Is fiction bad for you?

Do you like fiction in books, theater or the movies?

Most readers would agree that religion is fiction — especially if it comes from a religion they don’t embrace.  Many Atheists look down on the fiction in religion as deceptive and self-delusional. Would those same Atheists also agree that fiction outside of religion is bad for you?  For certainly fiction puts false ideas in our heads, stirs our emotions about events that have not happened and can cause us harmful delusions — like the false notions that come from romance novels, the paranoia that remains after watching horror movies and the dreamy idealism of some science fiction.
Does fiction weaken the mind and corrupt society like many atheists think religion does?  Well, Robert Hanson over at OverComing Bias seems to say “Yes!”.   Further, he thinks that just as people embrace religion to gain social status by signaling “I’m safe”, people who are otherwise non-religious do the same with fiction.  I find Hanson’s position a bit extreme, but speaking about movies, TV shows and sports in public, does seem to be a social signaling method.

I have always been leery of fiction.  I have long been scolded by my friends (and now my kids) for blurting out criticisms while watching movies.  Movies are mostly about making money and we have been studied — Hollywood knows how to manipulate our emotions.  The stories are made to trick us.  Fiction can be like alcohol — but maybe we can use it wisely.

I am a pro-story Atheist — and the more stories the better (see One-Story Atheism).  I even love the mythology in religions.  The part of religion I detest the most is their use of sanctimony — the manipulation of the taboo side of the mind to control thought.  I think we need to consume fiction with a discerning mind — something Hollywood wants to numb and turn off.

But I am not as pessimistic as Hanson.  I think we can consume fiction safely because our minds can compartmentalize sufficiently well to live many different lives successfully.  We can, if we are diligently discerning, keep the lies isolated.  Or can we?

We should stay suspicious of fiction and be careful what we allow our minds to feed on.  Here are examples dangerous ideas that fiction (religious or otherwise) can fill our heads with:

  • life is full of simple good-vs-evil conflicts:  that is why I love all the stuff by Miyazaki for my kids and myself which has complex characters.
  • life is out to harm us: conspiracy stories feed this part of the mind
  • others are always to blame:  many films use this theme
  • perfect love awaits us: false expectations of relationships abound
  • others are stupid, evil…:  racial, sexist, jingoist films themes
  • happy endings are always possible:  no, life is messy

Humans are story-telling animals.  Stories are a fundamental method of human communication.  Just as yoga has discovered that breath is a valuable physical tool to work with the mind, stories are also valuable mental tools to observe ourselves.  If we watch our stories, or those of others, we can see behind both our foolishness and our wisdom.  But often we are unconscious consumers who are being trained by the fiction of others.  Even what we call non-fiction is wrapped in a narrative that often escapes our awareness.  Stories are pervasive.  Without stories, it is difficult to pass on information.  Stories are also our source of much fun!

Tyler Cowen, an economist, agrees, that we should be suspicious of stories. He suggests that we need to be more comfortable with an agnostic/skeptical approach which recognizes life as messy and not settle for simple stories.  We also need to understand that even though we may be brilliantly skeptical in one area, we should not assume we aren’t self-deluded in other areas.  We need to pay attention to deeply inspiring, seductive stories — they may be deceiving one of those compartmentalized areas of life where we are not skeptical.  Those films may be re-enforcing our blind, destructive self-deception.

Questions to commentors:

  • What themes do you see as destructive in films?
  • Do you discriminate in your story consumption?



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

18 responses to “Is fiction bad for you?

  1. TWF

    I think you’ve got the destructive themes down pretty well.

    I think stories, both fiction and non-fiction in our reality-TV world, are like food. It would be hard to claim that food is bad, but there is definitely more nutritious food, and there is definitely junk food.

    If you’re on a diet of “junk” stories with little depth, that itself can be destructive. But a little junk food can be fine in moderation. The problem is the junk stories and junk food can both be a little too addicting at times, particularly for some people.

    I discriminate in my consumption, but there is a little junk in both my real and my story diets. 😉

  2. Gee, I’m the first to vote?

    I share your leeriness of fiction. My reading is more like 1% fiction, if that. I always feel like I’m wasting my time.

    My observation would be that the great majority of what we believe to be nonfiction is actually nothing more than fictiious stories masquerading as if factual. The nonfiction story that leaps immediately to mind is the 2003 story of all the WMDs in Iraq. Fiction presented as fact. Yes, we are story telling animals! And, sadly, we are way too gullible.

    As to your second question, yes, I discriminate in my story consumption. I prefer stories to come to me via face-to-face encounters. My second preference is for stories that come from non-centralized sources like blogs.

    I eschew TV, radio, newspapers and other stories produced for mass consumption. I’m just not interested.

  3. practiceofzen

    Sabio –

    Thanks for this provocative post.

    It might be pertinent to invoke Aristotle’s POETICS, which distinguishes between history and fiction. The former recounts what happened, the latter what might have or is likely to have happened. I’m also reminded of the saying, “fiction is a lie that tells a deeper truth.”

    To clarify matters, it seems important to distinguish between realistic fiction (e.g., the serious, mainstream English novel from the nineteenth century to the present) and melodrama, which sets up polarities of good and evil and tends to simplify emotional realities. Realistic fiction, in the hands of, say, William Trevor or Alice Munro, illuminates complex human motives. Melodrama misrepresents what it portrays, while also manipulating the reader’s emotions.

    I doubt that themes in themselves are destructive, either in historical narrative or so-called “historical fiction.” Rather, it is the treatment of those themes that might or might not conduce to destructive action. “Did that play of mine,” asked Yeats in “The Man and the Echo,” “send out / Certain men the English shot?” To which Paul Muldoon, in his own poem, answered, “Certainly not.” But the verdict is still out on that one.

  4. Hmm, interesting! I have never heard (except in the film Sideways) someone suggest that fiction can be dangerous. Religion, yes. But those to me are completely different. I don’t go around door to door telling people to worship Queequeg from Moby Dick.

    I’m a huge fan of fiction and I am in the process of making some indie films. As contrasted with Hanson, I think fiction is useful in our society.

    Take an environmental issue, like polluted water. I could be like some atheists I know (not you, just to be clear) or some evangelicals and lecture, shove guilt in their faces.

    Or I could make a clever fiction film that tells the story in an indirect way and helps people internalize the lesson in a non-threatening way that makes them feel they uncovered a path they did not know about.

    The dangerous fictions are, as you said, the one-sided ones. But I don’t read those, because they’re boring and poorly written.

    On a side note, have you seen District 9? I think that has to be one of the most life-changing films ever made.

  5. exrelayman

    Some stories are better than others. Some story readers are more discriminating than others. One size does not fit all. Looks very much, however, as though the love of stories is innate in the human creature, as there doesn’t seem to be any non – story telling cultures.

    I was a tad disappointed that no one seemed to explore the magnificent story I referenced back in the longevity post – but all you can do is show the horse where the water is, you can’t make him drink. Besides, my cup of tea (oops, make that coffee, right?) may be your hogslop.

    I deplore the cheapening of human life via gratuitous sex and violence in films, and also, as in the post, the unrealistic demarcations of good and bad.

    Yes, I discriminate. I am here aren’t I?

  6. TWF :
    I love the “Junk” food analogy — almost as good as my alcohol analogy. 😉
    I also try to discriminate in my vices.

    Dan Gurney :
    Yeah, interestingly, only 3 votes so far.
    Good point about WMD.

    Practice-of-Zen :
    Ah, great to have a literature professor stop in. Your categories are a fantastic reminder — thanx.
    And I LOVE that quote,

    “Fiction is a lie that tells a deeper truth.”

    And I agree, it is not the theme, but treatment of the theme that matters — great point.

    Amelie :

    “District 9” is one of my favorite movies. And when it started out I thought it would suck — the movie took me off guard. Loved it.

    WOW, you are making some Indie films ??? Got links??

  7. @ exrelayman

    When people drop links to long reads, I am hesitant to read unless they capture my interest immediately. Sorry. You are right, everyone has different reading interests.

    I agree with you, gratuitous sex and violence are on my list to discrimnate against.

  8. Teaching people to discriminate fantasy from reality is something I find interesting. I don’t watch many movies, but look forward to seeing The Avengers tonight. I think even little kids will know that it is fantasy. But when I watched Downton Abbey, so much of it was realistic and plausible (I liked it), but at the end, they had one scene with a Ouija board that portrayed it as real. Since 99% of the show was plausible, I thought this could get credulous viewers to believe in talking to spirits via Parker Bros. To me that stands out as irresponsible/dangerous, whereas the Hulk doesn’t. Similarly, reading the Lord of the Rings probably helps kids realize that just because something has a detailed mythology, it is not factual.

  9. Can you believe that was Sharlto Copley’s first ever acting gig? He was heartbreakingly good.

    Yeah, my short films are in the works but I am learning a new editing program so it may be a while.

  10. I see fiction almost like a vacation, especially escapist fiction. I tend to read mostly fantasy with a little sci-fi when I do read fiction. While I love complex characters there are times where it’s almost a relief to have simple characters in a simple world. Take Tolkien, for example, I doubt many people read his Middle Earth works and think “Those poor orcs and goblins!” Orcs and goblins are evil through and through, I’m not going to lose any sleep because the good guys kill a bunch of them. However, the character of Gollum is nowhere near as simple, you pity him, yet mistrust him.

    In real life I would prefer that no wars be fought, no one be killed, because there are no orcs or goblins. Sure, there have been some humans who have committed atrocities, but we can’t look at an entire race and say that they are pure evil. Sadly, I do see far too many people who seem to view the world as if it were fiction, as if there were orcs and goblins. It’s simpler to see the world in black and white, good guys and bad guys, but the fact of the matter is that it just isn’t so. I think fiction encourages that belief for some people so I can see the danger in it.

    Thank you for another thought provoking post.

  11. DaCheese

    I recently read an entry on another blog (apologies for the manly-man motif) that suggested that reading fiction strengthens your “theory of mind” and ability to decipher social interactions. But the social interactions in fiction are largely artificial, and generally guided by the perspective of a single author, which would seem to imply that the social models we learn from it would be somewhat skewed. Or perhaps it all evens out if you read enough different authors and/or genres?

    For what it’s worth, my fiction reading mostly follows the pattern described by Mike/MTMA. I do a lot of fiction reading in the winter, or when traveling, both scenarios that combine lots of excess time and a stronger-than-usual desire for escapism.

  12. @ DaCheese:
    Interesting post on strengthening “theory of mind” — thanx. And I agree with your caution of these constructions being skewed. Thanx.

  13. Curt

    What bugs me about so much fiction now days is that such a high percent of the stories are written in such a way as to lead to one violent confrontation after another. There is hardly actually any story between the violent confrontaions. Mad Men seems to be an exception.

  14. Very good post, Sabio!

    Just to tie into TWF’s comment, there is a fun, short TED talk comparing information and food – production, preparation and consumption.

    The speaker, JP Rangaswami suggests information in any form, like food now, might someday have to be packaged with expiry dates and nutrition-guidelines (“Contains only 14% factually true information, best before 2012-12-21”).

  15. @ Andrew G,
    (1) Don’t know if you saw my own self-rating of the nutritional information value of this blog.
    (2) Never saw the TED talk. TED talks are the favorites of people to post on their blogs and comment on — I am not sure why that turns me off. Second, people will tell you to watch them, but it is a big commitment. If the person learned something from the TED talk that they want to share, they should try to share it like you just did. Thanx for the sharing.

  16. lightamidsttheshadow

    Whilst I agree that we should be cautious as regards fiction, I recognise the value of allegory – being a presentation of fact in a fictional manner in order that it be easier to understand.

  17. @ light …,
    The question is: Is the message of the allegory itself contrived, idealistic, delusional. But “facts” presented fictionally are excellent, of course. We absorb what we read — even wrong ideas presented through allegory.

    But don’t get me wrong, I enjoy fiction as much as the next. I am just pausing to think about discernment.

  18. I think I’m the opposite of Dan. Any time I read nonfiction works, I always feel like I’m wasting my time and should be reading great works of fiction or poetry.

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