Friday, September 21, 2012

The Ethical Consequences of Fiction

Occasionally, I write stuff that is immoral, dangerous, blasphemous, and grossly inappropriate. I turn off my internal editor as fully as I can during the drafting stage. It is often appalled at what it finds when it is put back online.

This is appropriate. If you stay within the safe zone and never address anything that might cause trouble, you will never find the limits of what you can do in terms of entertainment, influence, and art.

However, what you write carries consequences and a measure of responsibility. Rod Serling wrote a thriller, "The Doomsday Flight," about an airplane that carried a bomb with an altitude-sensitive trigger, and I understand he felt pangs of guilt when, to his surprise, someone actually carried out a similar plot in real life. On the other hand, the morons who put together the anti-Islam film "Innocence of Muslims" seem to have intended for it to be provocative.

It is up to your inner editor to wake up and think about the implications of whatever work you produce before you set it free in the world. This should go beyond whether it is simply legal. (I still shudder when I think of a man I met who was making money with a product that helped drunks pass breath tests.) It is good to think ahead of time of what your limits are and what questions you might need to ask.
  • Will the work amplify or justify bigotry and hatred?
  • Have you encouraged people to act in ways you believe are immoral or socially destructive?
  • Have you just supplied detailed information on how to build a weapon or commit a crime?
  • Have you exposed someone you know to ridicule or unfairly maligned an institution?
  • Have you falsified history in a way that will lead to harmful actions or decisions?
  • Have you distorted scientific knowledge or advocated choices that harm nature?
With all this said, the writer must balance the responsibility as a truthsayer with potential results and should not be silenced by what the most malicious or reckless among us might do. I heard that Robert Heinlein was so eaten up by the possibility that mass murderer Charlie Manson was inspired by his novel "Stranger in a Strange Land" that he hired an investigator to interview Manson in jail. (The report came back negative.) Though it is not my favorite book, I think it would be tragic if, because a madman read the work though a distorted lens, Heinlein's novel would have been suppressed.

What limits do you put on yourself when you edit? What questions do you ask?

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