On August 16, 2020, Kasie and Rex took on the idea that writers have a moral imperative to portray socially acceptable behavior, norms, and rules. Here are the show notes:
Theme for the day
The Artist’s Moral Obligation
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- The tradition of moral plays and art as moral instructor
- Pornography and objectionable content challenge free speech
- Should authors occupy a moral position?
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We started August with a conversation about literary citizenship and then dug deeper into the idea of author branding and whether you control your brand or whether it emerges through your written work. This week we’re taking on the idea, however archaic, that art is an instrument of social education.
Everything applies: from morality plays to rape culture, we are what we watch or are we watching what we are? Does art hold up the mirror and show us what we really look like? Or does art perpetuate myths and fantasies?
So let’s go back to the beginning:
Morality plays — before people could read, there was oral storytelling and the interaction of those stories was morality plays. Says Wikipedia: “Morality plays are a type of allegory in which the protagonist is met by personifications of various moral attributes who try to prompt them to choose a good life over one of evil. The plays were most popular in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries.”
These weren’t the earliest, of course, the earliest were so-called “mystery plays” from the medieval period which meant to teach people the answers to the questions related to faith, morality, meaning of life, etc.
Let’s not take it for granted that we are in an era now where “Self Actualization” is a real pursuit for some people. For centuries, the earlier (and more essential) levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs were dominant.
If food, shelter, and warmth; or security and safety are your primary objectives (and they were for many, many societies), you cannot be bothered with things like “achieving one’s own potential.” So, that said, “mystery plays may have played to the third level, the belongingness and love, in terms of explaining who God is and how we (as humans) interact with said God. More likely, though, these morality constructs were about explaining lawful behavior that would enable people to live with one another in a secure or safe (ish) environment.
How much of our literature / art / storytelling is dedicated to the establishment of law, hierarchy, or “right behavior” now in the pursuit of a lawful or domesticated or civilized society these days?
This argument in The Atlantic says that we may be judging work by the wrong criteria, the wrong standards:
“…those of us who care about serious fiction are drastically marginal in the culture in which we live. When we talk about the moral aspect of fiction—that is, its concern with questions of right and wrong—we should be very modest indeed about assuming that such an aspect has a connection to behavior.”
Is fiction effective because it is widely read?
Because it teaches us something?
Shows us a different perspective?
How do we determine the impact of literature? If we ever really can at all?
Do we choose beauty over truth? Does bad art create bad morals?
Can we “inflict” our own morals on the writing of those societies that came before ours? (link)
Because, here’s the thing, while we may not have a moral imperative to teach others how to behave, we are working within the framework of our culture. We are representing that culture — what it will accept and what it won’t — for those generations who come after us. And saying things like, “it was different then,” and “we didn’t call it that,” does not relieve us of the blame for perpetuating what we’re writing as “normal” or “acceptable.”
What role do writers have in determining the things we are willing to accept? To put up with? How do writers shape the perceptions we have of one another? Of relationships? Of hierarchy and power?
The “morality clause” and the implications for authors’ personal / professional / private lives and the “product” they are producing.
This article suggests an author’s personal behavior could put at risk his/her professional prospects. Is that okay?
So now we’re talking about writers who create something — maybe even something moral and good and acceptable and likeable — and are then shown to be less moral in their real life. Or, the reverse which is — what started this whole conversation — that as writers we are seen as supporting the acts we describe. Whether they are violent, deviant, sexual, or otherwise.
Are writers telling stories as they see them — like journalists are said to do? Or are they packaging them for a specific purpose? And, if it’s the latter, should that purpose be identified?
Alternatively, are we innocent in the way readers interpret our stories? I.e. it’s not our fault that people read our story to be promoting this or that morally questionable behavior?
So much to dig into here.
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