[00:00:00] Hello and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
[00:00:11] For the last few weeks, we've been going over some tools and tactics that we can use as storytellers to fully maximize the potential of our story.
[00:00:21] Now, today I wanna talk about something a little different. And yet something that ties into what we've been going over from the very beginning. And in essence, I wanna go over something called ethics.
[00:00:34] In particular, a chapter that is written in Jeffrey Sweet's book on playwriting, and it is his chapter on ethics. And it's really wonderful. And I wanna bring it to bear in our conversation because Jeffrey Sweet didn't write his book on playwriting from a Christian perspective. This is coming from a secular point of view, and yet he echoes a lot of the same things that I've been arguing for since the beginning of this podcast.
[00:01:03] And I really think that he says it in a really powerful way, and I wanna share it with you here on this podcast today. So that's what we're going over. Jeffrey Sweet's chapter on ethics in his book on playwriting. Okay.
[00:01:17] What he starts out saying in this particular chapter is he talks about how as playwrights- because remember he's talking about playwriting in particular. Of course we'll adapt that to be applying to storytellers in general. But he talks about how when we are writing a play, we are designing behavior for the characters on the stage. And that through our scripts then, we are basically subscribing to a sequence of actions and showing the audience choices that the character makes.
[00:01:51] Now, what he says is that it is the purview of the audience. It is definitely the audience's job to evaluate that behavior on some sort of moral level. That is what they're going to do.
[00:02:07] And what he says is, "All of us make these sorts of judgements about those whom we encounter in daily life. Naturally, we make similar judgements when we watch a play."
[00:02:16] Now, what he says is that part of the audience's job is to evaluate the characters according to the things that they actually do on the stage. We're going to give them a moral value. We evaluate how moral they are given what they're doing on the stage.
[00:02:34] So just by virtue of talking about judgments and the evaluation of behavior, says Jeffrey Sweet, we are entering into the realm of ethics. Now the study of ethics focuses on the quality of choices that a human being makes. And then about what we can discern from that behavior.
[00:02:58] In fact, we're supposed to be discerning whether or not those choices are admirable or whether or not they are contemptible. That is ethics. So if they're constructive or destructive, if they're honorable or corrupt, and so on and so forth. This is what makes it ethical or non-ethical.
[00:03:18] Now, since storytellers are very much in the business of depicting character behavior in their stories, we are basically, according to Jeffrey Sweet, we are stock and trade moralists. Our primary job, one of our primary duties then as storytellers, is that we become ethical moralists.
[00:03:45] We're telling the audience what is good, what is right, what they ought to do, what is bad, what shouldn't be done, what is corrupt, what is moral behavior. We cannot get away from it. It is at the very core of the essence of what we're doing as storytellers. We are moralists.
[00:04:03] Now, what Jeffrey Sweet goes on to say is that it doesn't matter how fluffy your piece is, whether it's a comedy, whether it's a drama, whether it's a thriller, or any of those things, it doesn't matter. It could be the most absurd comedic romp that we've ever been through. It doesn't matter. It is still going to offer judgements about human behavior because you cannot separate it. It still implicitly offers judgements about what is good and right for this world.
[00:04:39] Now, what he also says is that he finds it interesting that since the stock and trade for playwrights, and storytellers in general, seems to be this ethical realm, how strange is it that most playwrights, or storytellers, aren't required to take courses on ethics when they are studying their craft at a university or what have you. He finds it odd, and I do too. I think it should very much be part of our training. It should be very much a part of what we're learning to do. What is ethics?
[00:05:13] And here's the truth of the matter. We live in a society when so much of people's moral concepts are derived from the entertainment they watch. That's just the truth of it. We literally teach people what is moral, what is the kind of behavior they ought to be consuming, they ought to be repeating in culture.
[00:05:35] Now, this is part of the reason we've gotten into trouble today because we have reflected, for example, promiscuity on the screen for many, many years. Television shows that are beloved to all of us. Things that I love just as much as I'm sure you love them too. And yet the characters were very promiscuous.
[00:05:53] Sexual promiscuity just became accepted. It became part of the norm. And that has a carryover into society. Even if on some level in the church we decide, "Okay, well, we know that it's wrong to be promiscuous. It's still affecting us on a core level that we're not even quite clear about. It's the same premise of garbage in, garbage out. Or you are what you eat. Well, you are what you consume.
[00:06:17] And so to many degrees, what we're seeing in a moral breakdown in our society started in entertainment when certain behaviors became the norm for us to observe, which ought to alarm us given everything that's happening in today's climate. Anything that we start to see as a norm, it's the norm. It is establishing a new normal.
[00:06:41] That can really be dangerous for us because if we allow those things, it will eventually permeate what is normal for us because that's just the way the cookie crumbles.
[00:06:52] Jeffrey goes on to say that when he's talking about ethics, a lot of people in his dramatist circles get a little concerned about this notion. They don't wanna take on that responsibility. They wanna say, "No, no, no, no. My commitment is just to the work. That's it. I don't have any moral dog in this fight or anything like that." And yet he argues that they're wrong, that they're being shortsighted about the true power of the medium.
[00:07:18] He even goes on to say that a lot of people in his crowd would say that when you get into this idea of morality, that it actually then becomes an opportunity to stifle or censor art. Well, there is an irony there, and I will get back to that in a little bit.
[00:07:38] Jeffrey says that when he is talking about these sorts of ideas, he doesn't mean propaganda. Of course. That's not what we're about producing. And he doesn't mean that we're trying to tailor our works to meet a certain standard of morality. That's not what we're trying to do. We can't just try to write moralist works. It won't be good art.
[00:07:59] Rather, what he's talking about is simply being aware of the values that are implicit in your work.
[00:08:08] Your story cannot help but rest on some sort of philosophical foundation. We've talked about this from the beginning. There is a worldview implied in your work, whether it is explicit or whether it is implicit, the foundation is a worldview from which you are writing. Can't help it.
[00:08:30] That means that anything that you're writing can't help but to put in dramatic form a certain moral judgment in terms of human behavior. We are giving dramatic form to a system of belief or a perspective on the human nature according to the behaviors that we give our characters on the page or on the screen.
[00:08:57] Writing ethically does not mean that you have all of your characters articulate your particular moral values. That's not what it means. Nor does it mean that by writing ethically, we're talking about writing non offensively. And a lot of people think that today.
[00:09:16] A lot of people think that an ethical piece is one that doesn't go on to offend others, and I strongly object to that. Sometimes offending others is an ethical act. Wrap your brain around that for a second. Sometimes the most ethical thing you can do is to jar people and get them to think about their worldview in another way. You offend them.
[00:09:41] And this is what I mean when I say things like sometimes we damn our characters in order to redeem our audience. Sometimes it is the most necessary thing in the world to offend people, institutions, organizations, that sort of thing.
[00:09:58] Satire would hardly be doing its work if it didn't offend people, right? We need to be willing to offend.
[00:10:07] So writing ethically doesn't mean that we make our characters parrot our values, nor does it mean that we write non-offensively. But nor does it mean that it is okay for a writer to just write for themselves.
[00:10:21] Many writers claim that they're just writing for themselves, that they're not trying to go into this area of ethics, and yet what we have to recognize is that writing anything is a social act.
[00:10:34] We write in the hopes that it will resonate with an audience, and if we're being honest with ourselves, that our audience would respond appropriately to whatever it is that we're passionate about in that project. We want to stimulate a reaction in the audience. We want to. It requires that.
[00:10:56] So that means that technical excellence is actually not enough. Remember in earlier, earlier episodes, I talk about how we evaluate art according to how well it does in the medium itself, how good it is according to the technical requirements of the medium, but also according to content. How good it is in terms of matching the truth of the world as we know it. What it's actually saying, if it's saying something good, ultimately in its message, because that is part and parcel of what art does.
[00:11:34] We have to go back to this idea that we do have a responsibility to our audience in part because a lot of people glean their knowledge about the world solely from entertainment.
[00:11:48] Now, I don't think this is a good thing to do, but it doesn't matter what I think. It's that whole adage that movies have become the church of the masses. Right? Entertainment has become the church of the masses. This is where people go to now to get a lot of their values, but not just that, to get their information, their knowledge about the past.
[00:12:07] The truth is we have ideas about what it would look like to be a cowboy back in the early days, or what it's like to be a Viking now that Vikings has been on the air. That sort of thing. I mean, we are forming our views of history based on entertainment, and therefore I do think we have a moral responsibility to try to portray those things as accurately as possible.
[00:12:32] Right or wrong, people are forming their views based on what we present. So we better present it as honestly and truly as we can, understanding that sometimes we take some artistic license, but artistic license is about putting the story in a form that makes sense for entertainment. It doesn't mean fundamentally changing the facts of history. That's the key.
[00:12:59] If we're writing a true story, we ought to adhere to the truth of the things that happened insofar as it is absolutely possible to do it.
[00:13:08] We shouldn't change history. For example, it would horrible to have somebody write a story about these brave Nazi soldiers who were trying to protect the Holocaust victims from the terrible mean Americans coming in. That's just a terrible thing, that would be such a violation of the truth on so many levels. Therefore, we have a moral responsibility to try to articulate the truth of history. Again, in large part because so many people are gaining their knowledge from the historical perspective that we present.
[00:13:52] So if it's true that the audience is drawing much of its understanding of the world and of history and all these things from the world of entertainment, then it follows that those that are creating that entertainment ought to have a better sense of understanding of the ethical implications of the art that they're presenting.
[00:14:11] The point is we influence culture. We influence people. And by the way, this is why I'm doing it. It's probably one of the reasons you're doing it too. We have a profound opportunity here to influence people, to influence the minds and the hearts of the people. What a wonderful privilege and opportunity.
[00:14:35] Now, one of the things that Jeffrey Sweet says in his book is that we can only make decisions about what sorts of things we're going to present and what sorts of things we're not going to present based on the information that actually exists.
[00:14:50] So our wisdom is necessarily dependent on the information that we believe to be relevant to the story that we're telling, but also to the information that's available that we have to draw from. Because sometimes we have to choose the selection of facts that we're going to include in a particular story because we only have a window of time to talk about it. So it's gotta be the most relevant information. It's gotta be the most relevant facts that we're deciding on.
[00:15:20] However, one thing that he says that I think is so great, he says, "If we are denied access to the truth, if it is withheld from us or distorted, we are by definition being denied the opportunity and the right to make informed choices."
[00:15:39] Now think about this in terms of how this applies today, right? Because again, not all the stories that we're talking about, not all the narratives that are at play today are actually fiction stories. They're not all books, they're not all novels, that are not all movies or television shows. A lot of it is the narrative in our reality today. The narrative that's being fought in the world today about what's really happening in all of these different areas of discipline- in government, in health, the World Economic Forum, the CDC, critical race theory, what's happening in all of those sorts of issues, gender studies, all of these various disciplines. All of it is a narrative that's being presented.
[00:16:24] And again, what does he say? "If we are denied access to the truth or if it is withheld from us or distorted, then we are by definition being denied the opportunity and the right to make informed choices." This is why it is so horrible to have things censored.
[00:16:44] And what will happen is one group will say, well, no, we don't want disinformation. Well, disinformation would be anything that is contrary to the narrative that they want to extend or they want the people to accept. And that is just a very dangerous thing to have happen in a society.
[00:17:03] In fact, this is why dictatorship always makes it its first order of business to suppress the free exchange of knowledge and ideas, that is primarily or has traditionally been through journalistic efforts and artistry.
[00:17:22] According to Jeffrey Sweet, this is something that the propaganda minister of the Third Reich understood very well. He understood that whoever controls the dissemination of information, whether it be rhetorical or in a fictional form, so whether it be about what's happening now, factual things, events of today, or whether it be through art and fiction and entertainment.
[00:17:48] If you are in control of that, you are the one that wields the power and you are the one that is shaping society. In fact, he also understood that if you forcefully repeat a lie enough, it ultimately comes to carry the weight of truth. It comes to assume the weight of truth.
[00:18:10] So putting that theory into practice, he took control of all of Germany's media outlets and kept them hammering out the false messages, the corrupt messages of the Nazi government to the German people. And he effectively mitigated any opposition. And anybody who did oppose what was being said were systematically rounded up and, and taken care of, disposed of. So that ultimately the only message getting out was his. It was a great way to control the hearts and the minds of the people.
[00:18:46] We don't wanna live in that kind of society. We're starting to get there. We are starting to repeat the sins of the past because we're not as familiar with the things of the past. Because the things of the past are being distorted and changed and reframed, and we're rewriting the past. It's coming down to us differently.
[00:19:09] Whether or not there is a vast conspiracy at play right now in society to deliberately suppress information doesn't mean that there isn't misinformation that's being spread because of laziness, ignorance, evilness, the desire to get people on board.
[00:19:33] History isn't just what happened on old calendars. History is important because a lot of it is about how we got to where we are today. And one of the things I love that he says is that our understanding of today must rest on our understanding of yesterday. "To falsify the past is necessarily to lie about our current present." Think about that. To falsify the past is to lie about our present. It's a lie.
[00:20:05] We have to protest people who are spouting lies. We have to protest it. We have to speak out. We have to use our voice to object to those types of things. And it is also important that we ourselves commit to not misrepresenting today's world or misrepresenting what is happening in today's world. We need to be truth tellers.
[00:20:31] And by the way, you can see this in story too. This is where, this is where it gets dicey, right? I mean, I loved the movie Pretty Woman. Who didn't, right? But how odd is it that at the end of the day what we're doing is we're promoting this fairytale view that is disturbing because we're saying that this prostitute is just one breath away from finding true love in the arms of a millionaire. I mean, this is a really disturbing story if you think about it. She is actually facing disease, exploitation, probably drug abuse, early death, all sorts of things. And yet we're showing it as a fairytale. That probably is not very morally responsible.
[00:21:17] The bottom line is that when we think about the kinds of pieces that we're creating, we have to be cognizant of all of these things. I'm going to keep talking about this on the next episode because it's so important what we're dealing with in society today.
[00:21:33] But for today, I want you to just take away this idea that if you are creating a work of art, some sort of story that is meant to be taken seriously, that is meant to be taken as a serious representation of the world as it really is, that is meant to be taken in reality, that we should not have our characters, whether they're based on real people or fictional ones, behave in a manner that is inconsistent with what reasonable observations would agree is the truth. We shouldn't have them behaving in ways that are actually lies according to the worldview that we're presenting.
[00:22:19] Again, going to that gross hypothetical story idea that I presented where the Nazi regime would be risking their lives to protect Jews from vicious American troops. I mean, that would just be absurd and horribly, horribly upsetting because it is a distortion of the truth and this kind of distortion, we ought not participate in.
[00:22:47] Okay. So when we come back next week, we'll continue to expand on this idea because I think it's so important where we're going in the future with these sorts of stories that we're telling and how we're telling them. It's just so, so important for such a time as this, for such a time as this.
[00:23:04] So I hope that this has been useful to you and helpful to you, and challenging to you. And if it has been, I would ask that you would rate and review the show, subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, or the podcast app of your choice, and of course on YouTube. That really helps us. Share the show with a friend.
[00:23:25] And in the meantime, thank you for listening to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.