Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Fiction: It can be dangerous!

The school writings in English creative writing classes of Seung Hui Cho, as discovered by the media and published on the Internet by AOL after the Virginia Tech tragedy, do raise the ante in the debate about implicit content, mentioned in the COPA trial last fall.

At particular issue were two short screenplays (“Richard McBeef” and “Mr. Brownstone”), both violent and minimalist, and both sending the strong implicit message that the author could have been abused about the time of the start of adolescence. The staff had considered the plays “juvenile” in that they did very little to develop the material into anything of substance beyond angry rants. The staff had also, as the media reports now show, been concerned that the writings suggested a possible propensity for future violence. It’s important to note that so far, however, there have been no media reports that Cho posted these or other “anti-social” writings on the Internet. Apparently, however, he did have access to weapons information, and in Columbine and in some other destructive incidents certain websites had been an influence.

Publishing history reports disturbing cases of novels that have led to lawsuits (“Touching” “Bell Jar”) because characters in the novels too closely resembled real people who claimed they were falsely defamed or had their privacy invaded. In more recent times, social networking sites and other personal weblogs have contained videos or narratives that seem self-defamatory, but where the authors believe that they are protesting unfair laws (such as against underage drinking) or social conformity conventions. These have been of great concern to employers.

Cho was a mentally unstable adult, so none of the arguments made during COPA apply to him legally. The practical argument is how people who feel “disenfranchised” behave when they find nihilistic material in the media.

One problem comes up with fiction, however, when the author seems to be like one of the characters and the author is presented “unfavorably” or perhaps, in the view of the author, just “objectively.” If the material is self-posted, others may wonder what the author’s “motive” or “purpose” (that is, what does the writer "have to gain" from making the posting) is and be inclined to read intention between the lines, whereas the same material from an established commercial source (like a movie studio) might not raise such existential questions. This did not matter for COPA, but it could matter in other legal scenarios (like enticement), that bear a curious resemblance to the thinking that led to the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military. Behind all of this is the issue of socialization, and that familial relationships and appearances, as they affect social hierarchies, matter much more to some people than to others.

I suppose that one could even propose this kind of problem if the writer makes a speculative abstract argument (not in fiction) that would obviously be unfavorable to the writer personally given what is known personally about his or her circumstances. If the law starts to go beyond the "objective legality" of content "prima facie" to analysing what the writer has to gain from being publicly known for having written and published it, then the law enters into an uncertain area that bears a curious relection of the culture wars. Again, this kind of legal reasoning could follow from the "precedent" that allows the rebuttable presumption clause of the military 1993 "don't ask don't tell" law regarding gays; but I have never heard of a legal test of the idea outside of the military -- yet.


Visit an important story (May 1, 2007) on ABC "Good Morning America" about reported security risks for female bloggers, link here.

Picture: Amish one-room schoolhouse in Bird In Hand, PA, similar to that in Nickel Mines (Oct 2, 2006 tragedy).

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