Commentary

No, “Art” Doesn’t Entitle You to Spread Harmful Messages

American Dirt cover, featuring barbed wire and Mexican style bird art
American Dirt is the latest example of a big name work coming under fire for exploiting and appropriating the cultures it features. However, it’s not the first, and it won’t be the last. Each time, white storytellers are told that we need to stop using other cultures for our own ends. And just like any time privileged people are told they’re doing something wrong, justifications for bad behavior have been pouring over the internet.

Among the most frequently used is the notion that storytellers should be able to depict whatever they want because… art. Generally, this argument comes with a statement about how art is supposed to challenge audiences and mischaracterizes criticism as censorship. These notions are built on a foundation of privilege and entitlement, but once placed in this pretty package, they can be used to dismiss a wide array of criticism from marginalized groups.

Personally, I am fed up with people using their supposed veneration for my craft as an excuse to hurt others. We should not be shielding storytellers who spread harmful messages from the criticism they’ve earned. Not only because it’s wrong, but also because it’s an insult to all the storytellers who do better.

Criticism and Refusal Are Not Censorship

Oprah reads American Dirt as she sits next to author Jeanine Cummins American Dirt received a huge marketing push and an endorsement from Oprah.

Sometimes reactionaries pretend social justice advocates want to clap them in irons, but this is merely straw-manning. In the United States, the First Amendment protects people from being sent to jail for what they write, and no significant group wants to change that. Nor do advocates wish to burn all copies and erase all records of any creative works.

Controversies don’t start because a creative work, even an extremely detestable one, merely exists. They start because the work is being promoted by a person or entity with the clout to spread it far and wide. A respected periodical accepted it and sent it to all their subscribers, or a publisher gave it a big ad campaign, or a studio spent millions producing it, or an influencer endorsed it. At that point, the work is impacting thousands or even millions of people: influencing our cultural mindset, motivating people to action, and inspiring other artists to create similar works.

Given that, the real battleground is whether potentially harmful works should be promoted to a wider public. Perhaps some should, but even so, saying that this discussion is about censorship is committing an obvious fallacy. No work is entitled to a million-dollar ad budget or celebrity tweets. A publisher is not censoring someone with every rejected manuscript. Critics who push back against harmful works are exercising their own freedom of speech, and as a natural result, others listen and exercise their right not to endorse something they don’t believe in. That’s what the First Amendment is for.

No One Really Thinks Art Shouldn’t Have Limits

A scene from Jojo Rabbit with a goofy imaginary Hitler Jojo Rabbit portrays its imaginary Hitler as goofy and comical because it’s considered immoral to portray Hitler any other way.

Many people have said they are against telling writers what they’re allowed to write about. This is a common reaction to learning that others object to what you’ve always considered acceptable. But this absolute freedom argument is hypocritical, because everyone has something they judge too unethical to be depicted in popular works.

For instance, do you think it’s acceptable for a movie studio to spend millions of dollars promoting a movie where Hitler is unironically the hero and all the Jews he kills onscreen are villains? Would you feel good about paying to see it? If not, it can only mean you don’t believe Hollywood screenwriters should be creating screenplays like that for mass consumption. But don’t you care about an artist’s freedom to promote genocide?

Obviously, genocide is not the same as cultural appropriation. The point is that we all make subjective judgment calls about what artistic messages are too harmful to be socially acceptable. What we’re debating is not whether we want limits, but where those limits are, and more than that, who decides. Will white people be the ones to decide their depictions of other cultures are okay because they seem okay to white people? Or should the people of those cultures be making those decisions?

An artist who insists this debate is taking away their freedom is like that white friend who drops the n-word and then gets mad when others tell them what they “can and can’t say.” Look, no one can stop you from saying the n-word, but you shouldn’t say it because it’s racist, okay? And sure, some white people think they’re using the n-word respectfully, but Black people don’t see it that way, and that’s what matters. These artists are using fancier language than this n-bombing white friend, but they’re having the same knee-jerk reaction, for the same reason. They feel entitled to continue their previous behavior without scrutiny or objection.

Good Stories Have Skilled Messaging

The characters in Pixar's Coco look over the Land of the Dead Coco wasn’t controversial because the storytellers succeeded at their goals.

Inherent to the argument of “but art!” is the notion that society could lose out on valuable works if they are judged based on the harmfulness of their content. This is the heritage of a literary culture that treats a work’s meaning as inherently ambiguous or subjective. Under this mindset, the messages in a work are something the reader is responsible for uncovering, not something the storyteller is responsible for communicating. That’s because traditional literary analysis is by readers, for readers. A reader can’t alter what’s in a beloved work; they can only choose to see it in a new light.

This may be a rewarding way of interpreting classic literature, but it doesn’t do the art of storytelling justice. Stories are inherently vehicles for teaching life lessons, and most storytellers want to deliver clear and specific messages in their work. What their book communicates to its readership is largely within their control, though making the intended statement can be very challenging. This means that in storytelling, it is delivering the right message clearly, not offering a menu of ambiguous hints, that signifies mastery of the craft.

This doesn’t mean ambiguity isn’t a valid goal or that beautiful accidents don’t happen; it simply means that messaging is one benchmark by which stories should be judged. In the case of American Dirt, author Jeanine Cummins set out to create a bridge between cultures and instead exploited one of those cultures for the benefit of the other. In this, she failed as a storyteller. In judging the artistic value of her work, it is as fair to throw American Dirt in the trash for its poor messaging as it is to throw it out for having shallow characters or clichéd description.

If Cummins had succeeded as a storyteller, there would be no controversy, regardless of her race. A great example is Pixar’s Coco. This film was helmed by a white man, Lee Unkrich, but Mexicans loved the film. That’s because he not only wanted to tell a story that was true to Mexican culture, but he also leveraged the resources of Pixar to do that.

Pixar succeeded by hiring numerous Mexican consultants and changing many details about the movie based on their feedback. In other words, it took the resources of a movie studio, and, in actuality, there were many Mexicans behind this film. Based on all the case studies we’ve examined at Mythcreants, a lone novelist depicting another culture has approximately nill chance of a success like that. As we aren’t interested in setting up writers to fail, we recommend they focus on diverse characters and avoid covering an entire culture that’s not their own.

Because our recommendations are based on getting results, we always mention that particularly qualified storytellers might be exempt. But in our experience, exactly no one cares about this distinction. Entitled white people are not satisfied with the knowledge that if they can depict other cultures as well as they say they can, no one will criticize them. They want to protect themselves from criticism regardless of what harm they do.

“Challenging” Audiences Is Cheap

In Star Trek Picard, Seven of Nine cries over the body of Icheb Fans become reasonably angry when Star Trek: Picard killed off a popular minor character in a pointlessly horrific way.

If a friend ran over your dog, “I’m sorry you’re upset” would be a pathetic apology, whereas “I’m sorry I ran over your dog” would at least be a start. The former is insincere because your friend is blaming your feelings, not their actions, as the cause of your current problems. This demonstrates a refusal to understand what they did wrong and take responsibility for it. Similarly, privileged people often frame social justice criticism as a matter of “offense.” In this mindset, the issue at hand is not what a work is communicating but how people are reacting to it.

From there, reactionaries defend themselves by glorifying the act of challenging or provoking audiences. The result is a glut of storytellers who take the cheapest route to getting a reaction. Take Michael Chabon, a writer who had this to say in a 2011 video profile:

It is part of a writer’s job in some way or another to be no respecter of boundaries, to challenge people’s preconceptions about what’s literature and what’s not, or what’s appropriate or what’s not, what can be said or what can’t be said.

Michael Chabon later became the showrunner for Star Trek: Picard’s first season. While the overall response to the season was mixed, fans became angry at one event in particular: the killing of a beloved minor character, Icheb, in a pointlessly horrific way. The episode shows a predatory medical procedure in graphic detail, and Icheb isn’t sedated or even given pain killers. This is an obvious contrivance, because the villain’s job would be easier without Icheb thrashing around. The scene may have succeeded in provoking emotions, but it was cheap storytelling.

Like a small child who loves potty language because it gets disgust from adults, any storyteller can elicit a response by being asinine. Add a torture scene. Threaten female characters with rape. Have the main character say some slurs. If the audience gets mad, that means it’s working, right? In the end, privileged people are just promoting the artistic value of being crude.

This is especially ironic because no social justice advocate needs a lesson in how it’s okay to make others upset. Our criticism elicits anger constantly. The difference is that we don’t do it to make people angry; we do it because we believe in what we’re saying. Anger is the unavoidable consequence of saying it. Similarly, stories are capable of provoking audiences in meaningful ways, but storytellers won’t get there if all they want is to be edgy.

To steer storytellers back toward saying meaningful things, we must judge the specific messages stories convey. We may disagree, but that’s a debate worth having. Of course, it’s easier to praise works for being provocative than it is to examine what they provoke and why. But framing controversy in terms of people’s feelings isn’t just devoid of merit, it’s also deeply unjust. Those who are hurt the most by harmful messages will naturally have the strongest emotional reactions to them. We stigmatize anger and “offense” to shut out the voices of already marginalized people.


If you are white, never forget that the conventional wisdom you hear has been heavily filtered by white people to serve our own interests. We treat our weak defenses as gospel, and when a marginalized person seems to agree with us, we amplify their words to validate ourselves. To see past this white filter, we can’t sit back in our comfortable spaces; we have to go out and listen. It’s our responsibility to understand how we are using our power to hurt others, not anyone else’s responsibility to teach us.

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Comments

  1. Feral

    “Like a small child who loves potty language because it gets disgust from adults, any storyteller can elicit a response by being asinine.”

    Thank you for that analogy! I’ve never been able to put the feeling I had into words so succinctly.

  2. Pearl Fields

    idk if this has to do with the subject in the article, but why do people use the excuse “its fictional” when there’s something wrong in a work? i know that the excuse is wrong, but exactly why i do not know.

    • Cay Reet

      It’s the easiest excuse. It’s in a fictional book and thus it’s not a problem when it’s not correct, because it’s not non-fiction (which needs to be correct and keep to the facts). That’s about as correct as saying ‘doesn’t matter if the plot isn’t good, it’s only a children’s book’, though. The fact that ‘it’s only a book’ does never excuse shoddiness.

      • LazerRobot

        Gotta love how this argument manages to get used both ways, too. When a piece of work is populated by entirely white people and someone points out the lack of diversity, inevitably someone will argue “it’s because it’s more realistic” and usually something about having too many people of color being “immersion-breaking.” And yet, when a writer creates an offensive portrayal of a culture, suddenly it’s just fiction, don’t worry about realism.

        • Dave L

          >when a writer creates an offensive portrayal of a culture, suddenly it’s just fiction, don’t worry about realism

          True, but sometimes the writer claims that the portrayal IS realistic

    • Dave L

      “It’s fictional” is a way of saying “It is not important. It has no effect on anything”

      Mythcreants has NUMEROUS articles on why fiction does matter. Almost everything under the Social Justice heading

  3. Kody

    This is one of the best articles I’ve seen here in the past few weeks. There are a lot of strong takeaways here, and I definitely feel like I’ve learned a bit more about the phenomenon. My particular favorites were likening the authors to potty-mouthed children, and the amusing irony of social justice advocates angering people (I guess it’s not okay to push THOSE boundaries :P).

  4. Dernhelm

    Thank you for writing this!
    I’m so tired of people trying to dodge any form of real criticism by simultaneously claiming that free speech entitles them to say or write anything as offensive they want, but other people offending them by criticizing their words can’t do that because that’s somehow curbing free speech.

    Also, the fact that bigoted jokes can actually harm people has been proved by science: https://theconversation.com/psychology-behind-the-unfunny-consequences-of-jokes-that-denigrate-63855
    It shouldn’t be anymore of a debate than vaccines or evolution should.

    • Bubbles

      Yes. Free speech *also* entails the right to criticism, and people should remember that. Also, thanks for providing the article you linked! Which is what made me ask now… Have there been any studies or research on whether normalization in media (another concept that’s been mentioned here quite a bit) actually has any effect on real-world behavior? I, and some others elsewhere, have said that there needs to be solid proof for any claims that fiction causes real-world harm, and unfortunately, I’m not sure whether such proof exists in the case of normalization (note, however, I’m definitely not sure it doesn’t exist – I genuinely don’t know).

      • Dernhelm

        Well, the big problem is that it’s been hard to study the matter as it would be unethical to intentionally expose people to material that could make them more callous and less empathetic, and because most early studies did point to this being the case, it has made further research difficult.

        However, this article on the same page does link to several studies made on offensive language that did show it had a negative effect on people’s acceptance on women and minorities: https://theconversation.com/its-just-a-joke-the-subtle-effects-of-offensive-language-62440

      • Dernhelm

        Well, there were some studies linked in the article, but the problem with this kind of research is that since if it turns out definitive proof that certain kinds of media makes it’s consumers less empathetic and more bigoted, it would be massively unethical to intentionally expose test subjects to it, and I think this is a big reason that it’s hard to find more studies on the subject.

        • Bubbles

          Good point, but… I’m not sure whether ethics would absolutely ban exposure to everything that *may* or *may not* be harmful. For instance, in the studies on the effects of violent video games, people were indeed exposed to violent video games, even though at least at that time, people didn’t know whether it *would* or *would not* make them more violent – and certainly if solid evidence was found then that violent video games made people more violent, then it would be considered unethical to expose people to such games.

          IIRC, scientific studies don’t need to have literally zero risk to be considered ethically acceptable – stuff such as informed consent, limits to risk, and so on are the key factors. I suspect that the bigger factor might be that because normalization is not a direct “this piece of media causes X,” as the people on this blog have been pointed out, I would say it’s inherently more difficult to test scientifically. With that said, given that there has been work on testing other societal factors that may have subtle effects, I feel that it may be at least possible to start work on this kind of thing, if it hasn’t progressed further already.

          • Cay Reet

            I think the amount of exposure and how the content is presented is also important. If it’s normalized, shown as something regular or even positive, it may influence people in the long run. If it happens in every other piece of media, chances are higher that people grow used to it and see it as something normal. Works both ways, which is why Oren and Chris also often point out that authors should diversify their stories, so that diverse casts become the norm.

            But no, there’s no clear proof of it. We’re not only consuming media, we also live, many factors influence how our mind works and what we see as positive or negative.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hey Dernhelm, we sent you a little something over email, let me know when you get it, or if we should use a different address.

  5. Dave L

    Why is it generally more acceptable for a Black person to use certain racially-charged terms than for a White person to use those same terms?

    Because the Black person is punching across. The White person is punching down

  6. Mystery

    I do think there is a difference between arguing for avoiding causing offence because of the desire to avoid causing emotional distress and arguing for avoiding causing offence because you believe fiction can and should influence people’s actions and viewpoints. The desire to avoid causing emotional distress is legitimate as, ideally people should want to avoid upsetting people and discussing experiences that don’t belong to them. As I have commented on this website before, believing in normalisation through fiction can be harmful by encouraging abdication of personal responsibility and lack of critical thinking. That being said, avoiding causing offence out of respect for others is both admirable and moral.

    It is also true that free speech doesn’t include the right to prevent criticism or to be paid for broadcasting your views.

    • Dernhelm

      Normalization through fiction isn’t a belief, there are literally scientific studies proving that it’s real, and I even posted a link to an article linking several such studies in my comment above.

      And it’s the people believing normalization and harmfull messages in media isn’t a big deal who tend to be the least critical thinkers and most susceptible to it.

      • Mystery

        To clarify, by lack of critical thinking I meant that support of fiction as normalisation could encourage people to ignore better sources of moral education, such as the law, historical facts, and psychology. Making fiction socially acceptable for all groups is important however encouraging people to distinguish between fiction and fact, and helping them learn which sources are credible is equally important. Proving that normalisation in fiction is valid only makes encouraging people to distinguish between fiction and fact, and helping them learn which sources are credible, more important, unless older works are removed from circulation.

        • Jeppsson

          Look, people have tried to explain this to you before… Everyone is influenced by fiction, even if they’re intelligent and understand the difference between fiction and reality.

          • Dernhelm

            Exactly! Just look at the phenomenon of commercials and how they influence people into buying products they wouldn’t otherwise.

            Does anyone think companies would waste millions on billboards and commercials if media didn’t effect people?

            It’s also pretty insulting to all the artists who specifically create their works because they want to change people’s minds on an issue, like how the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped change the public opinion on slavery, or Black Beauty on animal rights.

          • Bubbles

            I think some would argue that people *shouldn’t* be influenced by fiction because authors can write fiction any way they want, for better or for worse, so it can’t say anything *about reality*. I’ve recently heard that the book *The Iron Dream* was meant to prove that point (and note that while it is fiction, its own point is about fiction, not reality).

            Of course, whether it is *possible* to not be influenced by fiction is a different issue. (I would personally suspect that even if it is impossible to be totally non-influenced, there are still ways to at least reduce the influence fiction has on you). Also, as Mystery points out, in any case, it’s still respectful to try to not create bigoted fiction.

          • Jeppsson

            I mean, I don’t disagree that it’s good to be a critical thinker and not just buy into everything you read or watch. I don’t disagree that it’s important to teach people critical thinking skills.

            Still, Mystery keeps writing as if a lot of people consciously think, when reading or watching fiction: “This is probably completely realistic, and since this person is a main character, it probably means he’s a good role model too. From now on, I will try to emulate him and do everything that he does in real life.”

            But that’s NOT what Oren and Chris write about! Obviously very very few people are THAT oblivious. Even so, culture and fiction influence people in a lot of ways. That’s just the way it is.

  7. Tuttle

    We’re all edgy and irreverent until it’s our sacred cow on the slaughterhouse floor. Late to the party but thanks for articulating this message better than I ever could.

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