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The Art of Social Commentary

Why Charles Dickens should be our social commentary muse

Published on:
May 10, 2017
Read time:
4 min.
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Please, sir, I want some more.” These are the famous words of the hungry orphan, Oliver Twist. The novel, so named after the main character, is one of Dickens most popular, and if you don’t know anything about the novel, you have probably still heard those words.

But beyond simply writing and creating a great story around Oliver Twist, Dickens created him for a purpose beyond the page of a book. Twist became a form of social commentary.

The original Twitter rant was a novel.

Born in the tumultuous period known as the Age of Reform, Dickens witnessed social issues emerge from the upheaval of England’s rapid industrialization. In response, he wielded his pen for the underprivileged and oppressed in Victorian England.

Where Dickens wielded a pen, today we wield a smartphone.

Specifically, in Oliver Twist, he highlighted London’s criminal world, the conditions of England’s slums, and child abuse—child abuse being a continued theme for Dickens.

Dickens abhorred the foul treatment of any child and wrote about it over and over again in his novels. One of his most popular, A Christmas Carol, shows his heart for the vulnerable children of his day. According to one source, “A Christmas Carol was Dickens’s response to the Children’s Employment Commission Report on the miseries suffered by many poor children.”

Yet A Christmas Carol doesn’t only talk about child abuse. Through the curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens also highlighted the selfishness and greed of England’s privileged, who he felt bore a social responsibility for the poor among them. Lord Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh Review, said this about Dickens’s Christmas story.

You may be sure you have done more good by this little publication, fostered more kindly feelings, and prompted more positive acts of beneficence, than can be traced to all the pulpits and confessionals in Christendom.

Nowadays, you don’t need to write a novel in order to give any sort of social critique. All you have to do is turn on your smartphone. Want to share your opinion? Grab your phone and let your thumbs do the work. Tweet a hashtag or join a discussion thread. After all, it only takes 140 characters. Where Dickens wielded a pen, today we wield a smartphone.

Our smartphones have done some good.

Now we might be oversaturated in social commentary, which certainly has its pitfalls. But this saturation also provides some opportunities for us.

With the rise of the internet and social media came one of the biggest blows to elitism. The battle between high and low culture, elite and ordinary, standard makers and standard breakers has been an ongoing battle in American culture with the lines between high and low culture growing more blurry by the minute.

Neal Gabler from The Guardian wrote,

It is certainly no secret that the internet has eroded the authority of traditional critics and substituted Everyman opinion on blogs, websites, even on Facebook and Twitter where one’s friends and neighbours get to sound off. . . . authority has migrated from critics to ordinary folks, and there is nothing—not collusion or singleness of purpose or torrents of publicity—that the traditional critics can do about it.

Now that everyone has a platform for criticism, we have lost sight of what makes a true critic today.

Depending on your perspective, this could be seen as either a travesty or a victory. Granted, we have a greater need for discernment since anyone with a blog or social media account might consider themselves an authority on something they’re unqualified to talk about.

But the opportunities for engagement are greater than ever before, especially for oft-neglected voices in society. Social awareness and social movements have been established through a hashtag. Facebook and YouTube have made it easier and quicker to show daily reality for many under-served communities.

Dickens used his writing and philanthropy to speak for the underprivileged of his day. He gave a voice to those who had none. Today, many voices have the opportunity to speak for themselves on the internet.

But with so many voices vying for our attention, the internet made it easy to tuck ourselves into our own niche world. According to non-profit journalist and author Tony Reinke, our smartphones are a gateway to an ever-increasing polarization.

In seeking to surround ourselves online with people who think like us, or share our socio-economic place in the world, it can be impossible for our voices to even reach the unconvinced. And in those rare times that we do, the nature of social media can spark an immediately polarized response that will not find ways of talking through disagreements.

Reinke uses the undercover video work done by the Center for Medical Progress as a powerful contemporary example. Over the course of two years, their most popular video, “Planned Parenthood Uses Partial-Birth Abortions to Sell Baby Parts,” has generated 3.3 million YouTube views. Saturday Night Live accumulates the same amount in a weekend with a skit featuring Alec Baldwin as President Trump. Rather than appealing to people of differing perspectives, Reinke explains that the CMP videos have mostly fed “the angst of the anti-abortion crowd.”

Art vs. Propaganda

For me, the difference in impact between an SNL Trump skit and the CMP videos is art. A comedic skit has greater cultural appeal than the raw footage of an undercover video. Dickens understood this as well.

We lean on boycotts, protests, and screaming through megaphones, but find ourselves lacking in artful excellence.

Rather than dryly state the facts of injustice surrounding him, he cloaked them in fantasy. He used the appeal of characters, plot, setting, and descriptions. He used story, and thereby appealed to human emotion and experience. We can’t say with certainty how many views Dickens would get on YouTube today, but we do know his art has stood the test of time.

As Christians, maybe we are coming at this all wrong. We lean on boycotts, protests, and screaming through megaphones, but find ourselves lacking in artful excellence.

We underestimate the power of art in our witness. While we can’t force change on a culture, we can make Christianity more appealing through the lives we live and the art we create. Rather than simply pitting ourselves against the world, we should labor to make Christ’s invitation desirable and beautiful.

Liz Wann
Liz Wann is a freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two sons. She is Editor-in-Chief at MorningbyMorning.org and regularly contributes to Desiring God, Think Christian, and Christ and Pop Culture. You can find more of writing at lizwann.com and follow her on Twitter @liz_wann.

Cover image by Roya Ann Miller.

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