, and that different means of persuasion require a writer to present ideas in different and often contradictory ways. Parent critics of the sex ed curriculum are generally conservative and not in agreement with progressive views on gender, sexuality, or with the very existence of LGBTQ people. As a queer person, I am aware of the positive effect this new curriculum will have for LGBTQ individuals, but I knew that that would not be a selling point for these parents.
I emphasized that the curriculum wasn’t radical at all, but rather unthreatening, presenting little change. Of course the curriculum was presenting much change, and that’s why I believe in it, but that wasn’t the point. My personal views on sex and gender might be considered radical, but I knew that persuading these parents was more likely to have a positive influence than being honest about what I thought. It was more important and useful in that moment to persuade critics than to have my two cents broadcasted.
So, when I say “be pragmatic in the workplace,” I also mean “think of the big picture.” The job of a communicator or professional writer would not be so difficult and important if everyone in the world agreed on everything. No amount of knowledge that you have on a topic will save you from having to meet your critics half way, regardless of how wrong they are (unfortunately).
The most important point to keep in mind is that your job does not have to be the be-all and end-all of your moral and political compass. Yes, of course it is good to not be a hypocrite, and I will return to that idea in a moment. It is good to practice what you preach, but it is also important to make a living, live healthily and happily. The way you make your living does not have to be the way you make your largest or most meaningful social impact. One can always volunteer, donate, and work part-time for important causes. A tremendous amount of privilege is contained in the assumption that we should all love what we do and do what we love. And often enough that same idea is used as a self-congratulatory justification for the pursuit of our passions regardless of their consequences.
The job that pays well, allows you to write about whatever you want, and improves society does not exist. You can never write about whatever you want. You always have to write with a purpose and audience in mind. As for those other two criteria, “pays well” and “improves society,” this is where subjective definitions come into play. Those two criteria need not be mutually-exclusive, but unfortunately often are. This is why the controversial phrase “selling out” exists. The point here is that each individual will be forced to balance this aspect, between doing the right thing and getting paid, for themselves, and probably on a case by case basis, as opposed to with some sort of universal formula.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m some sort of professional writing angel. When a writer hints at morality and “doing the right thing,” she or he always runs the risk of seeming hypocritical. As I’ve said, it isn’t easy for young people to get good jobs right now, particularly in professional fields that exist for the sake of making positive changes to society like non-profits, charities, and community and social justice organizations. I also get that people need to pay the bills.
One of my first writing jobs was doing social media, web content, and blogs for a real estate agent. “Five DIY home improvement tips you never knew!” Lots of fluff and listicles. It was what it was. The writing didn’t really conflict with my values; I wasn’t put in a position where I had to say things I didn’t believe. It was just all sort of meaningless. There was no redeeming quality. It was just content for the sake of content. I wouldn’t take another job like that. I’m fine with dialing down my true beliefs, even being a little dishonest, if I believe there is some greater social good. But, this real estate job required the worst of both worlds: dumbed down content with no capacity for social improvement.
I have been using words like “meaningful social impact,” “social improvement,” and so on, rather broadly. I also define them rather loosely: any writing job that has civic, social, public, humanitarian, or global merit. That could mean being part of the city’s waste management communications team to doing social media for a community centre. It could mean writing a technical manual for a new piece of eco-friendly technology.
Writing is a practice that involves a kind of paradox: it is primarily a means of articulation for oneself, but also a means of communication to others. This manifests in the break between personal and professional writing. Professional writers and communicators are forced to reconcile their personal beliefs and ideas with those of their workplace. The way these ideas are communicated must also be informed by the goal of the writing and its specific audience. None of this means that a writer should be expected to go against their values.
Don’t take a job at a place whose work you disagree with. If you have little choice available to you, remember that the way you make your living does not have to be a crystallization of everything you stand for politically and morally. It can be “just a way to pay the bills.” It is also important to be pragmatic regardless of where you find yourself professionally. At any job, you will likely have some freedom to put forth your own ideas, or at least to frame those of your organization in a particular way. Always remember the effect you want to have in your writing, think of the big picture, and if all else fails you’ll always have yourself to write for.