Doing Harm: Writing Dark Fiction During a Moral Panic

In my earlier years, on tumblr, I posted and reblogged a lot of stupid stuff. I no longer remember all of it but I’m pretty sure I at some point said or implied that certain types of fiction could do harm. I was pretty anti ‘GrimDark’ (look for a post about that in future), mainly because I was deeply depressed and fragile.

I still believe some fiction can be harmful. I don’t believe most fiction accused of it is.

The great thing about being a person is you get to realise you were wrong and change your mind.

Fiction can have immense power and impact the world and individuals in very real ways. If that wasn’t true, books would not be banned.

However, I think certain people have things the wrong way around.

Bad things (rarely) happen IRL because someone wrote about them. People write about them because they happen.

The primary dangers to our society, to our world, are propaganda and the way young men especially are co-opted into extremism by public figures who start off by promising them a cure for their loneliness and misery. Can fiction be a part of that problem? Of course it can.

But that’s not what the ‘doing harm’ accusation seems to be about. This criticism rarely seems to look at the actual content, political or otherwise, of a book, but jumps to conclusions based on tone and plot points. If you write about your main character doing war crimes then obviously you, the author, approve of war crimes and want your apparently extremely-suggestible audience to go out and do them immediately.

It’s a ridiculous argument, and the victims of it are usually not those people who you can argue are doing actual, real harm with their lives but overwhelmingly marginalised people writing about the complexity, nuance, and difficulties of their own experience. In reward, they are accused of hurting their own people.

It’s almost enough to make a guy think it’s less about trying for a better world and more about keeping people in their place, isn’t it?

And very, very often the logic seems to be: ‘I am a good person. Therefore the things I like are morally good, and the things I dislike are evil’. Need I say this is an extremely dangerous attitude to have? An attitude that has, historically, justified some of the greatest atrocities. Instead of sitting with their discomfort, or facing up to their complicity in the world we all live in, the book has done harm.

What harm? Has the book killed someone? Has it toppled a legally elected leader? Torn a child from a loving home? Let humans starve on the streets? Denied someone education and opportunities? Has the book abused them? Has it built drones that go and bomb people in their places of worship?

‘Harm’ is a slippery word that can be used however someone sees fit, and among well-intentioned people who want so hard to be good it can be an easy way to destroy a story. But ultimately no matter how mean-spirited, politically fucked-up, or badly written a book is it has nothing on what we will do to people for stepping out of what we think of as their place.

How we treat other real, living people says more about our character than the books we read or the shows we watch. Critical analysis of the themes of a book is not the same thing as declaring a difficult work of art as ‘harmful’. Black and white thinking does no-one any good.

We’re in the middle of a moral panic. This is the second or third I’ve lived through. This is actively doing real harm, and people who think they are good people are being the footsoldiers for it. Destroying careers and lives because someone writes about something difficult or taboo. Banning books.

Harrassing people into suicide. SWATting them. It’s a frightening time to be any kind of queer, let alone one that writes difficult, sometimes transgressive fiction. It’s weird knowing that success in my writing career could get me killed. That’s harm.

Maybe instead of deciding that someone is a rape fetishist because they put rape in their fiction we should donate to a rape crisis line. Instead of claiming a book does harm to the LGBT community because a gay character is mean sometimes we should advocate for more protection. If you’re that passionate about harm why not volunteer for a soup kitchen or protest against an ICE raid or do some kind of community action to make the actual real people you live around safer and more secure?

Just a thought.

Featured image by Markus Spiske.