Monday, October 18, 2010

The Moral Responsibilities of Storytelling

I once had a fascinating discussion with a friend. We were talking about the effect of movies and television upon society. His point was that modern entertainment has an evil effect. People see evil things acted out upon their screens and imitate them. He believed there was a case for the viewpoint that the images we see in our entertainment need to be controlled for the good of society. I asked him if he was playing devil's advocate and he insisted he wasn't. It was a conversation that haunted me for years afterward.

This idea returned while I was reading An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England. In it, a judge considers the idea of good stories and morality. He asks, if a story compels somebody to do something terrible, can it be said to be a "good" story? Is it to be tolerated or legislated? Entertainment as societal evil is an idea rampant in our society. The effect of entertainment, especially the young, has been under media scrutiny at least since the 80's, when parents of suicidal teens claimed that heavy metal music was responsible for their children's deaths. It returned with renewed force ten years ago when violent video games like Doom were proclaimed to be partially responsible for the actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold when they murdered twelve students and each other at Columbine High School in 1999.

But the question is older than the 1980s, older than television and radio. It is present wherever stories are told. Consider the case of Swift Runner, a plains cree who succumbed to Wendigo psychosis in the winter of 1878. He butchered his family, hung their corpses from trees and ate them. Before he was executed, he claimed he was a Witiko. The legend of Witiko (Wendigo or Windigo), the evil spirit who possesses humans and makes them cannibals, was a part of his upbringing. If he had never heard the stories of Witiko, surely Swift Runner would never have killed and eaten his family.

Arguments are always strengthened by science, of course. What does science have to say? Much of the data are contradictory, but many studies, such as this one indicate that seeing fictional depictions of suicides on screen results in a significant jump in real-world suicides through imitation. There are many other scientific examples and many other evils.

This is what disturbed me about the conversation I had with my friend. Here I was, pursuing a career as a storyteller, whether on screen or the written page, and suddenly I was burdened with a new responsibility. Something that I lovingly craft for the enjoyment of others could result in violence, a murder or suicide. If something I wrote inspired even one murder anywhere in the world, how could I live with that? I tried to justify my career by merely ignoring the problem and denying what I had heard, but it didn't work. It made me sick and not want to write anymore. Either that or commit myself to writing stories about pixies leaping from toadstool to toadstool, drinking snapdragon nectar and being friends with each other.

If you too are a storyteller, take heart. Here's how I felt better about myself. As I pondered the morality of storytelling, I remembered that the interpretation of art is done by its audience. If a story has unforseen negative societal consequences, surely it must have unforseen positive consequences as well. For every teen who commits suicide because he imitated a fictional depiction, how many people who saw the same depiction were pushed from the brink of suicide by what they saw or were inspired to commit some act of kindness that saved somebody's life? For every evil your story inflicts upon the world, it is surely balanced by strengthening of spirits and kindly acts that the media rarely report upon.

Is this merely fanciful rationalization to make me feel better about myself? At its emotional core, yes. But check out this study, which shows the effect of fictional suicides on non-suicidal people. It shows a short-term increase in depression and tension, followed by a lasting increase in self-esteem and happiness. The rate of suicide also drops. Good enough for me.

Further, I believe the people who imitate the violence in stories are troubled individuals before they are inspired. They are primed explosives and any event or story may inspire them to violence. I believe that if Eric Harris, Dylan Kelbold and Swift Runner only had stories of merry pixies hopping about on toadstools to entertain them, they would probably have murdered people by drowning them in snapdragon nectar.

But this is not to say that I, as a storyteller, do not have a moral responsibility to society. While I cannot be held responsible for the ways in which my art is interpreted by individuals, there is still the matter of my intent. Every story or object d'arte should have a message or a moral. When I create, I always have a message in mind. I hide the moral so as not to be preachy, but it's there. It is my responsibily to live with the consequences of THOSE morals. If I craft a story that I feel advocates teen suicide when confronted with parental control, I must be prepared to deal with suicides that result. In this case, I'm not prepared, so I would never write that story.

And, as an artist, it is never too late to disavow an interpretation or even the moral of your own story if you change your mind. For instance, Radiohead reportedly became alarmed when they performed their song "Prove Yourself" and heard their teenage audience singing the lyric, "I'm better off dead". It was removed from their concert playlist.

What about artists who advocate evil stuff? If a storyteller purposefully embeds a violent message within a tale which inspires acts of brutality, should the storyteller be held legally responsible? Is it even possible?

It would be disastrous. There are few ways for the legal system to discern harmful intent from an unintended interpretation. It would require mind-reading and thought-policing. It's a recipe for witch-hunts and the punishment of innocent artists. It's best for the legal system to make the perpetrators of evil acts responsible for their actions and leave their artistic inspirations out of the equation. For now artists who advocate violence, rape and suicide are safe from the legal system. But that doesn't mean they're safe from their own consciences. If they have no consciences, that still leaves them vulnerable to societal criticism and WalMart and Blockbuster pulling their products off the shelves. I'm okay with that.

Lastly, there is a final aspect of the morality of storytelling to consider. I have often heard a criticism of modern entertainment which equates it with tranquilizer. It is usually levelled at television, film and video games. It goes something like this: modern entertainment keeps people at home, glued to their sets, forgetting about problems in the world, instead involving them in fictional conflicts. People forget about real problems facing the world, which allows the military-industrial complex, which controls the entertainment industry, to continue carrying out their corrupt political outrages worldwide.

Should this be a moral concern for storytellers? Bah, I say. Do people who argue this idea believe that if every single monitor, television and movie screen on earth vanished, the population would morph into brooding revolutionaries and democracy would be restored? If television disappeared, we would soon be hearing about how books are keeping people in the home, tranquilized. The vanishing of books would not work either: we would soon be hearing about sell-out corporate storytellers seducing us by the campfire.

Storytelling is escapism. But it is not forced upon us by fatcats. As humans we seek stories because we love them. Maybe we need them. They are a part of human evolution and have been with us before the written word, shaping our worldview for tens of thousands of years. Yes, it sometimes inspires madmen to murder and the depressed to kill themselves. But it also has spread knowledge, morals and happiness throughout the world. It has inspired countless selfless and kindly acts. It is one of humanity's most complicated and wonderful creations.

So follow your passion without moral hesitation, you creators. To entertain is truly noble.