The Camera Lies

The Camera Lies November 24, 2008

According to a widely followed dictum enunciated by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, “[i]f in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” As a principle of drama this is, of course, quite sensible. But it leads to the odd effect that, unless you have had personal experience with firearms, chances are you have never seen a gun without soon seeing it used to shoot someone. And even taking into account the fictional nature of most of these “shootings,” it is not surprising that a person who knew about guns only through film and television might have an exaggerated sense of the dangerousness of firearms, or of their association with murder and violence.

Many people are rightly wary of negative depictions of members of various minority groups, on the grounds that they may serve to re-enforce stereotypes about those groups, particularly among those whose main experience of those groups is from film and television. In each case the basic principle is the same. When you lack much personal experience of a group, object, or environment, and encounter fictional depictions of it, you are liable to accept those depictions as accurate, even if they are not a true reflection of reality.

To the extent, then, that we lack much personal experience in an area and know that good fiction is liable to distort depictions of that subject in a particular way, we ought to try and take account of how this bias may effect our views on the subject. Another great Russian writer, for example, began one of his books by saying: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I don’t think this is true of life, but it does seem to be largely true of fiction. Happiness is not only harder to portray in drama than unhappiness, but it’s depiction is also less varied, and tends to consist in many cases of little else than an absence of happiness. If a child grows up seeing case after case of unhappy relationships, unhappy friendships, unhappy work, unhappy marriages, etc., with only an occasional scene or two of bliss before the credits roll, this could very well have an impact on their overall view of the world.

Or, to take another example. Business and commerce when depicted in fiction tend to be depicted negatively. Businessmen are greedy and unscrupulous, corporations are at the center of all kinds of plots and conspiracies, and trade is often a thin veneer placed over fraud and coercion. It is easy to understand, even apart from the ideological dispositions of artists, why businessmen and large corporations would make desirable villains and why positive depictions of the marketplace might not make for interesting drama. But for people who themselves lack much business instinct and have little direct experience of what goes on in a corporate boardroom, might not such repeated impressions create in their minds a more unfavorable impression of markets than they would gain from actually experiencing such things first hand?

Examples could no doubt be multiplied endlessly, but you get the idea. Thoughts?

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