Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Ethics and Morality of Writing About Evil

On another list to which I belong, we have been having a rather heated debate about the way some crime fiction has evolved over the last few years.  One person, Sandra Parshall, noted that she felt that fiction she identified as "torture porn" had taken over a segment of the crime fiction genre.  There were some people who agreed with her, and some who vigorously denied this statement.  

But the discussion 
went from there to the idea of censorship, 
and then to the desirability of writing sympathetically about evil characters, so they come across as evil good guys.  One of the examples that was batted back and forth was the book about the character Dexter, as in Darkly Dreaming Dexter.

My take on it?  I am not for censorship, within reason.  I believe that the market will naturally select those books that are written about things people want to read about, and the others will fall by the wayside.

HOWEVER... just because one has the legal right to write about something, doesn't mean it's a good thing to do so.  Let's explore that.

If you don't know who Dexter is, here's a capsule summary: Dexter is a sociopathic individual, a vivisectionist whose father was a policeman.  His father, recognizing his son's tendencies, guided him into a position where his natural proclivities about blood could be of use (as a blood spatter tech in a crime lab).  Dexter also, however, sees that a lot of bad guys get off on technicalities and walk, so he carefully stalks these people and kills them by dissecting them... while they are alive.

Now, granted, we want Justice to be done.  And we also know that the Law and Justice are sometimes diametrically opposed.  But is it good for a character in a book or television show to be portrayed sympathetically when he (or she) is patently Doing Evil in the pursuit of Doing Good?  And to take it further, is it a good thing to portray torture graphically in a book or show, simply because that torture is supposed to balance the scales of justice?

Why is the torture, maiming and killing of people for the pleasure of an individual considered to be worth writing about with a positive slant?  And make no mistake—Dexter enjoys his work.  He rhapsodizes, for example, over finding a severed arm at a murder site, where there is not one trace of blood.  You can almost see him drooling, panting with jealousy and admiration for the criminal's ability to work so cleanly.

Let me ask you this: what if, instead of a sociopathic vivisectionist, this person were a violently rabid racist who hates Jews?  Would we still paint him so sympathetically when he hunts down a Jewish criminal who happened to slip through the net of the law, and tortures him or her to death?  Or suppose he were homophobic instead of a racist... could we empathize with him then?

The point I'm trying to make is, we have drawn some sort of imaginary and arbitrary line that says "This heinous behavior is acceptable, even admirable," but I doubt we would accept it if that same character crossed the PC (political correctness) boundary.

I was a drug and alcohol counselor for a while, and I know how cocaine acts on the brain.  It pushed the user up to a new level of high by creating artificial levels of endorphins.  But the problem is, when the user comes down from that high, their normal endorphin threshold has been raised and what was a high before is now closer to normal.  It takes more endorphins to cross that line into actual enjoyment, for the user to feel "normal" so the user takes more cocaine the next time, and the cycle repeats.  After a while, the usual levels of endorphins created by something like a beautiful sunset, or even sex, don't cut it any more.

I have a feeling it's becoming that way for many people with violence, torture and terror in literature.  Readers have become so accustomed to these things by constantly increasing levels of exposure, that it takes more and more to raise even a normal level of adrenaline and horripilation... just like the cocaine addict.

For my part, I feel like it's socially immoral and irresponsible to contribute to that problem.  I am not asking for censorship by any central authority.  But it would be good to see more responsible writing instead of pandering to the baser instincts, and more talented writing instead of titillation.

What do you think?