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Wanted: Writers Who Will Work for Change

We know the essential facts about the world’s looming dangers – global warming, the ongoing possibility of an accidental nuclear war, the destruction of species habitats, and all the rest. Most of us even know what to do. The problem is our failure to act, to become engaged in saving the world. What can be done to motivate people to become activists?

Here’s my solution: let’s tell some stories. Yes, stories as in entertainment. They are unsurpassed as a means of influencing large numbers of people, but we haven’t been making good use of them. Not all stories have such effects, of course, but a great one may. It will inform us (as magazines, schools and newscasts also do), and — more importantly — it stimulates our emotions. It’s our feelings that get us to act on what we know. How can a great story touch us and make us act? By making us empathize and identify with characters who are working on a particular global issue, so we want to help them.

People sometimes form strong bonds to fictive characters — an experience that is perfectly normal, though it doesn’t happen every day. Only outstanding writing and acting is likely to make you care enough about characters to change your worldview and lifestyle. Long-running stories that appear in installments are especially powerful, for we may have years to form a bond with the characters. We need many inspiring stories that can influence audiences to do what needs to be done.

Let me give you six examples of fiction that has influenced humankind.

  1. In most societies around the world birthrates are dropping, long before they were expected to do so. Apparently people emulate the small, happy families they see on television and limit the number of their own children. As a result, there will be one billion fewer human beings on earth than had been predicted fifteen years ago.

  2. In developing countries, special soap operas have turned out to be the most effective way of prompting people to enroll in adult literacy programs; abolish child marriage; use condoms to prevent HIV transmission; and open up jobs for women. Posters and public service announcements have little or no influence.

  3. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling novel, which was originally published in installments, was a main cause of the abolition of slavery and the American Civil War.

  4. IQ is increasing in all affluent countries by about three points per decade, apparently largely because of mental workouts provided by following complex TV dramas.

  5. The new acceptability of homosexuality; the decrease in smoking; and the practice of appointing a “designated driver” have all occurred because television writers deliberately wrote these ideas into their scripts.

  6. In 1989 most Communist regimes were overthrown around the world without bloodshed by dissidents who applied methods of nonviolent resistance they had learned from the film Gandhi.

If these findings are all news to you, that fact proves another point: that people often do not know when they are being influenced. Indeed, the impact of entertainment can be harmful, beneficial, or a combination of both, and those who are affected may never realize what has happened. For instance, smoking became fashionable through the influence of films and then unfashionable through the influence of television. Millions of people have died and other millions will live as a result, without ever recognizing why.

Entertainment affects your health in ways that you probably don’t notice: through stimulating strong emotions that have major physiological effects. For decades, scientists have been using film clips in their laboratories to stimulate particular emotions in subjects, monitoring the effects on their immune, cardiovascular, and nervous systems. Their research shows that positive emotions benefit your health, whereas emotional stress harms it.

Love and laughter, for example, greatly enhance your biochemistry and your ability to ward off diseases. Watching a funny movie will relax the lining of your blood vessels by about 20 percent for an hour or so, whereas watching, say, the battle scene from Saving Private Ryan will constrict them by about 35 percent. If you are recovering from a heart attack, your doctor will tell you to stress your cardiovascular system with physical exertion but to avoid emotional stress, which can cause arrhythmia and a lop-sided enlargement of the heart. Even if your health is normal, it pays to heed the same warning. Try humor or love stories instead. Most people spend several hours a day watching dramas or reading stories, which means that entertainment is a public health issue.

Nevertheless, sometimes we all seek out stress as a source of pleasure. Suspense and tragedies are popular. Why so? There are several explanations. First, individuals simply differ, for inborn reasons. Some persons are born with a variant gene (the Dopamine Receptor D4) that makes them especially crave excitement, risk, and novel experiences. They may even enjoy the thrill of warfare, and prefer such films as Saving Private Ryan.

Second, even the rest of us sometimes have good reasons for willingly undergoing the stress of painful stories. A great tragedy, for example, may make us wiser and more compassionate by inducing us to pity a person whose flaws have brought about his downfall. You may expand your moral insights by undergoing vicarious experiences with fictive characters who are very unlike yourself. Your sympathetic nervous system may pay a price for this wisdom, but it may be worth it.

Or, on the other hand, your morality may be impaired by identifying with heartless or violent characters. Certainly there are countless instances when people (and not only children) have directly imitated crimes they observed on a screen. Unfortunately, it is not always predictable whether a particular story will coarsen most viewers’ sensibilities or, conversely, deepen their insights.

Even when we are sure that the outcome will be mainly harmful, few of us would endorse censorship as a solution. It is understood that adults have a right to choose their own entertainment, even if it is bad for their health and bad morally for the public. Although it is urgently necessary to improve our culture and mobilize people to become activists, we won’t achieve that result by banning deleterious stories. Instead of wasting energy opposing harmful stories, a more promising approach is to foster beneficial ones.

The whole world needs movies and TV shows that inspire us to make social changes for humankind’s survival. Instead of banning war movies, we need to demand equally exciting films that illustrate astuteness in handling conflicts and preventing violence. Television series dramas are the ideal medium for this purpose, since they may go on for years, featuring an ensemble of lovable characters. The important thing is to create stories in which those characters are working on global problems, so we will want to support their project.

That will require some major changes in television and films. Unfortunately, the average TV show is abysmally uninspiring — which is not necessarily the fault of the producers (who know how bad their shows are) but rather is a financial problem. Viewers have no way of giving feedback to the industry except through box office receipts or cable subscriptions, which are poor indicators of cultural needs. Besides, viewers themselves typically are resigned to expecting poor quality television, and cultural critics review the stories as if they were socially inconsequential. Most reviewers avoid being considered as censorious or prissy in their taste, so they don’t appraise stories in terms of the emotional or ethical effects on the audience, which is the true basis of most stories’ importance.

Stories teach us how to live. Every story imparts messages, wise or unwise. Unless we demand that critics discuss the ethical, political, spiritual, and emotional meaning of films and television, we will never see the quality of our cultural environment improve.

Superficially it may seem that we have no grounds for complaining. With hundreds of channels available to watch at every moment, if you don’t like one show, you can just pick something else. So what’s your problem?

The problem is that when you turn on your TV, you’ll find little worth watching. Society needs screenwriters who will stimulate our minds and emotions about society’s problems. They aren’t doing the job. Why not?

Cultural products are considered commo-dities that, like shoes, cars, or food, we consume individually. That’s a mistaken notion. My selection of shoes, car, and food affects only me, not you. But my selection of entertainment will affect my worldview in ways that may be exceedingly consequential for you. The shows I watch may influence my business ethics, say, or my willingness to conserve the energy that is changing our climate. Or my responses toward sexual harassment. Or my preferred solutions to terrorism. Or the number of children I want to bear. Or my willingness to risk HIV infection. Or my feelings about slavery. Or my readiness to march in the streets to oppose a dictator. Or my willingness to be a designated driver. Or to attend a gay wedding. My attitudes do affect you. We cannot rightly censor entertainment, so we must find a different way of influencing others’ choices: by supporting excellent cultural products.

Culture is always subsidized. Some things can only exist when shared collectively by a community or a society, not as items of private consumption. Parks, operas, expressways, uni-versities, and cathedrals are examples, Culture is like that. To create and support a rich culture, we have to subsidize it – even some aspects of it that we may never personally use. For example, although I rarely go to the ballet, I’m glad that public funds support ballet companies. I want ballet to exist in my world.

You and I do care about the cultural environment that surrounds us, for it determines the quality of our lives. However, there’s a political problem with cultural subsidies: people don’t all agree about what to subsidize. Some of your tax dollars subsidize certain productions, publishing, and broadcasting ventures that are not accountable to the public, but which succeed or fail only on the basis of private purchases. It would be more democratic to let every taxpayer to allocate, say, $200 per year of her taxes to her preferred type of cultural product. This process would also avoid censorship, while providing substantial funding for innovative storytellers.

But that change is not enough. We also need for the public to realize how important entertainment is for societal well-being. And we need bold reviewers who tell us how a particular show or book affected them emotionally, politically, and morally. Unfortunately, ethical criticism is unfashionable, so reviewers rarely inform us about the message of a story.

Samuel Goldwyn told his writers: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” He was wrong. It is precisely stories with inspiring messages that showbiz is uniquely able to deliver. Indeed, if the entertainment industry does not inspire us to address our global problems, who will?

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