Ethical Borders in Fiction Writing:

Do 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 Vatican ’s web-site; however, I found evidence that gives great credence to such a line of thinking at the Vatican .  John Paul II said to the Pontifical Council of Culture in 1984:

This, dear 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 genius.

You are 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).

For the Vatican , then, the line between fiction writing to be supported and fiction writing to be morally rejected is simple loyalty to the ideology.  And that view has been consistent for a significant number of years.  Here is another papal quote, this one from Benedict XV in 1921 when he praises the memory of Dante Alighieri:

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 Vatican ’s position is clear: Whatever propels the interests of the ideology passes morally; whatever does not, does not pass morally.  If something propels the ideology, it is ethically sound; if it does not do so, it is ethically questionable. 

Other churches do likewise.  On his web-page, John Mark Ockerblum reports various attempts on the part of the Church of Scientology to have books removed that are perceived to be critical of that church (Ockerblum).  In that sense, we see a repeat of papal patterns also from other religious groups.  The criterion here is very straightforward and simple: The support of the ideology assures permission; the lack of support assures criticism.  This is all at variance from the death sentence pronounced for Salmon Rushdie only in the degree of punishment; in terms of criteria and mentality, we see no essential difference between sundry religious agencies. 

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 US .  Not surprising at all, one reads that many books are banned because of “offensive” language, sexually explicit materials, or advice about birth-control.  However, some books were also challenged on the basis of wrong patriotism.  A pamphlet calling for conscientious objection to doing military service in WWI was censored in the US , and the sentencing of its author was upheld by the Supreme Court, then.  “An illustrated edition of "Little Red Riding Hood" was banned in two California school districts in 1989. Following the Little Red-Cap story from Grimm's Fairy Tales, the book shows the heroine taking food and wine to her grandmother. The school districts cited concerns about the use of alcohol in the story” (as quoted in Ockerblum). 

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 Hollywood is peddling its filth to families with cartoons” (Associated Press).

 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 ALA does not have any practical guidelines at all; this group relinquishes all control; parents are to offer guidelines.  Never mind that parents are often the least educated about such matters and that we do not have any licensing procedure for parent status.  This kind of relativism also appears to be a kind of intellectual cowardice. 

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 School of Enlightenment , a school named for an alleged 35,000 year old spirit which JZ Knight (prominently featured in the film) claims to channel (Wikipedia).  

The home page of the Ramtha movement, describes the miraculous origin of JZ Knight as follows:  

JZ Knight, founder of Ramtha's School of Enlightenment , was born in Roswell , New Mexico where she experienced psychic and paranormal phenomenon [sic] from an early age. An elderly Yacqui Indian woman held JZ in her arms when she was a mere infant and declared that she was destined to "see what no one else sees." Then, when JZ was older, she and some friends saw "blinding red flashes of light" while at a sleepover. The light abruptly stopped, and the girls apparently forgot the bizarre incident. Years later, JZ recalled the strange flashing lights. She was intrigued by their cause and why she had forgotten about them. JZ believed UFO's or some higher power may have been responsible, beginning her interest in the paranormal (Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment ).  

I 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.  

I 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.  

What 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.  

The 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 stupidity.   

The 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 seventies.  Anneliese Michel was from Klingenburg in Bavaria .  Those who know the distribution of culture in Germany will know that small towns in Bavaria are deeply steeped in most conservative religious tradition and superstition.  Anneliese Michel’s exorcism speaks not to the German reality; it speaks to religious and superstitious closed-mindedness and intolerance that is typical of some rural areas.  

The 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.  

The 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 real world.  

Well 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.

Works Cited

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>.

Associated Press. “Parents Deride Four Fox Shows.”  The Daytona Beach News Journal.  Saturday, October 22, 2005, p. 3E.

Benedict 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>. 

 

Ramtha’s School of Englightenment . “Religious Movements Home Page.”  October, 2000; October 28, 2005.  <http://religiousmovements.lib.vir­ginia.edu/nrms/Ram­tha.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>.