The Moral Responsibilities of the Reader

I previously wrote about censors and censorship, and the essential characteristics of the people who try to censor writers, be it the self proclaimed “social justice warriors” to the Evangelical parents who squawk loudly at the school board to have a book banned because it’s “inappropriate”. Today, I want to turn to the moral responsibilities of the reader.

So often responsibility is placed on the author to make a “tasteful” work, something that is somehow ennobling. Not all literature is about “ennobling” us or making us feel good. Some of it is about making us feel like crap, in point of fact. Have you ever read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison? It is the most profoundly perverse and heartbreaking narrative I’ve ever encountered. It’s not supposed to be wholesome, but a sad commentary on race and gender.

While authors are constantly told to take responsibility for their work, I have never once heard someone ask a reader how they took responsibility for their reading and understanding of the piece. That is a curious, dangerous problem. We have a society of people whose tastes are catered to, who are not challenged, so that when they encounter a challenging piece, like The Bluest Eye, they are wholly unequipped to deal with beautiful, disturbing writing. They just want to feel good, not think.

But, nonetheless, readers have moral responsibilities. I say “moral” to emphasize the imperative to hold readers to a high standard of conduct — the same standard authors are often held to. If we hold our writers to high standards, it only stands to reason that we hold readers to the same rigorous standards.

Readers are morally responsible in three ways: first, they are morally responsible for their own reactions to literature; second, they are responsible for having meaningful dialogues with authors; and third, they are responsible for separating fact from fiction. I will examine these three below.

1. Put the Book Down

In demonstrating responsibility for their own reactions, the first thing a reader can do when encountering a text they don’t like is simply to put the book down.

If you don’t like it, don’t read it. And yet so many people fail at this, instead proselytizing if they dislike a book, or, worse yet, trying to get it censored or banned for “offensive” content.

Let me tell you, reader: if it is so goddamn offensive to you, maybe you should just stop reading.

Put. The book. Down.

2. Have a Meaningful Dialogue with the Author

Readers have an obligation to have meaningful, civil dialogue with the author when the occasion arises. For instance, when Amélie Wen Zhao’s book Blood Heir was accused of “racism” and subsequently pulled from publication due to internet mobs, what should have been done is that the concerned parties approached the author (and her publicist and/or agent) privately to discuss the issues. How can Zhao, or any author, fix something if they are not told, rather than screamed at? Trust me, as an educator with 12 years of experience, I can safely say that the proverbial carrot is much more effective than the stick. If you want someone to learn something, you don’t set an internet mob on them. You approach them with compassion and with the understanding they are a person too and deserve the benefit of the doubt.

We all have ingrained ideas, such as racism, sexism, etc, that should be examined. But that examination need not be something that leaves a person feeling diminished. On the contrary, such an examination should leave us feeling expanded and more knowledgeable. You can’t reach that point with nasty, vindictive “discourse”.

3. Separating Fact From Fiction

I would say the most important job of the reader is to separate fact from fiction. If we did not, then a lot of people who read Romeo and Juliet would think it a great idea to fall in love when you’re not even 18 and elope. Or that we should rape children, as in The Color Purple. Or, as in one of Sherman Alexie’s short stories, we should lock away all Native Americans and finish the ethnic genocide that the United States government started. Or that we should punish women for having children out of wedlock, as in The Scarlet Letter.

This could also extend to the writer themselves. That is, just because a writer writes something, doesn’t mean they endorse it, or, that it is indicative of anything to do with the writer beyond the fact they wrote it. We simply have no way of knowing what exactly the writer was thinking when they wrote something. It would be presumptuous of me to say to Kafka “bro, you a bug!” just based on his writing. Or to assume Toni Morrison was a child predator based on The Bluest Eye. (And, in the last case, the text itself is CLEARLY against what happens to this child . . . if you assume Morrison is a predator or something based on that, you are an idiot.)

I could go on, but it is not the writer’s job to say “this is fiction, and therefore, not real”. It is the reader’s job to discern the difference between reality and imagination. It is not the writer’s fault if you go out and kill someone because you read Crime and Punishment or Julius Caesar. That responsibility is firmly yours, dear reader, barring the fact you have very real cognitive issues which prevent you from knowing the difference between fact and fiction, right and wrong.

At the end of the day, if we were prescriptive and puritanical about our fiction, refusing to take moral responsibility as readers, we would end up imprisoning all our writers simply because they wrote something we didn’t like. And heaven forbid writers do that horrible thing. We must all fall in line so we can be published, rather than pushing the boundaries of fiction, or writing things that are uncomfortable, but real and true.

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