16 September 2011 - 6:20 pm

Writing about dangerous ideas

One of the talks that I attended at this year’s Brisbane Writer’s Festival was on ‘dangerous ideas’. It brought up some interesting points, and is a topic that I find fascinating. It’s like a shiny, smooth rock that you turn over in your hands and get the urge to launch through someone’s window.

The first question that comes up is: what is a dangerous idea? What kinds of things are dangerous to write about?

Let’s put aside for the moment the effect of location and what that means for a writer’s ‘safety’. There are many parts of the world where the wrong (right!) type of writing will land you in prison, or worse. The BWF always remembers these writers with an empty chair on the stage at each event, representing all those writers who can’t join us because their writing has caused them to be unavailable. I love this tradition in the festival and applaud their desire to keep these suppressed writers in our minds. However, it’s not quite what this post is about, so I’m going to leave it there.

In the Western world, what is considered dangerous to write about? What raises people’s ire, shakes fingers, or is simply viewed as risque? Should we write about these things? Should we restrain ourselves? All interesting questions, and none of the answers are simple.

The danger of silence

One of the most striking comments from the talk was made by Rachel DeWoskin. (This is badly paraphrased from memory, but this is the gist of what she said.) She said that when it comes to taboo topics – like underage sex, or abuse, or teenage desire, or cannibalism – the most dangerous idea was to not talk about it. The notion of shutting these things away and never looking at them is a terrible one for her, and I agree. Talking about dangerous things is less dangerous than not talking about them.

This reminds me of a conversation I once had with a Jehovah’s Witness on my doorstep. The woman opened the conversation by saying how sad it was that things were so terrible for children these days. How we couldn’t let them play outside on their own, how we had to protect them from the many dangers that surround them now. Wasn’t it awful how things had declined over the years and that things were getting so much worse?

I thought about it for a moment, then I said: No. She looked a bit shocked, so I explained.

It is terrible that there are dangers out there for children and the world is a frightening place. But I don’t think it is getting worse. The difference between the past and the present is that we are talking about it more now. We know about all those many things that might hurt a child, such as abuse, paedophilia, or bullying. It’s not new; we are simply starting to understand the size of a problem that was always there.

Yes, it looks awful, but better to look at it than pretend it isn’t happening. Better to be aware and protect our children. Better to be able to fight it. Awareness is the first step in being able to stop it, not a symptom of a decline into an abyss.

(The woman went away after that. This is something of a pattern with me and people who strike up conversations on my doorstep.)

Part of the purpose of any type of art is to reveal the truth. To examine, to provoke, to ask questions. To make people think about something, even if it’s an uncomfortable topic. Pretending that teenagers don’t have a sex drive might make some people more comfortable, but how does that help a teenager learn how to deal with it, or how to protect themselves from the issues that it brings? How does that help us improve anything?


So, bringing these issues out into the open is a good thing. That said, when you talk about taboo subjects, how do you avoid sliding into voyeurism, cheap sensationalism, or pornography?

The panel agreed that this was largely a matter of taste (the panel being: Rachel, Tim Richards and Cory Taylor). For some, the mere mention of a subject is pornographic, while the bar is much higher for other readers. As writers (or artists of any type), you cannot guarantee that you’re not going to offend someone.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t try to avoid offense. Treating the subject matter with respect, sensitivity, and empathy is the best perspective to start from.

Do your research in the area you’re discussing, and talk to the people that you’re writing about. Rachel’s book Big Girl Small is about a girl with a form of Dwarfism, and she consulted hundreds of Little People (I believe that is the correct term) to make sure she got it right. Cory made a short film about a Down Syndrome teenager and spoke with many families with Down Syndrome members about their experiences; afterwards, they thanked her for getting it right.

I think these are good rules of thumb, no matter what subject you’re writing about (taboo or otherwise). Coming from a place of empathy is especially important when you’re dealing with a sensitive topic, though. Again, awareness is key.


Sadly, the talk didn’t get into the moral side of the issues for writers. This is a part of this topic that I find interesting. While the panel agreed that art should bring taboo topics out into the open, should ask questions, I believe that writing does more than that and cannot avoid morality entirely. The way that taboos are presented makes a difference, and that’s where the moral issue comes into play.

If you have ever had to write a questionnaire, you will know that there are many ways to phrase the same question. The wording that you choose influences the answers you’re likely to get. Someone skilled in this can present a survey and get exactly the results that they’re looking for. As writers, we should be aware of this, especially when handling a sensitive topic. Wording, presentation, and perception matter.

So is there a moral imperitive for writers? Should they only present things in an ethical manner?

I find those questions hard to answer. My instinct is to say: no. Writers do not have to be driven by high moral rules in order to write about taboo subjects. We do not have to present every murderer as a blackhearted demon or a mentally unstable drooler, or every rapist as a violent underachiever.

But writers should be aware that their presentation will colour how a reader views that subject. Is presenting a sympathetic paedophile the ‘right’ thing to do? Is, perhaps, the horror that such a thing presents to a reader the point of such a presentation? Is it possible for a piece of art to excuse it?

What about murder? Look at the Dexter series (books or TV) and how a serial killer becomes the hero, even while he’s exercising his serial killing desires. Look at (the dreaded) Twilight and how it presents a violent stalker and a passive, weak girl, as if they are an ideal for others to live up to.

I find some of these presentations insidious and repulsive. To me, they present a talking-point as something to object to – and this, too, can be the point of an artistic presentation. Prompting talk (sometimes of any kind, even negative) can be a worthy purpose. Sadly, with the more popular examples, too few look at the details and take the surface on faith. Too few question it. The writing slides under their skin and they don’t look any further.

Morality is like taste; it varies between readers and you’ll never satisfy everyone. So should you seek to satisfy anyone?

Like I said, I find these questions hard to answer. Personally, I try to stay true to my own morals and go from there. I suppose that that’s all you can ask of an artist. That, and be conscious of what you’re presenting and how it might be read. That is something that I suspect gets lost much of the time.

Awareness. Sensitivity. Empathy. With these three things, I don’t think that you can go wrong when dealing with controversial topics. But keep dealing with them, because we are the world’s window to the truth, whatever flavour we choose to suck on.

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