Friday, January 10, 2014

Should Fiction Have Content Warnings or Worldview Warnings?

An Amusing Warning graphic from a blog

Have you ever wished that books had ratings the way movies and, these days, television programs do? I would have liked a warning that time I purchased a fantasy book that had very porny sex-scenes. I wouldn't have paid good money for it if I'd known.

But what kind of warning would we want, if there were warnings? Back when television had very explicitly spelled-out warnings of what was permitted, the rules were obeyed. But the people who put together television programs didn't believe in the rules. In fact, in their world-view it was considered daring to find ways to introduce 'forbidden' topics/content without blatantly violating the rules.

Content warnings--- counting up the swears, sex scenes and the like--- might be somewhat helpful, but it is not enough. I think it's more important to consider the worldview behind the bothersome content than to just tally up how many 'damn and hell' swears and how many effword-level swears you found.

For example--- imagine a book has the effword in it. That word may be in there once, twice, five times or twenty times. But in addition to the number question there is the question of what was meant by it. And that is likely to lead to the author's worldview.

Imagine a book with four instances of effword use. And then imagine 2 possible authors for that book.

Author A has the worldview that swearing is a bad thing, unkind to those who have to hear it, and likely to end up being 'fighting words'. He puts bad words in the mouths of bad guys, or of regular guys with a bad habit. He often depicts the likely reaction to effword use--- people taking offense at the language and therefore not listening to what the swearing speaker was trying to say.

Author B is a Stephen-King level defender of foul language in fiction. In his work, characters who don't swear and express their disapproval of those that do tend to be like Stephen King's Annie Wilkes--- evil serial killers. The only reason he managed to include only 4 effwords in the current book is because said book is people by characters who likely wouldn't swear at all--- nuns, elderly respectable ladies, preachers, and young kids from good homes.

I think most of us who don't care for swearing in fiction would accept the 4F book from author A, but not from author B. Because when someone shares our worldview on an issue we are willing to grant him a little leeway. And also because the common-worldview author is less likely to offend on other points not involving issues such as swearing.

No one proposes worldview warnings. But I have noticed that if you buy books from most large mainstream publishers, they will either fully express 'Worldview B' or express no opinion at all. Because advocates of 'Worldview B' are increasingly interpreting any sign of having 'Worldview A' as 'being a hater'.

'Worldview A' books these days mostly tend to publishers and lines that specialize in that alternate worldview, such as the Christian publishers for those 'Worldview A' books with Christian content. 'Worldview A' people may not commonly think of people as haters for expressing a 'Worldview B' opinion, but they are likely to declare them 'part of the problem'.

I've sometimes thought that some big New York City publisher might get wise to the divided times we live in and come up with worldview-marked lines of fiction, clearly color coded. Perhaps borrowing colors from the world of politics, they could have 'Worldview A' books marked in red and 'Worldview B' books marked in blue. Perhaps a neutral line marked in purple as well.

But the problem with a system of markings like that is we'd be dependent on those in charge of making the marking rules. We'd have a few years of peace while the system was established. But then the 'blue' people that dominate the publishing company might decide to make the purple line much more blue, and the red line much more purple. While the original red writers would be left without a publisher.

An entirely identical thing would happen, of course, if it were the red-opinion people who dominated the decision-making process. Because of the darker side of human nature, we all want to get things all our own way and we aren't always aware of when we are using unfair means to achieve that.

Official worldview warnings, like content warnings on TV and movies, are unlikely to have the effect many of us desire, which is to make acceptable books, TV and movies more available and easier to locate. Look at how the 'PG' movie rating has shifted from something not OK for young kids, to the common rating for kids' cartoon movies. Official warnings and ratings seem not to be all that reliable.

We will in future have to depend on the alternate methods to achieve that goal--- we will have to look for signs that authors of books we might choose share our values--- or at the least, are not outspokenly opposed to people with our values.

And, no matter what our values and worldview happen to be, it is up to us to ensure that there is a market for books from that point of view, by buying, reading and spreading the word about the best books out there for people of our worldview.

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