Plato disapproved of poetry — especially the myths of Homer and Hesiod, which constituted the showbiz of his day, as well as the main religious devotions and a central means of education. In The Republic Plato argued that drama and poetry recitation should be banned from an ideal city as a way of keeping young people from imitating the bad deeds that dramatists portrayed. Just as people worry about the ethical and emotional impact of videogames and violent television today, Plato worried about the influence of Medea, Agamemnon, and Oedipus on Athenian morality.
But do people imitate fictional stories? This debate is still going on, 2,500 years after Plato’s day, and by now there’s more than enough evidence to reach a conclusion. My answer is a qualified yes. But the qualifications are as important as the yes.
Sometimes we all imitate others, including fictive characters. (Businesses spend big bucks on ads, knowing that we’ll copy the model who is shown consuming their product.) Some people imitate more than others. The social effects are not always harmful, contrary to the beliefs of Plato and his teacher Socrates. They considered imitation the worst possible way to gain wisdom, which could be taught only through rational discussion and philosophical debate.
This dispute was a long standing and very serious quarrel. Socrates had even been sentenced to death for impiety against the gods after having questioned the Athenian poets’ ancient myths. But even after that, Plato did not mince words when criticizing imitation or “mimesis.”
Today the evidence is clear: people do imitate, and the actions that are performed on the screen or stage may be copied with either harmful or beneficial results. This is especially worrisome when it comes to children. Of the thousands of studies investigating the influence of violent television on children, for example, fewer than twenty have discovered no effect. But of course even adults imitate.
One might suppose, then, that we could write up a set of guidelines for writers that would preclude displaying the kind of acts that would be socially harmful if copied. However, that is easier said than done. Nobody imitates every action that is seen, thank goodness. We are each selective, and different individuals are influenced in differing ways. A great deal depends on the context of the plot. We can say this much, though: people are more likely to imitate characters with whom they identify — especially characters whom they feel they resemble. Thus we must expect some people — especially viewers who are immature or psychologically and morally underdeveloped — to imitate attractive characters in stories who are shown perpetrating reprehensible deeds. Other people, naturally, will simply turn against such morally ambiguous characters, though it’s painful to have to give up on someone we originally liked.
In fact, we sometimes derive a beneficial moral education from following with sympathy the activities of morally ambiguous characters. Every play must contain some conflict, and sometimes our moral horizons are broadened by following the moral downfall of “gray” characters. There are no simple formulas for keeping stories socially beneficial rather than harmful. On the other hand, the complexity of the problem does not exonerate writers from any responsibility to influence their audiences for the better.
Oddly, many literary critics and social scientists continue to deny that fiction has any moral influence whatever. For example, the writer Steven Johnson, who has rightly gained fame for arguing that television dramas are making us smarter, also maintains that such shows do not harm viewers morally. He need not take that position. After all, getting smart and getting wise are two different matters that obviously do not always happen at the same time. Yet Johnson insists that videogames and violent television have no deleterious effects on the moral development of young people.I think otherwise, just as I believe that morally inspiring characters in shows such as Good Night and Good Luck are beneficial.
Social scientists also tend to doubt that imitation has any effect, and their intellectual history in this direction can actually be spelled out. I would attribute the acceptance of this view primarily to the unquestioned authority of a founding father of sociology, the Frenchman Emile Durkheim. (See photo.) It was Durkheim who provided the theories that allowed sociologists to distinguish themselves from psychologists. Notably he sought to demonstrate empirically that the rates of suicide must be attributed to factors in the social structure, rather than to psychological processes. The social factors that he explored causally included education, income, religious affiliation, marital status, time of day, and dozens of other structural attributes. He began, however, by trying to rule out some alternative causes — especially the notion of “social contagion,” or copycat suicide. Since then, sociologists have worked from the assumption that their professional obligation is to demonstrate structural causes, not psychological ones.
Yet Durkheim was mistaken. True, he did identify structural factors that are associated with suicide rates. But the psychological processes are important too. He ruled out “contagion” prematurely, and thereby established a bias within his new academic discipline.
Twenty years or so ago, the sociologist David Phillips established the fact that people sometimes do emulate the example of suicidal persons — not only people they know personally, but people whose deaths are publicized in the press or even fictive characters shown in films and television. His colleagues viewed his research with skepticism, yet the findings have stood the test of time. Now in the latest British Journal of Psychiatry, researchers have presented evidence that up to ten percent of suicides may be prompted by copy-cat behavior among people with mental illness.
Adults have the right to watch what they want. There is no simple solution to these problems, but there is the starting point for a solution. It must begin, I think, by making people aware of the moral and emotional impact of the cultural environment in which we all live. It does not work merely to dismiss these effects as trivial. We start by being mindful of their effects on ourselves and on the people around us — especially (but not only) our children.
Moreover, we can learn lessons from another Athenian philosopher, Aristotle, who was Plato’s greatest student. Unlike his teacher, Aristotle believed that tragedies could be either beneficial or harmful to audiences. In his book, The Poetics, he sought to spell out the principles that would enable playwrights to confer benign emotional effects on their audiences. Today we can question some of his recommendations, but they are still the starting point for any ethical appraisal of a television show or a drama. We need to pick up that issue and explore it anew.