May 28, 2021

Fiction does affect reality. That’s good.

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 6:09 pm by chavisory

Only in the last couple of years, after a couple of decades of being too busy with work and other things, have I started to reconnect with online fan culture.

And it’s not that I expected everything to have just stayed the same since I was in college. I had entirely missed some major events in internet fandom like Strikethrough and Boldthrough and the subsequent establishment of Archive of Our Own.

I was surprised, however, by the emergence of a faction of fans, who seem to be primarily younger and socially left-leaning, sometimes called the “antis” (short for “anti-shippers”), noted for their opposition to the depiction of certain kinds of romantic or sexual relationships and other problematic elements, especially in fanfiction accessible to minors, based on their conviction that “fiction affects reality.”

It isn’t that this position didn’t exist in the 1990’s, or far earlier, or that I’d never encountered it before. But it primarily existed among the socially conservative political right, who believed that access to certain video games risked turning teenagers into murderers and carjackers, that Marilyn Manson’s music was responsible for the Columbine massacre, and that people my age couldn’t be trusted with the books I was assigned to read for AP English, and attempted to legally restrict the distribution of what they considered indecent media on the internet in draconian (and ultimately unconstitutional) ways.

Its prevalence among young, nominally progressive readers feels new and alarming. (And I’m tempted to connect it to illiberal trends in current left-wing activism more generally, but that might be beyond the scope of this post.)

And it’s not that I don’t believe that fiction has the power to affect reality, and to deeply impact people, but it has started to seem to me that even in our defense of problematic and difficult media, there has been a tendency to refute the notion that fiction affects reality in ways as simplistic as these people claim, without challenging the premise that the primary effects of media on reality are dangerous and bad.

Image description: Tumblr post with the name of original poster blurried reads “People really need to realize that “media can affect real life” doesn’t mean “this character does bad things so people will read that and start doing bad things” and actually means “ideas in fiction especially stereotypes about minority groups can affect how the reader views those groups, an authors implicit prejudices can be passed on to readers”

When we talk about how fiction affects reality, I don’t think we should just be talking about how media’s potential for negative or morally insidious impact on our beliefs is nowhere near as one-dimensional as the antis’ and “fiction affects reality” alarmists would have us believe. I think we also need to be unafraid to talk about how fiction affects reality in complex and subtle ways for the better, and not only in ways that are differently or more subtly bad. And I think we need to talk about mental autonomy and how we are not simply automatons of the media we consume, but have the ability and the right to reflect critically on what we read and watch.

One of the things that fiction enables me to do, for instance, when I see a character I like or identify with in some way making what I’d consider to be immoral choices, is to consider the thought process by which they arrived at those decisions, and how even good qualities in a person can become moral weaknesses, and proactively consider how I might do better or differently when faced with a similar situation.

Fiction teaches that you can empathize with someone as a person but not necessarily condone what they do.

Fiction can ask us to consider the value and validity of lives very different from our own. Fiction can further entrench harmful stereotypes of minorities, but it can also challenge those stereotypes and prejudices in readers.

Fiction can show us admirable characters who we can look to as examples of the kind of people we want to be and the kind of behavior we want to emulate.

Fiction inculcates empathy and identification with others to such an extent that I’ve heard it said before that the rise of the novel as a literary form may’ve contributed to the decline in popularity of public executions as family entertainment.

Fiction can ask us to imagine the ways in which the world could be better, and how we might choose to live differently.

Fiction can warn us of dangerous ideologies and the impact of things like fundamentalism and authoritarianism on people in the real world. There is a reason that authority figures bent on control and repression of others’ freedom of conscience, personal autonomy, sexuality and LGBTQ+ acceptance, for instance, so often attempt to restrict children’s access to literature about oppression and about the experiences of marginalized and persecuted people.

Fiction has the power to tell people that they aren’t alone in the world in whatever they’re going through, and to give people ways to articulate their experiences to others, to themselves, and to seek support, clarity, and greater control over their own lives.

It isn’t just that the power of fiction and media isn’t that bad; it’s that it has the capacity to be a powerful force for good—for compassion, self-knowledge, and freedom. And this isn’t only true of works written to be uplifting, un-problematic, or comforting. I think storytelling like that absolutely has its place, but the best of what literature and media can do for us can be equally true of works that are brutally dark or morally complicated, in which people do and believe and experience terrible things.

When I was a teenager, we broadly opposed those who wanted to take access to art and literature away from us. We defended our abilities to watch and read difficult media. We saw and read a lot of things that we were probably too young for, that depicted horrifying things. I honestly think we’re better off for it.

1 Comment »

  1. Sharon said,

    I’m interested in hearing more about the idea that novels triggered the decline in executions as family entertainment.


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