We’ve All Signed It: Authors and the social contract

I mentioned in a previous articles, as an aside, that writers are judged by what they write and how they write it.  At the time, it was merely a small comment relevant to the topic of the article but I realize that I want to revisit that and expand upon that.  Really, it goes beyond a simple matter of image, with authors judged personally by what they write.  I believe that authors, as much as anyone else who creates things for the public consumption, have a duty to their readers and to themselves to not spread certain harmful social constructs.  That sounds all academic, but it’s really something that should be common sense.


Books have many purposes: education and entertainment are foremost among them.  One can certainly argue that authors, like any artist, should have unlimited freedom to pursue their creative goals.  While I would argue we do deserve a huge amount of said freedom, at the same time, there is such a thing as harmful speech and what, if nothing else, is a book but written speech?  The point being is that books, like speech, have the power to spread ideas and emotion, both for good and for ill.


Going forward from that idea, can we not agree then that it is important for us as the generators of this speech to be held responsible for its effects?  Certainly, good works and enlightening works should be held up and respected.  Likewise, those who write harmful or slanderous tracts need to be looked on with scorn.  It is sadly easy for fictional works to be dismissed as ‘harmless’ when instead they spread harmful notions and ideas.  Sure, it may ‘just be a book’, but all books, fictional or not, plant the seeds of thoughts and ideas.  Maybe that harmful seed is ignored, expunged from the soil of the mind like the foul thing it is, but just as often it can take root and spread, plunging the garden of thought into a dark, weed-filled, and decaying morass.


Just as with the ideal government, authors too sign, whether they wish to or not, a social contract with the public.  I think it’s important for us to realize this and keep it in mind always.  While I certainly don’t wish to suggest that there shouldn’t be books that look at the negative parts of life, they should be handled factually and appropriately.  There are things that shouldn’t be glamorized or put on a pedestal.  There are cultures and activities around even today that, when brought to life on the page, should be cast in the dark shadows that they rightfully should be.  Rape culture, sexism, racism, injustice, slavery, any violation of human rights, murder … you may not be able to avoid them coming into your works, especially realistic ones, and there is good reason to confront these things … but it’s important to avoid the temptation to sensationalize or elevate any of these things into something to be tolerated, admired, or even loved.


No matter what you write or how you write it, remember what you signed before you even began to put a word on the page.  Remember your fellow man and the involuntary impact your word can have on his or her life.  Be responsible.


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