Thursday, May 24, 2007

Free Will, Writer's Will

An Essay on Writing
by Robert Zumwalt

Recently, a morning television news segment featured Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo promoting his book, The Lucifer Effect: his premise, that in the right situation good people do bad things.

He recounted his Stanford Prison Study from 1971 where a prison-like environment was populated by student volunteers who were randomly parsed into roles of prisoners and guards. He noted "the guards quickly became so brutal that the experiment had to be shut down after only six days." Serious casualties left Mr. Zimbardo wondering about his role as warden. Thirty-plus years of research since the aborted study prompted comparisons to contemporary prison-abuse scandals: Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc., with implications that one should, using his metaphor, look beyond the bad apples to the bad barrel.

I read The Lord of the Flies several years before the Stanford study took place. I would hope that Mr. Zimbardo had read it, as well. People are easily led astray and civilized norms are fragile. Environment and long buried experience often override moral teachings.

The cultural assumption that good must triumph frames the discourse on the way life should be. Writers face this tradition -- readers demand it -- but does morality guide our choices, or is it merely the judge of past actions? Mr. Zimbardo's student subjects presumably had average moral training. Did they choose to brutalize their fellow students or was their behavior unleashed by circumstances? Did the barrel spoil the apples?

Contemporary theories echo older cosmologies, suggesting fate may not be in our stars, but in our biochemistry and subconscious mind. A recent article in the New York Times, by Dennis Overbye tackled the subject:

"A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.

"As a result, physicists, neuroscientists and computer scientists have joined the heirs of Plato and Aristotle in arguing about what free will is, whether we have it, and if not, why we ever thought we did in the first place. "


Whether the monkey is riding the tiger or telling his own tale, the characters we create in our stories are driven by their personal gods and demons. To reduce those forces to the DNA double helix merely substitutes one set of forces with another. The dynamics remain the same. Our stories are created from the known and the hoped for, all wrapped up in whatever language and metaphor of the moment that moves the story along and has meaning for our audience.

To dramatize: a child born in a remote village in Guatemala is not likely to worry about his prospects for Stanford. At least he won't worry about it in the same way that children in my neighborhood and their parents do, with their learning centers and SAT coaches. The boy's poverty is determinism of the existential sort. If the jungle around him instills a passion that leads to a quest to do biological research, it may eventually pit him against a minuteman at the US border who believes the boy should know his place in the world order and stay on his own side of the fence. Where he belongs. The boy's passions and the minuteman's own flavor of determinism, the nativist version of the "elect of God" syndrome, are in conflict.

Here are two flavors of determinism in the same story premise, with two paths taken -- chosen or driven doesn't matter. The first is based on physical circumstances; the boy is born into poverty. The latter is based on acculturation; the man has been taught from childhood that America is for those of European descent and sensibilities. Both sets of circumstances pre-exist as the backstory for these individuals and, as history, cannot be changed. This basic scenario can generate at least two stories: one about the boy and one about the minuteman. In either case, the social and political context would have to be brought in to satisfy my sense of drama. Otherwise, it would become a shallow paean to a hero quest or a diatribe against rednecks. Both individuals have much more to reveal about themselves. They have mothers and friends and lovers, and just as critical to their actions, their own perspective of their worlds: the way they have processed all that they have acquired over their lifetimes.

While the heroic nature of the boy's quest for an education is compelling, the xenophobia in which the antagonist was raised is raw material for the kind of noirish tales I construct. In my story I would be inclined to balance the boy's struggles with the minuteman's interior journey where he uncovers the dark corners of his own
assumptions.

Mine is a Left Coast perspective with heroes and villains to satisfy my sense of truth. I'm sure Rush Limbaugh, Don Imus, or followers of Jerry Falwell would tell the story differently.


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