Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.
Writing Right with Dmitri: Changing Hearts and Minds
Robin [after being hauled up the side of a building by a 'bat-thingy' clenched in his teeth]: "Holy molars! Am I ever glad I take good care of my teeth!"
Batman: "True. You owe your life to dental hygiene." old Batman TV show.
Okay, stop laughing. We're not that crude – unless our tongues are as far in our cheeks as the writers' were on that campy series. But let's face it: we all want to change our readers' minds about something. We're writing to convince, and sometimes, it's hard slogging.
The other night, I was watching an episode of a popular science fiction series from a decade or so back. The episode, which I found interesting, involved some starship crew members who returned from an away mission. Shortly afterwards, they began experiencing flashbacks to a particularly awful war atrocity on an alien planet. They experienced PTSD, and were consumed by guilt: it seemed they had committed war crimes. When other crewmembers came down with similar symptoms, they realised this couldn't be true. They decided to investigate.
The starship crew tracked the errant memories to an abandoned planet – where they discovered a malfunctioning war memorial. The purpose of the memorial was to make it possible for the passerby to experience what had happened there, in the form of borrowed memories. The malfunction had caused these memories to be fragmented and out of context. The crew wanted to shut down the memorial, so that no one would ever have to experience such horrors again. The captain insisted that they repair the monument – she argued that such memory was an important duty on the part of humanity. (I agree: that's what the word shoah implies.)
Obviously, the writers, director, and actors had an agenda here: they wanted the audience to think about our duty toward history. They put various arguments in the mouths of the characters, for and against the notion of preserving the memory of a horrible event. How successful do you think they were?
When watching this series from the late 1990s, I have an advantage: I can google. There are a number of databases available to me in which fans have written critiques of each episode, often followed by comment posts from other viewers. The comments aren't only from the series' original airtime – DVD viewers are still posting in 2012. Good. We can find out whether the lesson 'took'.
Most of the viewers critiqued the scenario. Many objected to the captain's actions as arbitrary. People spoke of the memorial as 'raping' the crewmembers' memories. Others felt that even in its restored form, the monument was 'unfair'. Still others called the story's motif 'tired' or 'clichéd'.
I take 'tired' and 'clichéd', in this context, to mean, 'Yes, I know that, but I don't want to think about it. Leave me alone with my opinions.'
Why is that, we wonder? After all, the writers have gone to a lot of trouble to map out a voyage of personal discovery for the reader/viewer. Why is it that you can lead the reader to the waters of enlightenment, but you can't make them drink of the Pierian stream?
I ran across an idea last week that may explain it. It's called 'confirmation bias'. Basically, the concept says that people tend to favour 'information' that confirms what they already believe. For example, if I already think that UFOs landed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, I'll pay close attention to a report that new findings confirm this. When yet another USAF type stands in front of a camera and says, 'It was a weather balloon, and we can prove it,' I'm likely to scoff, 'Yeah, that's what they want you to believe.'
As one commentator put it, Fox Mulder was right: We want to believe.
Many, many times, though, we don't want to believe. We don't want to believe that the polar ice caps could melt due to global warming. We don't want to believe that the nice man on TV was capable of hurting young women. We don't want to believe that our governments lie to us.
And we really, really, do not want to believe anything bad about ourselves.
I can't be racist, we think. I can't be mistaken about history. I can't have a tendency to side with the wrong people. I'm a good person, and I don't do that. So, of course, when somebody tries to correct our mental map, we resist with might and main.
If confirmation bias is strong, then what we learn first tends to stick with us. It requires an effort for us to break free of our first impressions. When I was about thirteen years old, I went on a rather unfortunate binge – I read Alexandre Dumas' entire D'Artagnan series, including Twenty Years After. In English, of course. Now, since I had no earthly idea who King Charles I was, or what he had done, nor had I heard of Oliver Cromwell, because he had fought in a different Civil War from the one I knew about, I developed a rather skewed vision of English history from the following passage:
"Faithful friend, noble heart!" said the king, "I should not have been rescued. I have addressed my people and I have spoken to God; last of all I speak to you. To maintain a cause which I believed sacred I have lost the throne and my children their inheritance. A million in gold remains; it is buried in the cellars of Newcastle Keep. You only know that this money exists. Make use of it, then, whenever you think it will be most useful, for my eldest son's welfare. And now, farewell."
"Farewell, saintly, martyred majesty," lisped Athos, chilled with terror.
A moment's silence ensued and then, in a full, sonorous voice, the king exclaimed: "Remember!"
He had scarcely uttered the word when a heavy blow shook the scaffold and where Athos stood immovable a warm drop fell upon his brow. He reeled back with a shudder and the same moment the drops became a crimson cataract.
Athos fell on his knees and remained some minutes as if bewildered or stunned. At last he rose and taking his handkerchief steeped it in the blood of the martyred king. Then as the crowd gradually dispersed he leaped down, crept from behind the drapery, glided between two horses, mingled with the crowd and was the first to arrive at the inn.
Having gained his room he raised his hand to his face, and observing that his fingers were covered with the monarch's blood, fell down insensible. – Alexandre Dumas, Twenty Years After
I blame the librarians for leaving this stuff lying around. I was a premature convert to the cult of Charles I, King and Martyr. And I'm the descendant of a long line of Non-Conformists.
Fortunately, I change my mind more easily than most people. In fact, I subscribe to the same school of thought as my Old English professor, who used to say, as we re-translated Beowulf, 'Well, this year, I think that word means this.' You live and learn. You revise the model.
Now, how do we get our readers to do that? We need to be at least as persuasive as Alexandre Dumas, staunch romantic monarchist. After all, you're seldom preaching to the choir.