A Conversation for Writing Right with Dmitri: Changing Hearts and Minds

Preaching to the choir, and Anvilicious Aesops

Post 1

Willem

I am personally a staunch believer in preaching to the choir. I write stuff about animals with the expectation people who are interested in animals will read it. When they do, though, then if I've done my work they'll have learnt something they didn't know before. I'm making the choir a better choir! And ... if they're a better choir then maybe they'll sing better, and if they sing better then maybe more people who hear them will also want to join the choir. OK maybe a bit of a strain on the metaphor there. But consider: I could try and make animals seem 'cool' to people who don't think they are ... there might be value in that, but it's a bit of an iffy proposition given that as you say many people make up their minds at a point and from there on resist change. No matter how much I focus on what's cool and exciting about animals in the current mainstream view of those terms, I might still fail at convincing many people of my case. Whereas if I just give the facts, figures, stats and stories about animals, I can focus on that, fully. If people who already love animals are encouraged and informed, then animals generally get more attention, and the really cool and amazing stories *will* get noticed more and then may convince a new person here and there. Slow growth.

There is room of course for popularizers of a cause. But don't ask *me* how to do it. Ask advertizers. Me, I'm very very leery of that sort of thing. Problem is when it comes to 'tricks' for making a thing popular, then it's no longer about the inherent virtue of that thing. I say if you pick a cause that really has worth, then that worth will be visible to people who look at it, if you just show it to them, rather than trying to sell it to them.

Try to sell it to them and they might get suspicious about it. If they're discerning. If they're gullible then they'll fall for it ... but will that be the sort of people who you want? (Sometimes you will ... sometimes you'll need the sheer numbers.)

TV Tropes uses the term 'Anvilicious' for a particularly heavy-handed way of trying to present a moral to people. Here's a link with some nice examples:

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Anvilicious

As they say though 'tropes are not bad' ... and some anvils need to be dropped.

Now me ... I am writing lots of things apart from the animals and plants stuff, and you know of course I am also very much into trying to 'enlighten' humanity on a number of issues. Generally I will just say what I mean and leave people to make their own minds up. I probably don't do it very well always. But my view is: do it the gentle, natural, plain and straightforward way. In my own country I've seen plenty of examples of how not to do it. Some of this actually worked exceptionally well in that pretty much everyone fell for it, but it was not *good*. Success is not always the measure of things. Start out therefore by making sure your cause is in fact righteous. Make VERY VERY sure and even then don't be too certain of yourself. Give your message straight and then back off to let the reader decide, and allow that you yourself might be wrong about it.

In fiction ... I am writing stories at the moment in which messages come across ... but in my fiction I don't actually try and deliver specific moral messages as much as trying to stimulate my reader's imagination into thinking about moral issues from a variety of angles. So there isn't any anvil being dropped. I'll be more like a guide leading people through a landscape, a moral or philosophical landscape, and point certain features out to the viewers, first from one direction, then from another, and I'll tell them a few things and then stop before I start to bore them. If I can teach them the landscape,a general sense of it and sensitivity towards it, then later they can hike through this landscape on their own without my guidance, and go where *they* want to go, wherever that might be. Does that make sense?


Preaching to the choir, and Anvilicious Aesops

Post 2

Dmitri Gheorgheni - Not Banned in China

Sure it does. smiley - smiley I wouldn't disagree with you at all.

However, I often find that writers (not you, obviously) are often completely clueless as to what their audiences' starting position is. For instance, you're writing about wildlife. Cool. People who read you are interested in wildlife. And they know the difference between, say, a fish and a mammal. Now, if you were writing for people from another planet, boy, would you have to start someplace else, maybe...

I've been getting a guilty pleasure out of watching a 'Star Trek' episode and then reading the online comments. The hard-core ST fan, to judge from certain websites, is only interested in stories that advance their fantasy world. And they have a conspicuous lack of cultural knowledge outside the world of TV/film scifi/fantasy.

A case in point: Last night, we watched an episode of 'Enterprise' in which the crew sided with some shape-shifting aliens who lived on a 'rogue planet' and were being hunted by 'sportsmen' from another world.

Okay, I agree that the episode was badly designed. A rogue planet with a jungle? Where's the chlorophyll coming from? Puh-leeze.

But an audience that watches Star Trek, but gets angry about anti-hunting messages? I think they're watching the wrong show. Star Trek has been anti-hunting from the get-go. I'd hardly call that an anvil.

The sad part? The really interesting aspect of the story was that the captain kept seeing the shape-shifter as a beautiful girl with an apple blossom in her hair. She would appear, then run away...

It turns out the alien had tapped into Archer's memory of WB Yeats' poem 'The Song of Wandering Aengus'. smiley - sigh They didn't get that...what a shame. It was a charming idea, and led to us going on Youtube and listening to various sung versions of that great poem, like this one:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2fwnYsfAQ0

I think what I'm getting at is - if you want to take people on a journey, you need to meet them at the station, not expect them to find you.

I'm all for gentle persuasion. smiley - smiley


Preaching to the choir, and Anvilicious Aesops

Post 3

Dmitri Gheorgheni - Not Banned in China

By the way, I've gone back and read more of the TV-Tropes page.

Normally, I find their site amusing, but this time, I found it a bit dreary and, frankly, full of heavy-handed humour. ('Oh, look! Something else I can make mock at! Aren't I clever?' Er, no...)

A certain amount of snide commentary such as, 'That's just heavy-handed,' or, 'they're hitting us over the head with that' strikes me as really meaning, 'I wish it were the good old days, when we were allowed to be carefree and prejudiced.' Because I believe that far more people ARE prejudiced, narrow-minded, and retrograde than would ever admit to it. Quite frequently, the younger people.

What I think they mean by this criticism is often, 'Hah! You aren't going to educate ME.' Which I find, frankly, rude.

Take, for example, their criticisms of 'Twilight Zone'. That's just a total lack of historical memory. As they admit, Serling wrote those scenarios in science fiction because he couldn't say those things anywhere else.

Nope. I think each generation needs to learn all the old lessons over again. I don't believe these under-30 internet clickers were born tolerant. I've never seen any evidence of that.

Note the textual eye-rolling at 'green' themes. How dull, to insist that it might be better if you didn't trash your planet.


Preaching to the choir, and Anvilicious Aesops

Post 4

Willem

I think some of the folks there think 'having a message' is the same thing as being heavy-handed. But as a writer, I consider all those examples, the ones where I've read the story/seen the movie/TV program or whatever and I try and think: is it really heavy-handed? If to at least one reader/viewer it DID come across that way, one can still try and think if it couldn't have been done better, maybe.

But you mention green themes ... now those hit close to home because it's basically what I'm all about. So ... the way I see it ... there is definitely a problem with heavy-handed green messages. The biggest problem I see is people trying to put in a 'green message' without themselves knowing much about the environment and the problems we're creating in it. This is something I'm trying to counter and it is *extremely* hard. Average people today aren't really wired for understanding the problem. In trying to simplify the problema to present them to viewers, they become unrealistic.

So you get movies like 'The Day After Tomorrow': global warming will paradoxically cause an instant ice-age. Or 'The Happening': plants will start fighting back and cause people to commit suicide. Or 'Happy Feet': we should stop overfishing because penguins are starving AND THEY CAN TAP-DANCE! Aw, that's so cute! Wait ... penguins can't actually tap-dance? Then skwew them, let's go have some sushi!

Now I'm trying to present the real problems to people. No, we're probably not going to cause an instant global disaster. We're just going to continue slowly impoverishing the natural world and grow more and more disconnected from it. For some people this is an ethereal sort of problem, nothing like the practical, immediate concerns that face us every day. Try and get leaders in Africa to understand that they should care for the environment and not exploit it as fast as possible to generate money ... money for *them* in the case of the corrupt ones, money for uplifting communities for the honest ones. When children are starving, who cares about trees? Plow up some more forest to make more farmland! We need *more* mines and factories! In this sort of climate a *simple* green message can do nothing but infuriate people.

But also heavyhanded messages can desensitize people. They can even make a cause ridiculous. Exaggerate the problems something can create ... or make ill-informed claims that are easily exposed ... and people will stop paying attention to you. There are certain organisations who to me actually seem dead set on totally shipwrecking the causes they are supposedly working for ... as if just maybe they're in the pay of their supposed enemies!

But there are subtler things at work here as well. There's cynicism ... people growing cynical about *all* messages. They won't trust anyone trying to get them to commit to a cause because as they see it, everyone's trying to get something out of it. So whatever you try and tell them ... they'll be suspicious from the outset.

Then there's the case of awareness being raised of problems without any indication how they can be solved. Again the environment is a good example. If you really ponder what's going on it is clear that the simple and easy solutions like 'don't litter' and 'recycle' are not nearly enough. The 'alternative energy' field on the other hand ... many of the so-called alternatives aren't really viable, and many more are money-making scams. We're left, still, with no real alternatives to fossil fuels ... except nuclear power, and that is itself a target of many 'anti'-campaigns. So what do we do? A concerned person trying to figure out a responsible response might start to despair and get 'battle fatigue' from hearing over and over again about the problems but no hint of a realistic solution.

Now I don't have quick fix answers either. But I try and raise awareness of some neglected elements. Biodiversity for one ... I feel we cannot even begin understanding the problem without a better understanding of *that*. My little articles are for trying to get images into people's heads of the diversity of things that live on the planet along with us ... the vast majority of modern humans don't make room in their heads for the non-human living world. That's one little thing I'm trying to counter. And I'm trying to do it without stepping in the 'traps'. For instance, constantly going on about how this species and that species is threatened with extinction ... too much of this is a downer. I don't mean this sarcastically ... really, it affects me, too. I can't be reminded all the time of how something I find beautiful is in danger of disappearing forever, it just makes me depressed and less capable of fighting the good fight. David Attenborough's television programmes, for instance, which I always enjoy, don't mention this all the time, only every once in a while. The majority of animals and plant species today are NOT in immediate danger of extinction. So we should not panic. But we shouldn't ignore the ones who are, either.

I could go on and on and on about this ... I'll just stop now!


Preaching to the choir, and Anvilicious Aesops

Post 5

Dmitri Gheorgheni - Not Banned in China

Yeah, you just pointed to another problem of trying to convince people. Maybe we should add the caveat:

#Whatever: Avoid information dump. smiley - winkeye


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