Recently an interviewer asked me how I thought the pandemic had changed me. I don’t remember how I answered, although afterwards I thought about this question both as applying to individuals and to writers.
As individuals we probably have many different answers, perhaps ranging from becoming more aware of our actions (wearing masks) to what we can do by ourselves rather than with others.
Hopefully embracing more gratitude in our lives is one of the results for us as individuals. This can be as simple as, once vaccinated, being able to pass other apartment residents in the building halls without worrying whether we are transmitting the virus to each other.
Yet I think for those of us who are writers how the pandemic may have changed us can have a wider meaning. Perhaps we have come to a better understanding of how small things can have a great impact.
I found the following quote in an article at fs.blog:
“The butterfly effect is the idea that small things can have non-linear impacts on a complex system. The concept is imagined with a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a typhoon.
“Of course, a single act like the butterfly flapping its wings cannot cause a typhoon. Small events can, however, serve as catalysts that act on starting conditions.”
I don’t write about politics, so please accept that the following is for explanation purposes only:
The seemingly politicalizing of wearing masks during the pandemic, which at first may have seemed a small thing, continues to affect the rate of vaccinations in the U.S. and therefore the timeline of return to near normalcy in American life.
Closer to home for me is the rapid rise of anti-Semitic outpourings. It is NOT true that “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Hateful words way too easily turn into hateful acts that way too easily turn into deadly acts.
The new social media campaign of the Holocaust Claims Conference is #ItStartedWithWords – which is what Hitler used to turn an entire nation into mass murderers.
We as writers have a social responsibility to use our words carefully. This doesn’t mean we can’t have villains in our fiction or nonfiction. It does mean that we have to be careful not to have the words and actions of those villains encourage hurtful words and actions in real life.
Here is an example from the past:
In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, some slaveholders quote the Bible as the basis for their right to own slaves. Stowe is very careful to balance this portrayal with others who make it clear that the Bible cannot be used to justify slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War.
During the May 2021 Paley Center Impact online panel “Media’s Role in Identifying, Explaining, and Combating Antisemitism,” one panelist said that the media needs to use more nuanced reporting. But I disagree.
Definition of nuanced from the Merrian-Webster dictionary:
having nuances: having or characterized by subtle and often appealingly complex qualities, aspects, or distinctions (as in character or tone)
I do not believe that, as writers, we can rely on readers to pick up on nuances that require delving into the layers below the surface of our words. That is expecting too much of most of our readers – and we cannot prevent the majority of our readers from missing the nuances.
We need to be careful to say what we mean and mean what we say. There should be no ambiguity as to whether we are slipping our own prejudices into our writing so as to (perhaps subtly) influence people to believe in “our side.” (Of course, if you are writing something that is purposely trying to sway opinion, that is another matter.)
Small words can lead to very large hurts (harm), and as writers coming out of the pandemic, we should strive to ensure our words inform and entertain – and that our words do not create a typhoon from the flapping of a butterfly’s wings.
Phyllis Zimbler Miller is a screenwriter, playwright and book author in Los Angeles. She is the co-founder ofthe free nonfiction Holocaust theater project www.ThinEdgeOfTheWedge.com to combat anti-Semitism and hate.