"Shut Up and Sing" - A Guide to Why Those in the Humanities Will Not Be Silent
This post is not overtly political. I am not asking anyone to believe what I believe, vote the way I vote, or agree with everything I think. Rather, this post is about the free expression of deeply held beliefs and values and why creative people, especially, are generally not able to remain silent even when others fervently wish they would.
Over the past several weeks I have noticed "unlikes" on my Facebook page, and was even taken to task by a follower on my Instagram page after posting quotes, images, or other content that even subtly reflected how I am feeling these days about what is happening in our country and our world. With each of these posts I have netted more followers than I have lost, but that is actually irrelevant. If something I post offends anyone, I am actually very comfortable with that person leaving my online community, because no artisan, no business, no community is the right fit for everyone.
It is not my intent to offend, and in my view, none of my posts are offensive. People who interact with me in person, especially, know that I go out of my way to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable in my home and at the Parris House Wool Works studio, both of which happen to be under the same roof. I have a friend who is a musician. He is not shy about his values and convictions, and sometimes expresses these in public or on his social media sites. As a result, some people find it appropriate to tell him to "shut up and sing." I have other friends with creative businesses that are often in the public eye. On the rare occasion they post something "controversial," invariably there are comments pleading with them to "stick to business" or "don't get political, just tell us about what you're selling." I recently had an artisan instructor tell us at the beginning of her workshop, "I apologize, but I wear my politics on my sleeve." I immediately responded with, "Don't apologize. We need people like you."
Outside of my own circle, I still see this every day. People don't want actors and celebrities to use their platform to speak of anything that matters - so deeply and at such a core level - to them. People feel uncomfortable in the art museum when confronted with images that challenge their world view, and judge the artist harshly. College professors are starting to feel pressure to censor themselves just in case some of their course content is "offensive." Religious leaders are asked to moderate their messages in churches, synagogues, mosques, et al, even though the founders of the world's great religions were by far not people who wanted everyone to be comfortable in their views; indeed, they wanted people to question their views and discern truth. It is all around us: people desiring to speak out and others wishing those same people would just shut up already.
For many people, especially artisans, creatives, artists, and people in the humanities, silence is simply not possible, nor should it be desirable for the rest of us. It is also not possible for many scientists, engineers, and others in STEM fields to remain silent, but for the purpose of this post, I'm speaking of people in the humanities. Most people do not go in to the arts or humanities to become rich or famous. Some people do achieve wealth and fame in these fields, but it is a minority. I love seeing people become rich and famous in these endeavors; it's well deserved, but I think it's rarely the goal. I believe that most people who go in to the arts/humanities do so because they have something to say, something that comes from a place very central to who they are and from which they can not be separated. This applies to many entrepreneurs as well, who have sought to create something independently because through their venture they too have something to say, something they want to offer to the world, something that matters intensely to them.
Again, here is the critical point to understand about creatives: what they do can not be separated from who they are. Asking them to deny that fundamental fact of their humanity by asking them to remain silent is not only unfair and cruel to them, it robs us of their perspective and insight. Worse, it objectifies them. When we tell a musician to "shut up and sing," what we are really saying to that person is this: "You are an instrument for my entertainment. The fire inside of you that creates the art I find beautiful enough to pay for and follow is only acceptable when it is channeled in a way that I agree with." When we tell entrepreneurs and artisans to only talk about their products, we are saying, "I'm not interested in who you are or what you think, even though you've created these beautiful things for me and for the world from that very place within you that wants - needs - to express itself." We are asking that artist or business person to cut themselves up and only hand us the pieces that we find useful, that don't offend us, that don't challenge us to view something from another perspective.
People with something to say are gifts to us, whether we agree with them or not. Throughout history, our artists and creatives have often acted as our collective moral compass, willing to point out that our emperors are naked. They have also been the metaphorical canaries in the coal mine, often ahead of most of us in sensing threats to liberty and instances of injustice. They rattle our comfort zones, and even if we disagree with them vehemently, they exercise and test our ability (or inability) to defend our own positions.
Whether it's my page or anyone else's, feel free to engage in constructive debate and discussion, or even feel free to "unlike" or "unfollow," but please, don't say "shut up and sing" or its situational equivalent. The people who make our art, music, poetry, literature, and who start the creative businesses that inspire us are complex, driven, deeply thinking and feeling human beings. When we seek to silence them or reduce them to whatever we see as their "primary function," we diminish ourselves. Get out there and express yourself, as only you can.
- Elizabeth Miller