Since I make no secret as to my love of literature, fantasy, fiction, and the wild imaginings of an active mind, obviously I think it is. However, I want to bring to light what exactly fascinates me about fiction (on the silver screen, and in the pages of a book)- and how it can be used for evil, or for good.
By the way, this post is written with a very special friend in mind, and she of the skeptical mind knows who she is. I’m not naming names, though, so live with the knowledge that you know who you are!
There is an argument among some that fiction is mentally and ethically corrosive, and I would agree that it most certainly can be. However, I would also argue that it can be uplifting and character building as well. It is a double edged sword, in ways, and can either preserve and defend, or maim and kill.
This research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. In fact, the more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence (Hello, Tolkien?). In fact, the study shows that fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this makes us moldable in ways we typically are not. Again, an opportunity, but also a hazard.
Psychologist Raymond Mar writes, “Researchers have repeatedly found that reader attitudes shift to become more congruent with the ideas expressed in a [fictional] narrative.” For example, studies reliably show that when we watch a TV show that treats gay families nonjudgmentally (say, “Modern Family”), our own views on homosexuality are likely to move in the same nonjudgmental direction. History, too, reveals fiction’s ability to change our values at the societal level, for better and worse. For example, the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” inflamed racist sentiments and helped resurrect an all but defunct KKK.
So, those who are concerned about the messages in fiction — whether they are conservative or progressive — have a point. Fiction is dangerous because it has the power to modify the principles of individuals and whole societies. I’ll totally agree with that. However, it is just as capable of building up a young boy to desire to be a modern day knight in shining armor, as well.
Like any other tool, fiction can be used to great advantage, but if placed in the wrong hands can also do much harm. Be careful how you wield that sword, friends, for you can very easily cut with the wrong side of the blade…