Screwtape, Authenticity, and Politics

CC image by 
Dave Bleasdale

Smell that? That’s the hot, damp smell of politics—a general aura of sugary promises floating atop a current of six-day-old dead body, of spring cotton air freshener failing to mask the crap smell in the guest bathroom. Ah, ‘tis the season.

I bring up politics—as we at Embers rarely do—because a screenshot of a supposed excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters has been floating around Facebook, shared by folks wanting to warn others not to make politics their idol. I’ve included this screenshot for your reading pleasure.

screwtape-nonquote

The first time I read it on Facebook, I agreed with the sentiment, but thought “Huh, that doesn’t sound like Lewis.” It’s been years since I read any of The Screwtape Letters, and I didn’t read it in its entirety, so I’m no expert on the book itself. But the style of writing felt off to me, not “Lewisian” enough. At first I shrugged and kept scrolling through my news feed, but then it kept bugging me. Finally, someone commented on the quote that it’s in fact not from The Screwtape Letters. I went ahead and verified that the quote isn’t from Lewis myself, just to be sure.

Now, as the days have gone by, this falsified quote continues to bother me. I mean, really bother me. The person who wrote it probably did have good intentions, and it’s not as if they’re trying to make money off of the falsification. They didn’t say Lewis’ words were theirs, thereby plagiarizing, but said that their words were Lewis’. It’s not that serious then, right?

But it still irks me, and I believe there are two reasons why.

Number one, I’m a writer. Plagiarism is to me what snitching is to criminals, what foie gras is to a vegan, cussing is to a Christian publisher—it’s sacrilege. To say someone wrote something they did not, especially someone as influential and brilliant as Lewis, is an inverted kind of plagiarism. At its most basic, it’s lying. At its worst, its fraud. To me, it doesn’t matter that the words themselves have validity—their misattribution stains them. It’s as if the writer of the words didn’t think they had the authority to say them, so they claimed someone else’s, and that’s heartbreaking. But as much as this fraud and self-doubt bothers me, something else bothers me even more:

Number two, people on Facebook continue to share and like this post, adding text like “C.S. Lewis nailed it. Wise words.” They believe Lewis said it, no question. Because it’s on Facebook, people believe it’s true. They don’t question it because it aligns with how they currently feel about the election. Confirmation bias is a powerful thing, isn’t it? That’s how they’re already feeling, “Lewis” says something to support those existing feelings, and they jump at the opportunity to claim his authority to show the rightness of their beliefs. Like me, some of these people might have thought something felt off, but instead they ignored it. They believed the lie.

I urge you—writers, artists, humans—not to be tempted to do either of these things.

First, don’t think that your words don’t have authority because they belong to you rather than someone famous. The vast majority of writers all over the world are not famous, certainly not Lewis-famous. Their voices, like yours, are still just as valid. Strive for authenticity above all. If you’re so insecure that you try to sound like someone else, you’ll slowly die inside. When you write, write like you. It may take some playing and trying on different hats to figure out what that sounds like, and that’s fine. Just don’t get stuck in costume.

Second, in this festering, political garbage heap of an election year, we need more than ever to speak truth and to demand it of those running for office. We must not sink into the garbage, wading through waist-deep banana peels and soiled adult diapers with the hypocritical leaders of the day. We must think critically amidst the mass of information at our fingertips. Do not believe everything you hear, even if it’s exactly what you want to hear. Realize that it’s very possible that famous author didn’t say that quote, that politician never really did spend a year building schools in Africa, and that vanity press doesn’t love your writing, but rather loves that you’re paying them hand over fist to print your book.

Don’t sell yourself short, and don’t believe everything you read online.

By Madeleine Mozley