Words Have Power

Posted on January 19, 2011

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There is some debate about Sarah Palin in the media these days. Last week, I gave my opinion of her lack of class (Ezra Klein at The Washington Post characterized it as a lack of leadership) in dealing with the shooting of Rep. Giffords in Tuscon, AZ.

My Friends Write

A friend of mine compared her denial of responsibility for the actions of Jared Lee Loughner to Henry II denying the actions of his knights when they killed Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. His opinions, and those of other friends, have intrigued me because, it should come as no surprise, many of them are writers.

I spent a lovely two years writing role-playing games for Wizards of the Coast, including products for Marvel Super Heroes, Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, and Diablo II. Many of my friends are novelists, comic book writers, screenwriters, and, yes, game designers. I attended classes given by Mike Stackpole, a recognized expert on the relationship between gaming and acts of violence (see here for his take). So the issue of responsibility for content is not a new one to me, nor to my friends.

Writers Get a Pass

It boils down to this: We, as a society, do not hold writers legally liable for real-world actions that imitate something that they wrote. We don’t hold Tom Clancy responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center on 9/11/01, even though he wrote about using a plane as a bomb in The Sum of All Fears. Trevanian (pen name) wrote, in a forward to his novel Shibumi, that after several people came to bad ends trying to imitate climbing routes and techniques he described in The Eiger Sanction, he would no longer include such specific details in his novels. That was a moral and ethical decision on his point, one that all creators must make for themselves.

Sarah Palin and her corps of writers are not responsible for Jared Lee Loughner’s decisions, period. We can no more hold Sarah Palin responsible individually than we can hold President Obama responsible.

The Truth Is

There are never simple lines of responsibility when tragedies occur. Collectively, as creators and consumers, we are all responsible for creating the social environment that encouraged and allowed such a person to act.

“And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, it did not, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make (the victims) proud.” – President Barack Obama, 1/12/11; Tucson, AZ

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