All writing teaches, including writing designed “just to entertain” or “just to persuade.” All writing imparts understanding, whether that understanding is right or wrong.
Reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf creates an understanding of the world, its social classes, its races. That understanding is dead wrong. But the author has taught. The reader has learned. For the worse.
Almost any book implies a worldview, an understanding of what we are, where we come from, and where we are going.
Television shows also speak of human nature. Start Trek implies that we are honorable and respect each other. Married With Children indicates that we are lovable dolts who put our egos over others’ needs. The comedy is “just kidding,” of course, but nonetheless, it teaches about humanity.
Do these worldviews affect behavior? Producers of negative works insist that such a link can’t be proven, just as cigarette manufacturers continue to insist that the link between smoking and cancer can’t be proven. But the reality is there, for those who choose to acknowledge it.
Let the reader beware?
Some follow the “caveat lector” school, arguing that the effect of writing is self-expression; writers are responsible only to themselves. If reading makes you sad, angry, violent, prejudiced, it’s your responsibility. But if seeing an uplifting play make you love yourself and those close to your more, shouldn’t some credit go to the playwright?
A good writer knows that the written word is powerful and that, especially when it conveys emotion, it makes a deep and lasting impression. A good writer will not pander to a reader’s negative emotions to get attention. Writers who care about people will help their readers become their best selves.
Violent presentations teach that violence is liberating and rewarding and that violence is prevalent and exciting. We don’t need this less at a time when we are having difficulty learning gun control and bomb control. We need new modes of excitement and stimulation. The beneficial, the spiritual, generates its own excitement -- subtle, but genuine.
Many people respect the writher. They know it’s not easy to make a living at writing. The recognize that the writer believes he or she has something to say and is taking a risk by expressing it.
Can the writer become worthy of this respect? Can we realize that we are teachers and become ethically responsible for the outcomes of our writing?
Public communication is public teaching, and public trust. The holders of this trust must become sensitive to and responsible for the effects of their words.
We can create a world where people honor and respect each other. We can do this by honoring and respecting ourselves and our readers, just as true teachers honor and respect themselves and their students.
Albert Heartman teaches writing, world religions and ethics at the University of New Mexico and the College of Santa Fe. He welcomes correspondence on the moral and spiritual roles of the artist. Write to 1404 Monte Largo Drive NE, Albuquerque, NM 87112.
N.B. This article was first published in “Creativity Connection” Vol. 5, No. 4, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Outreach Communication Programs Department. Subscriptions to that periodical may be directed to Marshall J. Cook, Editor, Creativity Connection, Room 224, Lowell Hall, 610 Langdon Street, Madison, WI 53703.
ticket2write is grateful to Creativity Connection and Professor Marshall J. Cook, for permission to copy this outstanding article by Albert Heartman.