Should ELT writers refuse to write for certain markets?

There is now a greater awareness of the need to write for specific groups of learners; this is the theme of the upcoming MaWSIG PCE in Brighton. However, Paul Davies explores here the ethical dilemma writers face when asked to compromise their principles by writing for certain markets.

Towards the end of 2017, Anna Muzychuk, a Ukrainian chess champion, refused to play at a tournament in Saudi Arabia in protest at the treatment of women in that country. By doing so, she surrendered two world titles as well as substantial earnings. She said it was a difficult decision but added, ‘I am ready to stand for my principles.’ Should more ELT writers adopt a similar stance and refuse to work in or write for countries that do not uphold what we regard as basic human rights? Would that be a sign of strong principle or Western arrogance? Would it be effective or futile? As ELT writers, I am sure we like to think of ourselves as ethical. However, when asked to compromise our principles in order to sell books into a particular market, we are more likely to squirm than speak out. (I am sure there are exceptions, but this seems to be the general rule at any rate and certainly reflects my own behaviour over the past two decades.) Why are we not more willing to take an ethical stand like Anna Muzychuk’s and refuse to participate?

‘It’s just my opinion’
We may be reluctant to take a moral stand out of deference. Most ELT writers have travelled widely, and we pride ourselves on a lack of insularity. We are sensitive to other cultures and their associated beliefs and, as a result, feel uncomfortable making moral pronouncements about them. We may not share their morals, but it feels virtuous to be tolerant of the differences. We may believe that it is always inappropriate to make moral judgments about the behaviour of people from cultures we do not belong to; or we may feel that the historical and ongoing sins of our own culture make it impossible to take the moral high ground.

The problem with this view is that I do not believe we really believe it. We might say, ‘I think discriminating against women is morally wrong, but that’s just my opinion.’ But the ‘just my opinion’ part of that sentence is disingenuous: by labelling something ‘morally wrong’ (as opposed to just distasteful) we imply that it falls short of an ethical standard that applies to others, not just ourselves. If we really think we do not share a moral framework with people from other cultures, how can we make any kind of moral judgement about their activities? And yet extreme cases clearly suggest that we do. When in 2010 Medine Memi, a 16-year-old Turkish girl, was buried alive by male members of her family for talking to a boy they disapproved of, they were acting in accordance with local tradition (though against national law) – and yet, the international community rightly responded with outrage.

In short, I do not think that being sensitive to cultural differences should lead to the conclusion that all moral judgements are entirely subjective, like tastes in ice cream. Our moral statements do have meaning and we are entitled to make them – and most of us act according to this assumption anyway. We cannot duck the ethical issue on the grounds that we are not entitled to judge.

‘If I don’t, somebody will’
Writers may feel that it is futile to refuse to write for a particular market on ethical grounds because the publisher will simply ask another writer to do it, so the refusal will have no practical impact. What is more, the refusal may alienate the publisher and harm future work prospects.  We might also make a slightly different argument: that it is the publishers who have the responsibility to make ethical decisions about which markets they are prepared to trade with. Even if we disapprove of their decisions, we are usually not in a position to change or even challenge them. By the time we receive our brief, the decision has been made.

However, both the arguments outlined in the previous paragraph strike me as weak. The first could be labelled the ‘arms dealer defence’ for reasons that are probably obvious. We might try to argue that our decision to write for a market we disapprove of is a purely commercial, not an ethical, decision. But in that instance, our decision to promote commercial over ethical concerns is in itself an ethical decision, whether we like it or not. We may feel it is a valid decision based on our financial obligations, but we should not fool ourselves about the nature of the decision we are making just so that we can feel better about it. The second argument is basically the ‘Nuremberg defence’ albeit in a more trivial context – a brief is a brief, rather than an order is an order. But deciding that you are going to follow instructions irrespective of your own ethical concerns is an ethical decision in its own right.

Engage, don’t boycott
Writers may genuinely believe that taking an ethical stand by refusing to write for a particular market is counter-productive. In politics, whenever the prospect of a political boycott arises – for example, South Africa in the Apartheid era – opinion tends to divide along tactical rather than ethical lines. Few people defend the actions of the target, but they might argue that by maintaining ties you allow yourself more opportunities to bring pressure for change. The role of friendly critic is pragmatically more likely to be effective than a boycott and allows us to encourage change from within. A similar argument can be made for ELT materials. Engagement is far more productive than isolation. Within every country, there are teachers who believe in the same principles that we believe in –  tolerance, equality, democracy, and so on – and we should be building trans-national communities with these individuals rather than shunning them.

This argument would perhaps have more force if we were reaching out to these teachers on the basis of our shared values – but usually, we are not. On the contrary, the material we write is tailored to appease the market. Where there is a clash of values, the compromises are all on our side. If there are teachers in Turkey – and there surely are – who abhor the anti-science policies that prohibit the mention of evolution in schoolbooks in their country, we do not offer them any solidarity because in effect, if not in our own minds, we have sided with the censors. The only way to make good our ambition to build communities is to continue writing for these markets but refuse to compromise on our values. That means losing some sales (in some markets, all sales) and almost certainly damaging our relationships with publishers and marketing teams.

To summarise, I am not arguing that as ELT writers we should necessarily refuse to write for or visit certain markets, but I am arguing that we should be more honest with ourselves about the decisions we are making. The old euphemism about ‘respecting market sensitivities’ is a cop-out. If we acquiesce to a publisher’s demands that we limit the role of women in our books in order to make them more acceptable to some Middle Eastern markets, we should at least be clear that we are prioritising our potential earnings at the expense of any ethical concerns we may have about equal rights for women. If we expunge all the Old Testament names, we are colluding with racism in order to maximise our earnings. If we agree to airbrush homosexuality out of the world we depict in our materials, we can hardly claim at the same time to care deeply about tolerance for diversity. Although this issue has certainly been discussed in various forums (for example, in the context of whether authors have certain ethical ‘red lines’ they will not cross) I do feel there is a tendency within the ELT writing community to focus on ethical concerns which allow us to feel better about ourselves – such as the largely non-controversial issue of gender stereotypes – while effectively ducking this far more uncomfortable dilemma.

Paul A Davies was born in Croydon but has lived in Oxfordshire for the past thirty years. He worked as a lexicographer and then an editor at OUP before leaving in 1998 to pursue a career in freelance writing. He has written Primary courses for OUP and Macmillan, as well as Secondary and Exams titles for OUP. His most recent publication is Solutions, which he co-authored with Tim Falla.

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3 responses to Should ELT writers refuse to write for certain markets?

  1. James Styring 27 March 2018 at 5:19 pm #

    Interesting and thought-provoking post, Paul. I have adapted a lower-secondary course I wrote for Latin America for KSA (as they call it). Of course we all questioned the ethics of changing scenarios so that boys and girls were never portrayed alongside each other, but we did do it on the ‘engage, don’t boycott’ premise. Or was it a pretext? You are not going to engage very deeply by segregating boys and girls. On the other hand, many values would have slipped through in the material and portrayed a more liberal world than that in which the students live. Perhaps we left in too much of the liberal West: the course was never adopted by the Ministry.
    I also did some teacher training, for a large group of primary school teachers all working for a big chain school. Not one of them was Saudi – they all came from neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan. I guess they would have brought with them slightly less stringent values from their home countries. Certainly, nothing I said interested them much. I took the job out of curiosity as I knew I’d never ever visit otherwise. I filed it under ‘exotic tourism’.

  2. Tyson Seburn 4 May 2018 at 3:30 pm #

    Very, very good post. It’s important to own your decisions and reflect on them.

  3. Adrian Tennant 21 May 2018 at 8:04 pm #

    Interesting post, Paul, but I think you oversimplify the issues.
    Firstly, where do the majority of people get their information – from the media, or (worse) from social media.
    Secondly, does boycotting or disengaging help change happen? I’m not sure, but working in a lot of places like the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa I’ve seen a lot of changes take place because of engagement and awareness.
    When I first started working in KSA (around 15 years ago) I never got to meet Saudi women. Then, around five os so years ago I actually started working in Women’s’ Universities.
    Then there’s the issue of ‘do I agree with the way countries in the West do things?’ Can I say I don’t want my books sold in France because I don’t agree with the banning of the Burka? Or in the US because I don’t agree with the gun laws?
    Finally, if we are about education should we punish learners for the policies of their governments? I once worked in the West Bank (with Palestinians) and then in Tel Aviv on the same trip. Leaving Israel was a nightmare as the security at the airport couldn’t understand why anyone would work in both places. My response was ‘I work with teachers, not with governments.’

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