[CW: content warning for discussion of sexual violence at the end of the post.]
I’ve seen a lot of discussion lately on whether there are moral/ethical consequences to writing certain kinds of fiction. And the answer to me appears to be an unequivocal “yes”. Although regular readers of this blog are probably aware that I have a wide range of interests, the primary purpose of this site is to explore what’s called “speculative linguistics”, that is the combination of real language science and its depiction in fiction, especially speculative fiction such as science fiction and fantasy. Maybe the most famous example of speculative linguistics is the “conlang”, short for constructed language, which is an umbrella term for artificial languages created for a variety of purposes, but most commonly for use as magical or alien languages in speculative fiction/sff(h) literature.
And that’s a fun topic. But today we’re going to take a dive into the science side of speculative linguistics and talk about the relationship not only between fiction(thought) and reality, but also between both of them and the intermediary of language. This could be a dull boring article, or I could use my actual writing style to make my point:
Human beings do not stand on a hard bedrock of objective reality, but rather swim through a vast ocean of narrative, catching in their gaping mouths whatever strands feed their desires of the moment. It’s quite a philosophical argument whether an objective reality even exists, but I’m going to assume one does for the purposes of argument. But even assuming that, there are two layers between objective reality and our perception of it: the first is the channel of our senses, which make different kinds of information about the world around us available to our minds. If you’ve ever taken one of those colorblindness tests as a kid, then you know that not only do these senses only capture limited information, but they are unreliable.
Although we usually talk about “the five senses: touch, taste, hearing, sight, and smell”, in fact what we really have is visible light detection(a narrow band of electromagnetic radiation), sound wave detection(sensing disturbances primarily in air particles, but also solids and liquids), pressure sensitivity, temperature sensitivity, a weak ability to detect airborne chemicals, a moderate ability to differentiate chemicals by out taste buds, and depending on who you listen to, a couple other minor ways of capturing information. So, an actually very limited way of measuring “reality”.
And then, of course, our brain filters out, without any real conscious control on our part, the “unnecessary” information, such as the feeling of our clothes, various background and far away noises, etc. And finally, after all that, we (only) guess at the connections between the various limited streams of sensory input to develop a model of the world and its natural laws.
And then, finally, we condense this information down into words, which are the primary form of passing information between separate human consciousnesses. In modern times we have things like videos or audio files, or memes/gifs. And of course dance, or more importantly music, can be used to communicate.
At this point you may be wondering if I’m actually going to talk about fiction versus reality at all.
But it’s important to understand all these little details of how our brains and senses function, because “fiction” is pleasurable to us because it engages these senses in ways that the real world doesn’t always. Our brains are designed to find useful patterns for navigating “objective reality”/the world based on our limited sensory inputs. And fiction is a way to both create/manipulate and comment on the patterns our brains discover to create a satisfying emotional reaction. Now you know what a “narrative” is. An artificial pattern designed to evoke a specific emotional reaction.
Our brains learn patterns by discovering consistent outcomes to various actions/combinations of sensory input. And we base not only our intentional actions on those patterns, but even our feelings about things are unconscious reflections of those patterns. People are not born with a full and innate set of feelings and emotional responses; we develop them over time based on our experiences.
The goal of fiction is to create a narrative that closely mimics our learned patterns and our emotional responses to those patterns, and to trick us into seeing those narratives as “real” on an emotional level, even if intellectually we know that dragons aren’t real, for example. And because we have studied fiction for a long time, and practiced it, and are surrounded by it, we’ve gotten very good at tricking our brains into treating it as almost the same as patterns we’ve learned from “real life” experiences. If words on a page could not affect they way we respond emotionally to reality, then all of human culture would have been unsuccessful. Propaganda and “fake news” would not be so effective.
Our brains have a great deal of trouble differentiating patterns learned from fiction from those learned from reality. So no, fiction cannot “affect reality”, but it can and absolutely does, even in ways you aren’t aware of at the time, affect our perception of reality on a fundamental level. And because humans and our opinions and culture live almost entirely on a diet of narrative, our perceptions and reality are basically the same thing.
If you watch people behave a certain way and that behavior is almost always met with approval, or at least not disapproval, your brain learns that that behavior is good, or at least acceptable/normal. And as social beings, we base our behavior far more on what we are taught is acceptable than on our own personal reactions. As much as people try to deny it, we do a very poor job of distinguishing between “reality” and fiction, when we look for examples of acceptable behavior. Your brains is almost equally willing to use behavior depicted in stories to determine what is acceptable as behavior you see with your own eyes. Why else would advice columns or r/amitheasshole and r/relationships be so popular? If you trust Dear Abby’s relationship advice as much as your mother’s, why wouldn’t you believe it when behavior shown in a book is clearly approved of by the author?
Your opinions as an individual are based at least as much on the prevailing views of your culture as on your own personal experiences. You’re as like to believe Superman telling you something is okay as you are your father.
I think it’s useful to point out that of course fiction is only one influence on your beliefs, and also that that influence only applies to the situations depicted in the story. Violent videogames won’t make you a killer unless you find yourself on a HALO fighting the Flood. But certainly playing enough Call of Duty or Gears of War will make you look more favorably on war/violence as a solution to certain types of conflict.
And we can also look at other sources of narrative besides prose fiction to prove our point: if all you know of someone is their image on social media, you’re likely to believe that that’s who they are in real life. They’ve created a narrative, a likely partially fictional one, to influence your perception of them, and it works. If you believe someone is an amazing person, it doesn’t really matter if that’s true; we base our actions on our opinions, because of course it’s impossible to actually know every single truth of objective reality.
And finally, we need to remember that the way brains learn means that both quantity of evidence–the number of times you are exposed to a certain narrative–and how long you’ve been exposed to that evidence without counter-evidence is far more important than quality of evidence–your personal experiences on the topic. if you’ve been told your whole life, by parents, friends, television, books, etc, that staking is romantic for example, you won’t immediately realize that’s not true the first time you experience stalking.
If you’ve been told your whole life that “leading someone on” means you owe them sex, the fact that you don’t want to have sex with them, or even the fact that they bullied you into it and you hated it, won’t immediately counteract years of cultural conditioning. You won’t immediately realize that you don’t actually “owe” them sex, or that just because they claimed to feel “lead on” doesn’t mean you actually did so.
To make an extreme example, just because an example of child porn was a cartoon, and therefore “didn’t hurt any real people”, or just because that creepy m/m romance by a straight woman wasn’t about real people and “therefore it can’t be fetishizing”, that doesn’t mean it has no effect in that area. A book or a cartoon or a song still applauds or condemns some form of behavior, and it can and does still reinforce a narrative about what’s okay and what isn’t.
tl;dr– Reality doesn’t matter. Perception of reality matters. If something like a book affects someone’s perception of reality/acceptable behavior/opinion on global warming, that’s just as good as affecting reality, because the person will act on that perception. People often can distinguish between fiction and reality, but that doesn’t mean they actually do, especially if that fiction supports and opinion they already hold.
Tune in next time for a discussion on the actual mechanics of how fiction and use of language can be used to affect people’s perception of reality, emotional response to a subject or scene/character, and maybe a little bit on how you can use this to make a conlang or culture really stand out on the page.