Borders in Fiction Writing:
Some Works of Fiction Deserve to Be Banned?
Rumor has it that Pope Benedict XVI has criticized the “Harry Potter” books as being conducive to poor ethical decision-making and to a confusion between the forces of good and the forces of evil. I did not find the specific reference on the
friends, is where the true requirements of Christian culture dwell.
This marvelous creation of man can flow only from contemplating
the mystery of Christ and from listening to his word, put into
practice with total sincerity and unreserved commitment, following
the example of the Virgin Mary. Faith frees thought and opens new
horizons to the language of poetry and literature, to philosophy,
to theology, and to other forms of creativity proper to the human
called to develop and to promote this culture: some of you will
attend to dialogue with nonbelievers, while others will search for
new expressions of Christian life, all through a more vigorous
cultural presence of the Church in this world which is seeking
beauty and truth, unity and love (John Paul II).
Thus, as he
[Dante] based the whole structure of his poem on these sound
religious principles, no wonder that we find in it a treasure of
Catholic teaching; not only, that is, essence of Christian
philosophy and theology, but the compendium of the divine laws which
should govern the constitution and administration of States; for
Dante Alighieri was not a man to maintain, for the purpose of
giving greater glory to country or pleasure to ruler, that the State
may neglect justice and right which he knew well to be the main
foundation of civil nations (Benedict XV).
Many parts of Dante’s Divina
Commedia strike me as sadism in hyper-drive, but the
Other churches do likewise.
On his web-page, John Mark Ockerblum reports various
attempts on the part of the
Another source of challenging the ethically sound nature of books
comes from the US-American commonsense view.
We are experiencing one such attack in local schools now. The
novel “Cracking India” is on the reading list of the
International Baccalaureate program in neighboring community DeLand.
Some local parents are challenging the book as sexually too
explicit for high-school students.
And here we have another pattern, it seems.
Ockerblum reviews censored books in the
The US-American culture appears to be a euphemistic culture. Any bodily processes appear to be off limits. This tendency has also given rise to a very simple-minded notion of ethics, one that seems to be concerned almost exclusively with the improper use of the human genitalia and not with any larger concerns about unfair and inhumane treatment of others. An impeachment process for a president’s dalliance with an intern is in stark contrast to the general acquiescence in another president’s egregious support of torture, unjust warfare, and insensitivity to the plight of the poor. All this appears to point to a confused sense of ethics on the part of this culture.
Even comic books have been challenged on the basis of this simplistic notion of ethics. The web-site of Devin D. O’Leary gives an account of banning comic books. He records most recent objections in the 90’s, the objections being generally based on obscene and sexually inappropriate materials. The Comic Books Legal Defense Fund asserts itself for writers so accused (O’Leary).
Associated Press reported on October 22, 2005, that the Parents Television Council criticized TV shows of Fox TV:
The group’s president, L. Brent Bozell,
said he was alarmed that the three Fox Sunday night comedies are
being marketed as family friendly.
“Families should not be deceived,” he said.
“The top three worst shows all contain crude and raunchy
dialog with sex-themed jokes and foul language.
Even worse is the fact that
Some zealous school boards also have removed ethically
questionable books from the school’s library.
In Board of Education vs. Pico, the school board had
removed, i.a., a copy of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”
and several other books because they contained indecent matter,
vulgarity, sexual behavior—some perverse—and disparaging remarks
about Blacks, Jews, or Christ.—One should perhaps remind the
school board of Tacitus’ statement: “'Deorum injuriae Diis curae.'
[The injuries done to the gods are the gods' concern.]” We really
do not have to look out for Christ’s or God’s interests;
presumably, they are powerful enough to take care of their own
interests.—The case charged that the school board used personal
moral, social, and political values in removing the books.
The attorney for the school board argues that that precisely
is the school board’s job to do.
While universities are to be in the “free marketplace of
ideas,” public schools should teach—that is: drill—the local
culture (US Supreme Court).
Some zealous school boards also have removed ethically questionable books from the school’s library. In Board of Education vs. Pico, the school board had removed, i.a., a copy of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and several other books because they contained indecent matter, vulgarity, sexual behavior—some perverse—and disparaging remarks about Blacks, Jews, or Christ.—One should perhaps remind the school board of Tacitus’ statement: “'Deorum injuriae Diis curae.' [The injuries done to the gods are the gods' concern.]” We really do not have to look out for Christ’s or God’s interests; presumably, they are powerful enough to take care of their own interests.—The case charged that the school board used personal moral, social, and political values in removing the books. The attorney for the school board argues that that precisely is the school board’s job to do. While universities are to be in the “free marketplace of ideas,” public schools should teach—that is: drill—the local culture (US Supreme Court).
The American Library Association’s web-site offers no guidelines; it seems committed to a very resolute relativism. The site suggests:
Decisions about what materials are suitable
for particular children should be made by the people who know them
best—their parents or guardians.
Children mature at different rates. They
have different backgrounds and interests. And they have different
reading levels and abilities. For instance, a video that one
10-year-old likes may not interest another. Or parents may feel a
particular library book is inappropriate for their daughter, while
the same book may be a favorite of her classmate’s family. These
factors make it impossible for librarians to set any criteria for
restricting use based on age alone. To do so would keep others who
want and need materials from having access to them.
Like adults, children and teenagers have the
right to seek and receive the information that they choose. It is
the right and responsibility of parents to guide their own
family’s library use while allowing other parents to do the same.
Librarians are not authorized to act as
parents. But they are happy to provide suggestions and guidance to
parents and youngsters at any time (American Library Association).
In other words, the
I want to offer some slightly more solid guidelines for considering a work of fiction unethical. I would want to point out that something is unethical if it causes harm of some sort. For a piece of fiction to be unethical, it must produce more harm than good. In debates about the ethics of permitting the reading of certain books, this one consideration appears to be largely absent. And yet, I would think that any complaint about an “unethical” book should also have the onus of establishing what harm may come from such a book. The harms principle is largely tacit in such attacks. The attacker seems to make the assumption that the harm is in some subtle way obvious to all who might hear about the attacker’s attempt to remove the literary work and so does not step up to this essential challenge.
Some of you may have seen the film “What the
Bleep Do We Know?” The
film was quite popular with my students.
In other words, the film was very well situated to influence
some young minds. I have
no problem with the film in the context of my class because I was
able to discuss the ideas with my students to offer varying views,
but the film was actually not quite ethical.
An article about the film in Wikipedia says:
Critics have voiced concerns that the film selectively presents favorable
information while ignoring contradictory information and
misrepresents the current consensus understanding on the underlying
science, all with the aim of furthering a particular viewpoint which
can be variously described as spiritual, mystical or "New
Age-y." There are
allegations of extensive connections of the filmmakers and a number
of those the film presents as experts to the Ramtha organization.
Three of the film's directors are students of Ramtha's
home page of the Ramtha movement, describes the miraculous origin of
JZ Knight as follows:
JZ Knight, founder of Ramtha's
think that the passage indicates the trend sufficiently.
This story of origin is unlikely to make the movement part of
some central inquiry on the part of the scientific or philosophical
community. The pattern
itself is not unlike the early histories of many a religious
founder, replete with witnessing and early wondrous insights and
strange miracles. The
guiding spirit, Ramtha, leads further to Atlantis, Lemuria, and epic
battles between Atlantians and Lemurians.
This is the stuff that J.R.R. Tolkien’s books are made of.
But they announce themselves as fantasy, removed from the
everyday world of our reality. JZ
Knight does not claim to tell fantasies; she claims the fantasy as
part of reality. Therein
lies the ethical transgression.
also found the allusion to Hado quite untenable.
The web-site of Hado suggests that one Dr. Emoto studies the
energy of consciousness as water.
He suggests that water crystals assume certain shapes on the
basis of psychological energies directed to the water. And so, for a
small fee of course, one can order sundry psychically treated forms
of water from Dr. Emoto’s web-site.
I have not heard of any such research elsewhere, and I have
no evidence—nor does the film give any evidence—of Dr. Emoto’s
research’s being part of the ongoing dialog of the scientific
community. In fact, the
Hado web-site appears the only one even remotely concerned with this
tremendous scientific breakthrough.
disturbs me about the film’s advocacy here is less the endorsement
of blatant commercialism as its failure to point out the sources for
and to actually articulate variant points of view.
Let me formulate this is as the principle of credibility or a
principle of verisimilitude. I
would think that if a work of fiction plays with reality in such a
way as to obscure it for the average mind, then it has transgressed
against that principle, which I would see as a principle of ethics,
particularly where the creative mind may reasonably be expected to
know better. A very good
example of such a transgression is “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,”
another very recent film.
film claims that it is based on a true story.
Of course, those who have had the patience to sit through the
credits will also read that the film is fictitious and that any
similarity to persons dead or alive is purely accidental. Go figure.
The original “possessed” person was one Anneliese Michel.
She had had a long history of epilepsy that culminated in
abusive treatment by way of the very simplistic parents and the
collaboration of the Catholic church, including Josef Stangl, Bishop
of Würzburg, and Pastors Ernst Alt and Arnold Renz, who attempted
to effect changes by way of an exorcism (Steffko).
Jill Steffko’s essay also reports that this series of
events happened in 1975, shortly after the release of the original
“The Exorcist.” Parents
and exorcists were sentenced to jail for negligence and for failing
to provide medical treatment. The
confinement’s being converted to probation does not exonerate the
accused; it merely attests to the general quite rational and
non-vindictive leniency on the part of German courts and German
criminal law that does try to distinguish between malice and sincere
work of fiction, the film—that is, claimed to be based on a real
occurrence, but those incidences—the one depicted by the film and
the one that occurred in real life—are too widely apart to make
any such claim. And I
submit that the screenwriters knew precisely that they were too far
removed to claim verisimilitude here at all.
I would not argue that people do not have a right to silly,
macabre, and downright delusional entertainment; however, where the
screenwriter writes self-contradictory statements to trap the weak
of mind, s/he crosses ethical borders.
Even the first “The Exorcist” crossed such borders.
We saw evidence of that when the simple-minded attempted to
distribute pamphlets about the reality of the devil and the need to
get right with God at the exits of the theaters back then in the
Michel was from Klingenburg in
film did not stay true to the original story although that was one
that was macabre enough in itself.
Strange apparitions, unlikely incidents, an entirely
different collection of characters, and a different judicial
sentence reshaped the original into a confirmation of superstitious
religion. Such attempts
dupe the gullible and thus are ethically simply seriously wrong.
verisimilitude criterion need not eliminate fantasy or science
fiction. What I mean by
verisimilitude here is not a strict adherence to the contemporary
world with statistically substantiated evidence for each episode.
On the contrary, a film or a novel merely needs to make clear
that its assumed world is a clearly fictitious world.
We can play with ideas and concepts in any world that has
clearly been identified as a made-up world.
The universes of discourse of Stephen King and Gene
Roddenberry are honestly marked as fictitious.
The borderline works—such as Orson Scott Card’s novel
“The Lost Boys,” for example—are the works I would caution
against. I would also
add the mendacious worlds of romance novels and those of triple-X
sexual fantasies, not because they are containing sexually
objectionable stuff, but because they are attempting to offer as
“real” something which is clearly not and which is likely to
influence weak minds toward making misguided assumptions about the
written science fiction and fantasy, thus, indicates clearly that
the story leads into a world of different assumptions from reality.
The stories require a suspension of disbelief.
Typically, such a story may solve a moral or philosophical
problem in the nowhere world, from which the reader comes back with
new insights, the patterns of which the reader may attempt to apply
to the real world, where reality itself supplies the possibilities
of application or non-application.
It does not, however, distort that reality; it is removed
from it. That is also
the niche that Harry Potter novels occupy.
They do not claim reality for Hogwart; they clearly use a
foxhole device that announces the trip away from the reality we
know. What the alternate
world may have in common are values such as comradeship, support of
friends, honesty, and other generally held values.
At the same time,
people do have the autonomy to read as they please—even poorly
written or deceptive literature.
Thus, I would expect serious writers to exercise restraint in
the production of deceptive materials.
And critics and teachers should make every effort to expose
such literary demagoguery for what it is, a review of www.snopes.com
for a general review of Urban Legends and their origins being most
helpful here also.
In addition, one should engage in vigorous public debate to
expose silly ethics: such as the simplistic concern with the human
procreative apparati and the notion of “bad” language.
American Library Association. “Coping with Challenges: Kids and Libraries.” American Library Association. 2005; accessed October 16, 2005. <http://www.ala.org/Template.cfm?Section=dealing&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=77095>.
Press. “Parents Deride Four Fox Shows.”
XV. “In Praeclara Summorum: Encyclicla of Pope Benedict XV on Dante to Professors and Students of
Literature and Learning in the Catholic World.”
April 30, 1921; October 18, 2005, <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xv/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xv_enc_30041921_in-praeclara-summorum_en.html>.
John Paul II. “DISCOURSE TO THE PLENARY ASSEMBLY OF THE PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR CULTURE.” March 18, 1994. October 13, 2005, <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/1996/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_18031994_address-to-pc-culture_en.html>.
Ockerblum, John Mark. “BANNED
BOOKS ONLINE.” October
16, 2005. <http://digital.library.upenn.edu/books/banned-books.html>.
O’Leary, Devin D. “A Brief History of Comic Book Censorship.” September 8, 1998; Look-up: October 16, 2005. <http://www.weeklywire.com/ww/09-08-98/alibi_feat2.html>.
Steffko, Jill. “The Exorcism of Emily Rose/Anneliese Michel.” September 25, 2005; October 13, 2005. <http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/paranormal_realm/118382>.
US Supreme Court. Board of Education vs. Pico. 457 U.S. 853 (1982) Docket Number: 80-2043; Audio Resources—accessed October 18, 2005; <http://www.oyez.org/oyez/resource/case/1060/audioresources>.