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Writing & Ethics, Part 1

In UK Law (and I would imagine many other countries, including the US), if you instigate, persuade or tell someone to enact a crime and they do it, this is called incitement. This is why someone like Charles Manson, who never actually murdered anyone, will spend the rest of his life in jail for inciting his minions to do it for him. (I understand the exception to this rule is when you hire a hitman to kill someone: then you are as guilty of murder as the person who does the actual murdering).

This is not a post about law, crime or suitable punishment however. This is more about the responsibility we have as writers and what exactly constitutes “incitement” with regard to media – and whether it even has a place at all. I’ll explain.

Last September, I touched on the notion of responsibility on this blog and the results were intriguing: some writers complained of censorship, that we should write whatever we like; others said that we DO have a responsibility and should ensure those watching/reading our work do not suffer from or because of our point of view; others still entreated other writers that it wasn’t anyone’s fault if people copy your work – if people are unhinged, they will do whatever they want regardless. There were some insults and cross words bandied about, ladeled with more than a soupcon of sarcasm and/or desperation that others could not see it the way the poster saw it (and I was no exception btw).

The conversation thread ran to 97, the longest I’ve ever seen on the Bang2write blog: feelings ran extremely high, very few people saw eye-to-eye and there was no resolution as such (that I could see, anyway). It was exactly what great debates are about as far as I’m concerned: those difficult things that AREN’T black and white and ARE difficult to put your finger on. Read it here if you haven’t already. whilst I don’t agree with what all the commenters say and some I downright disagree with, I’ve always believed what Malcom X once said, “I have more respect for the man who tells me his position…even if he’s wrong.” A bit of solipsism there of course, but then we are all guilty of that I should think.

So with this notion of incitement in mind – this idea that you tell someone to do something (and they do it), you are GUILTY of inciting them and should be punished for that – I have a few questions for you today. I’m keeping my thoughts under wraps for the minute, but I think it would be really interesting to hear what you guys out in think:

1) If a writer writes a movie in which a murder (or similar) occurs and someone copies that in REAL LIFE, is that movie “incitement”?

2) If the movie DOES qualify as incitement, who should be punished in accordance with the law: the screenwriter? The Producer? The Director? The person who came up with the idea in the first place (I suppose it being a spec/commissioned would come into play here). All of them??

3) If the movie DOES NOT qualify as incitement, then how FAR does a movie have to go to qualify as such? Or can a movie NEVER manage this? Why not?

Your thoughts please…

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19 thoughts on “Writing & Ethics, Part 1”

  1. Personally I don’t think “incitement” is a word that can seriously be used. “Trigger” might be better.

    You’re not going to change the basic nature of a person with a movie, or TV.

    The only proven method of changing someone’s behaviour for the worse (never works for the better) is so-called “Sensitivity Training” (google it).

    This was invented by a psychologist and involves totally invalidating a person’s current belief system, giving him a new one and then integrating the new one into the personality.

    This wonderful invention, which works even better when people are drugged and abused, is what is used to make suicide bombers. (I have, by freak chance, had the opportunity to work with someone who was on the receiving end of this — he managed to get out.) Of course it also works best on suggestible people.

    Anyway, the point is it takes a lot more than a movie to make someone into a murderer.

    Having said that even if a movie could act as a trigger, censorship is pointless. People come to this argument with pre-conceived ideas of what would “trigger” an evil act: what that person is opposed to is the thing that will make someone evil.

    If someone thinks sex is bad, then clearly something involving sex will make someone commit a sex attack.

    But you couldn’t know in advance what would set someone off: maybe an episode The Vicar of Dibley has been the trigger for a murder, but obviously that “couldn’t” cause someone to murder someone else therefore it would never be suspected.

    The only reponsibility of a writer is to write truthfully (make the story and characters internally real) for your target audience.

    Do I think that a certain type of movie might act as a trigger? Actually I do, but I would still defend to the death the right of someone to write the script for such a thing. Even if my personal inclination would be to burn it as worthless trash.


  2. “Anyway, the point is it takes a lot more than a movie to make someone into a murderer.”

    Thanks Steve, some interesting points there…Just playing devil’s advocate here, but what about LOTS of movies?

    Your point about being “suggestible” is interesting too… The law here about obscenity talks about images that will “corrupt and deprave a reasonable person” which I’ve always thought is weird, since I’ve thought we should worry more about images that “corrupt and deprave UNreasonable people FURTHER”… But that’s obscenity and not incitement, triggers etc. Anyone know if there is a definition on censorship for something like this (as opposed to obscenity)?

  3. Lots of movies? Well, probably not, in my opinion. Surely it would require someone with a deranged personality to subject themselves to vast quantities of movies that fed their unpleasantness?

    They’d have to have the deranged personality in the first place.

    Are you going to do the alternative view? Improving people through movies? I like that subject much more.


  4. 1. if, in my remake of Texas Eye-Saw Hostel, a victim is dismembered by a telekinetically controlled swarm of blunt spoons, and then someone manages to do this in REAL LIFE, to call it incitement would be to give it too much credit. i just had a deadline to meet; what’s the other person got to say for themselves?

    2. if, thanks to a brilliantly talented attorney, TE-SH is branded an incitement to end civilisation as we know it, EVERYONE is responsible.

    3. part of a filmmaker’s responsibility as an artist is to push boundaries. what was awful! and shocking! thirty – even TEN – years is ago, is tame (and sometimes frustratingly out-of-focus) by today’s standards. short of extreme exploitation films like snuff or paedophilia, any boundary-pushing film will be tarred with being an incitement to jump queues and such, but they should not be held responsible.

    i wasn’t born with telekinetic powers. my kids keep taking spoons to school (for their yoghurt) so i’ll never muster more than a half-dozen spoons. and i accept that life takes effort and commitment and responsibility. others’ circumstances are different. shit happens.

  5. “I’ll cut your heart out with a spoon…”/”Why a spoon cousin? Why not an axe…”/”Because it’s dull you twit, it’ll hurt more!”

    Sorry, off at a tangent there. Whenever anyone says “spoon” I always think of that bit from Prince of Thieves!! But then that’s the power of movies, right?

    IMPROVEMENT through movies… That’s interesting. One thing writers seem to love or hate are moral tales or films with some sort of moral message – is this what you mean Steve?

    Let’s add it to the list anyway… Have you seen a movie that’s made you improve? How?

  6. This is a toughie.

    On the one hand, I reckon writers should just write.

    On the other, I think there are lines of taste, decency and dare I say it, responsibility (don’t kill me anyone!) that should not be crossed.

    Let’s forget about all the usual films here that fuel this kind of debate. You know I’m a big fan of the ALIEN films Lucy, so I was looking forward to AVP:Requiem. The previous one had been okay-ish and I figured it would be more of the same – a bit of a laugh.

    But there was a scene in it that really troubled me. I won’t go into it ‘cos I don’t really like to think about it, but for me it went beyond “shocking”. Chestbursting is shocking. I like “shocking” – but I didn’t like this. This particular scene went TOO FAR in my eyes.

    But is it “incitement”? Well I don’t see how it could be. You gotta find an alien/predator hybrid first (good luck).

    But can films “incite”? I think so – in the way Steve says, as a “trigger”. My two cents, anyway.

  7. I know the scene you are talking about Anya – Oli didn’t like it either.

    What interests me most about this debate is the fact that so few writers think it could happen to them – their work is miscontrued to such a point that terrible things come out of it. Since we’re on the subject of Charles Manson, did the Beatles ever imagine “Helter Skelter” could contribute to so many awful events? I wonder how they feel about that.


  8. Isn’t it too easy to start this discussion off talking about movies with murders in in a contextless way? Too easy to dismiss as laughable the idea that somebody might see a film in which a motiveless killer dismembers an innocent victim and then re-enact that crime?

    Isn’t the real issue with incitement a movie which, for example, portrayed members of some particular group as evil and deserving of being killed, in the hope of whipping up people to do something against them?

    Is it laughable to suggest that someone might see a film in which all people with dark skin, or light skin, or all people of a certain religion or of any religion or of none, are corrupt and evil, and might thereby be persuaded to take some kind of (possibly violent, possibly not) action against people like that?

    If you’re not going to change someone’s basic nature with a movie or TV, why, during times of war, is so much importance placed on propaganda — both aimed at the enemy and for consumption at home, to strengthen resolve?

    To think in simplistic terms of a movie as a ‘trigger’ for a particular act is to set up an easily-dismissed straw man. To talk on a surface level about films with aliens in as if they are actually about aliens is again a failing of imagination. But think about how movies contribute to the general culture, not as one scene in one film inspiring one murder but as many films and TV programmes nudging many people a tiny bit towards holding some view, and about the cumulative effect of these films over years and decades…

    … and I think it’s hard to argue that that there isn’t some responsibility on the part of those who contribute to the cultural atmosphere to think of what kind of atmosphere they are contributing to.


  9. (Not that you can’t have a case of direct incitement — performing a play about how evil one racial group is in an interface area with already simmering tensions might well directly cause a crime. But the gradual nudging of culture is probably the more general case.)

  10. I’d never really thought about “aliens” in the way you’re describing SK – and that’s actually a bit scary, because I like symbolism in TV and film. I watched James Moran’s episode of Torchwood the other night and was struck by the symbolic nature of the plot… Yet had totally failed to see that ANY alien plot could be construed in the same manner, couldn’t it? And the thing is… If I didn’t, then someone NOT interested in symbolism is not going to see it at all, are they?

  11. If you mean Aliens the James Cameron movie, it’s about Viet Nam. If you mean aliens in general, well, yes, in good stories they’re always allegorical: what would be the point of using them otherwise?

    Just because someone doesn’t consiously see symbolism doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect them — in fact, being aware of symbolism diminishes its effect. That’s the whole point about symbolism, that it works on a deeper than conscious level. Not just symbolism of course: all stories work on people at a deeper level than mere conscious percetion, and that’s why those who tell stories need to take responsibility: they are playing with fire that is projected DIRECTLY INTO PEOPLE’S SOULS, bypassing the rational part of the brain.

    Do you think that the ‘red scare’ alien films of the 50s didn’t contribute to the general culture of paranoia (of course they reflected that atmophere as well: it’s a reinforcing spiral)? Do you think that many of those who absorbed those stories could have told you how the stories were affecting them?

    Why do you think that successful dictatorships are so quick and so ruthless about taking control of the storytellers?


    I certainly agree with you that symbolism and storytelling is important SK, but I wouldn’t say being aware of symbolism entirely diminishes its effect; I would venture a lot of the time it opens up an entirely new layer of the story for those who can see it. I suppose I’m thinking of a film like THE DESCENT here, which I would argue could be both your “classic” monster movie about a bunch of girls getting picked off by some monsters in a cave, or for others, the actual descent of a woman into madness at the grief of losing her family; she kills off her friends for had she never had her love of extreme sports, her family would never have come to pick her up and thus died in the crash.

    Whilst I agree ALIENS is definitely a war movie, I’m not sure it’s principally about Vietnam; I think it’s symbolic of any conflict in which the opposition has a considerable advantage and different culture – barring civil war then, this is symbolic of many wars and Vietnam was just the nearest historically to Aliens. I recall reading in school about English soldiers who recounted stories that while trampling over bodies in the trenches of WW2, they could tell who was a “jerry” on the basis they “smelled different even in death”. Whether this is actually true or just a fabrication from their bombarded minds is immaterial – it shows the lines that are drawn in “kill or be killed” situations: it was drilled into recruits apparently – you MUST think of your opponent as “not quite human”, else how can you possibly imagine killing him?

    So whilst I think aliens can be allegorical and often are, I think also that sci fi is a genre that borrows constantly from itself, so this is an effect that can be diminished by its own “borrowing”.

  13. My two pennies worth. A writer writes a murder scene. Some nutter copies the modus operandi. The blame lies entirely with the nutter.

    The nutter was a nutter before she or he saw the scene. The nutter would almost certainly have committed the murder with or without seeing the scene. They may have used a different MO, but, hey, murder is murder.

    Individuals have to take responsibility for their own actions. If I want to have sex with a gorgeous woman, and she tells me to go forth and multiply, but not with her, I cannot blame her if I develop a sick and unreasonable grudge against women and become a 21st century Jack the Ripper. Society expects me to have a sense of responsibility and obey the law.

    Unless, of course, I’m a nutter.

  14. What do you mean “UNLESS”? ; p

    Personal responsibility is another strand to the argument… We all see things, some unpleasant, some good which form certain ideas which we then choose whether to act on or not. We’re not passive receivers I don’t think.

    But that’s the blatant stuff… What about SK and Anya’s talk of those symbolic things that we might absorb without realising? And writers might put in without realising? I’ve lost count of the number of scripts I’ve read where I’ve gone “woah!” on various themes, stereotypes, worldviews…

    Or is it all so down to personal interpretation that no one can make a final judgement anyway?

  15. I absolutely and 100% agree with SK about the effect of storytelling on culture.

    I didn’t feel that this was what Lucy meant in her original blog.

    Having said that I think it also depends on the culture. A culture where people are encouraged to do as they’re told will be more susceptible to the cultural influence of storytelling. A society where people are encouraged to think for themselves would be less affected.

    (Please note, I do not claim any society of the latter type actually exists in today’s world.)

    Personally I see through propaganda no matter how subtle it tries to be. I have my own standards and they only change through conscious choice (well, I like to think so, that may be a conceit).

    However there are plenty of people (the majority) who don’t and simply absorb everything.

    In this case I (as a basically decent person who would like things to turn out well in the world) would say that a writer does have a responsibility to suggest that decent behaviour should be encouraged and bad behaviour should ultimately fail. (Or more cleverly, even if the good fail and evil triumphs it is still shown that the “evil” is wrong.)

    And I think in general that is actually what “people” want. They want to be uplifted, they want to be shown that there is some justification to being honest and decent. This is why stories with heroes who eventually win are more popular than those with something else.

    On an individual level, no I don’t think storytelling is culpable for any form of violent act. On a cultural level I think storytelling (and art in general) is paramount.

    So there!


  16. I said that being aware of symbolism diminishes, not eliminates its effect; and I stand by that, because once you’re aware of something you can to a certain extent (not entirely) decide how to respond to it, and how much to let it affect you. Whereas if you aren’t aware of it it has its full effect on you unmediated by your conscious thought processes.

    Recognising the symbolism does open a new layer of the story to your conscious appreciation, but at the same time as it does that it lessens the story’s raw effect on you. This is not, necessarily, a bad thing.

    Aliens is so more Viet Nam than it is any other war: the cocky marines, trusting in their expertise and technology, led by inexperienced and self-interested commanders, expecting an easy victory against a foe they regard as ill-equipped savages with no knowledge of strategy, find themselves trapped in a struggle against a force which is able to use their very environment against them, and against whom all their advanced weaponry turns out to be, if not ineffective, irrelevant; and the most they can hope for is to disengage themselves from the conflict, abandoning the colony/Saigon to the natives that they had so underestimated and barely escaping with their lives and without a shred of dignity.

    To deal with a couple more points:

    ‘Personally I see through propaganda no matter how subtle it tries to be.’

    Well, you see through the propaganda you see though — that’s obvious. But if you don’t see though it, you don’t know that you don’t see through it — by definition. So claiming that you see through all propaganda is like a solider claiming he can see through any camouflage the enemy can think up, no matter how well it blends in. I wouldn’t stand too close to that soldier.

    ‘On an individual level, no I don’t think storytelling is culpable for any form of violent act. ‘

    So if I go to a place where two communities are existing uneasily side-by-side, and write and perform a play called The Evil Murdering People From The Other Community Who Eat Babies, I’m not culpable at all for any of the violence in the ensuing riot? Even if stirring up the riot was my intention, because I really do think that the other side are evil and should be thrown out of the land (hence I am ‘telling the truth as I see it’, which is what it was claimed was the artist’s highest duty)?

    What if I write and perform plays, or make movies, about how evil the rich upper class are, and how they prey on the proletariat, until there’s a revolution and the rich are sent to the guillotine? Is none of their blood on my hands?

  17. As far as I’m concerned anyone who falls for the “evil baby-eaters” must already be inclined that way.

    (And I did say that “not falling for propaganda” might be a conceit – I’m aware of my potential failings.)

  18. They may well already be inclined that way, but does that mean that the person who whips up their inclinations into actual violence — the one who blows on the spark until it starts the forest fire — is not culpable at all?

  19. Hi Lucy – came across your blog today and I think you raise some really interesting and engaging points on this issue! At the risk of just talking abt one movie, I think of the scene in Fight Club when Tyler explicitly addresses his audience (“you are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world”, etc) and the negative is destabilised in the film projector. It’s a great moment of connection between one of the authorial voices of the movie and the spectator, and I think it succeeds – as a scene, as a concept – by narrowing our vision, and simultaneously narrowing the film’s thinking. It’s tough to break the diegesis in any film but Fincher endows the moment with some power. Tyler doesn’t incite, or call for action in that scene, but he does dictate, and in doing connects with a human consciousness beyond the film reality.

    The film’s whole approach to ‘political outreach’, what you could loosely call incitement I suppose, is intentionally mischievous – Edward Norton’s the Narrator finally rejects the principles of Tyler’s program in the film because it’s a reconfigured system of fascism that leaves him emotionally empty; instead, he believes he can find happiness, fulfilment, loyalty and fidelity in his partnership with Marla (reflecting the moral responsibility that Steve talked abt in structural storytelling). But Tyler is always intruding on the film’s objectivity, always manipulating and tampering with the film’s perspectival view.

    The space of film, its imagery and sound, is peppered with Tyler-shaped intrusions to provoke reaction. So while the movie itself isn’t stirring up or provoking to action members of its audience, the filmmakers are commenting on the medium’s capacity to incite or influence. That, I think, is a knowing wink both inside and outside of the film, an acknowledgement that we, as an audience, never occupy an all-seeing, all-knowing position. We can never fully ‘possess’ a film, certainly a mainstream popular film like Fight Club, on a sub-linguistic level.

    For this movie to qualify under point 3 in your original post, I’d suggest the filmmakers would need to go in the opposite direction. Bit of an obvious point this, so excuse the duh! factor, but to go “too far” in Fight Club is clearly to glorify the dehumanising practises of fascism, and to single-mindedly push that immoral cause as the only answer to our despair and paralysis. My $0.02.

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