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Let's get straight to the core issue:

Books, movies, and so on can indeed influence reality, and reality can influence them as well.

  • 9/11 killed the appetite for disaster movies in American audiences.
  • The annihilation of the Frontier Myth took any western that wasn't Blazing Saddles with it.
  • POTUS, Woodrow Wilson's, screening of The Birth of a Nation in the White House resurrected the KKK.
  • Jaws shifted the public's perception of sharks towards the negative, despite dogs causing waaay more deaths.
  • Braveheart and another The Birth of a Nation movie romanticized historical rebellions and glanced over the crimes against humanity, committed by the rebels.

It's obvious I can't read Mein Kampf or watch The Triumph of Will for similar reasons. 9/11 truthism is slightly more acceptable but frowned upon, so are the myths of the Lost Cause and the Frontier.

There are two major arguments against holding creators accountable for what their work does in real life:

  1. It's just for entertainment: Simply put, these works are works of fiction and are escapist entertainment, not meant to be taken seriously.
  2. Intentional/accidental malice: The Birth of a Nation and The Triumph of Will were unmistakably malicious, whereas Jaws is the result of laziness and sensationalist appeal to emotion by materializing an irrational fear of man, which the movie is more of a result of than its cause. I'm sure at least one school of cultural marxism would consider that to be the case.

However, these are extremely weak arguments once you start to consider that people can lie about their intent, that there's Poe's Law, and that Jaws used just about every possible tactic under the Sun to make people scared; and as wetcircuit once famously said:

Half of the world's population is below-average intelligence…. HALF.

Combining the two results in one of those massive panic attacks when Dee Snider has to testify in front of senators so they wouldn't ban his music. People are dumb and have serious trouble separating fiction from reality to the point where you could build an entire genre of videos on debunking these circulating half-truths.

It just feels plain irresponsible and lazy to do scaremongering under the pretense of advertising.

Not to mention the intentional/unintentional also requires me to take it granted that the intent matters, not the results, which isn't the case.

My question is this:

Where does a writer's artistic/creative license end and where does Holocaust-denying/911-truthism/*-apologetism/Dennis-Prager begin?

(note: the glob (*) denotes the "any-string" wildcard.)

  • 1
    This probably doesn't help, but I think a writer should care about the impact of their work as much as they care about, well, anything. In other words, they should consider the things you mention... – DM_with_secrets Apr 29 at 20:06
  • Also, as an aside, I hate that saying about half of everyone being below average... It totally depends on the average! – DM_with_secrets Apr 29 at 20:07
  • Worth noting that Peter Benchley, who wrote the book Jaws was based on, cared very, very much about its impact. – F1Krazy Apr 29 at 20:45
  • @F1Krazy I mean, sharks can be pretty cute. Almost anyone would feel bad about their preconceptions after seeing that. – Mephistopheles Apr 29 at 20:55
  • There's also Harriet Beecher Stowe…. I'm not saying it isn't melodrama, but she deliberately 'centered' enslaved characters (while adding a couple of Mary St Sue white saviors). And she did her homework because a year later she published A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin where she laid out the documented evidence the stories were based on…. I'm sure she got death threats and hate mail…. Popular language of the abolitionist movement borrowed from her (and racists made her heroic character an epithet)… yeesh. IDK… maybe not worth it. You can't fix the world, but maybe create a… meh, no idea really. – wetcircuit Apr 29 at 21:08
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A huge question for which I do not have anything close to a complete answer. What i do have are some observations.

First, there is a hint in your question that there is some pool of absolute truth and that if we were to bathe in that pool, all of our sins would be washed away. Even if such a pool were to exist, the world is filled with differences of opinion that can only be judged by whether they are useful in a particular context. I am old enough to remember when rock and roll was the Devil's work and now it is elevator music. I can find no value in trying to decide which position is "the right choice" and which is not. This is a trivial example when compared to deep philosophical questions about the purpose of life and the individual's goals versus the needs of society as a whole. Thus, much of writing addresses topics for which there is, at least in my opinion, no "right" answer.

Second, you say people are dumb; I say that they are busy. Whole swathes of the world just work for me. I vaguely understand how my car works, but my mechanic barely trusts me to drive my car into his shop. I could cite dozens of other examples where I make use of items and have no idea how they work or how they showed up. I am not alone. We have our priorities; topics seriously important to others just do not make it to our list of things to think about. And I have no intention of apologizing for my inattention; I am too busy taking care of the things that are important to me.

Third, even if there were a single source of truth and I had the time and energy to understand that truth in depth, I would still want the freedom to write about lies and evil. I have met folks who say that the only book that is needed is the Bible; there is, and can be, no value in reading anything else. And if it is not (a particular version of) the Bible, then it is some other holy work. I believe in the tradition that says that the truth is only learned through argument; rote recitation of slogans is not enough. It may not be fun to read about the crazies and criminals but it can be instructive.

Fourth, I view writing as a contribution to a conversation spanning cultures, based upon geographies or the times or particular news channels. I listen/read/view the contributions of others. I respond with my own notions. Others respond. And so it goes. It is a messy process. And almost certainly most of the verbiage is ignored and ultimately lost. But some writing plants seeds that grow and thrive. The cultural context changes and perhaps we are all better for that. But I cannot know if my notion is the one that plants the "golden seed" or the one that ends up in a land fill until I have written and published it. It might be years/decades/centuries before that judgement is fully rendered. And if history is a guide, the judgement will almost certainly change with each generation.

Write. Accept the fact that the writing will be wrong in some sense. Write again.

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