When I was seventeen years old, I hit two pedestrians with my car. Now, this was ruled a no-fault accident. It was 6:30 am in the middle of February on a cloudy day. The road was quite misty, I was coming around a blind turn and my lights were on a yard instead of on the road, and the pedestrians were walking down the middle of the road in dark clothing. There was no action that I could reasonably have taken to avoid the accident, other than not being behind the wheel of the car. So, this accident was not my fault, but that lack of fault does not absolve me of responsibility. If I had not been driving, the accident would not have happened. If I had left later, the accident would not have happened. My responsibility also does not absolve the pedestrians of their responsibility. If they had left later, the accident would not have happened. If they were not walking in the middle of the road, the accident would not have happened, etc. However, this is a responsibility that I live with, because there were permanent consequences to my actions that day.
There is a lot more to this story, but my focus today is on the nature of responsibility. We are responsible for our actions, and for the consequences of those actions – whether intended or unintended, and this is something that we should bear in mind both as people, and as writers. If my action, or inaction, hurts another person (regardless of intent), then this is my responsibility, and I should take steps to mitigate that hurt (it is impossible to ‘right a wrong’ but it is possible to mitigate the harm done by a wrong). This applies to any action, whether it involves a car, a relationship, a work of art, etc, and it is something that I have noticed a distinct lack of in the American people – both in our celebrities, our art, and in our everyday lives.
We have become a nation of people who insist that ‘it’s not my fault’ and ‘I can’t be held responsible for that’, and this affects our relationships, our work, our studies, and our entertainment. As a professor, I can’t count the number of students who argue that they shouldn’t be responsible for the actions that led to their grade. While I certainly bear a responsibility as the professor to inform them of class requirements, to post their grades in a timely manner, and give them feedback on what they need to improve; the student also bears a responsibility to fulfill those requirements, to act on that feedback, and to ensure that their work is finished in a timely manner.
In relationships, whether friendships or romantic, when I have done something to harm another it is my responsibility to make amends. If I have harmed another unknowningly this responsibility is not absolved (although that person does have a responsibility to make me aware of the harm before I can make amends). If my inaction hurts a friend or romantic partner, then it is my responsibility to make amends for that inaction, and in some cases, if my kindness will lead to greater harm, then it is my responsibility to be cruel (to be the bad guy) so that the harm done to my friend might be mitigated. This same nature of responsibility applies to us as writers.
Words and images have power, and as writers and artists we must be aware of that power, and use it responsibly – and we must also take responsibility for the effect that our use of words and images has on others. There is, and must be, a place for darkness in writing, as well as for graphic material (this is something that we have discussed before here and here). However, we cannot control who reads our work. If someone decides to read H.P. Lovecraft or Stephen King to a five year old, while the author cannot be held at fault, that author does bear some measure of responsibility for the inevitable damage this will do. As artists we must take responsibility for the effect that our works have on others. Just as a doctor, parent, or teacher must bear responsibility for the consequences of their actions, so we must take responsibility for the consequences of ours. This is, and should be, a heavy burden on the mind of any artist – not just, ‘how will my work be received’, but ‘what effect will my work have on others’.
However, this responsibility cannot cause us to shy away from doing work that must be done. If Schindler’s List had never been made, then it would be a great loss to the world. If King, Lovecraft, or Edgar Allan Poe had never written, then it would be a great loss to the world. While we must take these things seriously, and understand the gravity of our words, we cannot allow the responsibility that they bear to force us to shy away from hard things. Responsibility is a frightening thing. It is uncomfortable, often painful, and rarely appreciated. However, it is also profoundly needed, precisely because it is something that our culture has left behind. I encourage all of you, and myself as well, to be careful with your writing, but do not be fearful.