Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why Fantasy Matters: Thoughts on Law, Politics, and Society (Part I)

Heather Whitney is a student at Harvard Law School. This semester, she’s examining the ways in which conflicting narratives shape our understanding of self and the world around us. She sees fiction, and more specifically speculative fiction, as not only a bearer of values we already share, but as a tool to transform them.

First, I’d just like to thank everyone at Fantasy Matters for letting me guest blog. I’m looking forward to sharing some of my ideas and, I hope, soliciting yours. 

There are some questions eating at me. Why, for starters, has there has been such an explosion in young adult dystopian fiction? Why did Californians attempt to ban the sale of violent video games to minors? Why did the Supreme Court say with a clear 7-2 majority that Californians could not? Mitt Romney and Rick Perry campaign videos – to the extent they move one to action, why? Look at Obama’s famous 2008 Hope poster and ask the same.

My view is that these seemingly disparate questions are connected. Stated simply -- both within ourselves and throughout the country there are vivid and varying conceptions of what it means to live a good life and, not unrelated, what it means to be American. These conceptions consist of a bundle of values. Often, these values conflict. Nonetheless, we tap into these various conceptions, or their underlying values, when we make decisions about raising our families, promoting legislation, rejection legislation, and voting for a President. My goal here is to spend time thinking about where these conceptions come from, what their value commitments entail, how those values are appealed to in a variety of areas (from politics to literature to personal identity and beyond), why those values are important and useful, how they can lead us astray, and what we can do about it.

Below I’ll set out a few of my basic claims. I think these claims are true. My aim in subsequent posts is to convince you of the same. 

Claim One: Most of us (enough of us that I’ll just say “All of us”), when asked what we ultimately want, will say “a good life”.  (We agree on the concept “good life”.)

Two: When asked to explain what a good life looks like, we give different answers. (We each have our own conception of what the concept “good life” looks like.)

Three: Our conception of a good life entails a commitment to various values.

Four: While we each have our own conception of a good life, we understand that others may have different, yet also valid, conceptions of what a good life looks like, too.

Five: While each person has their own conception of a good life, they did not fully choose that conception on their own.

Six: The communities we participate in shape our conception of a good life.

Seven: Within communities there can be many and conflicting conceptions of a good life.

Eight: At different times in history, different conceptions of a good life gain dominance.

Nine: People, be them advertisers, politicians, documentary filmmakers, friends, teachers, authors, or whomever, tap into different community-shared conceptions of a good life in order to persuade.

Ten: We should, both as individuals and as a community, spend more time thinking about Nine. We should ask ourselves where our conceptions of goodness come from, how others use those conceptions to move us to action, when we like that, when we don’t, and whether we think there should be new conceptions (what I like to call new narratives) in our community.

More details to come...


  1. Looking forward to seeing how this topic evolves. It really touches upon some fundamental aspects of our lives.

  2. I like the idea of thinking about the conceptions we base our morality on as "narratives." Excited to follow along with you!

  3. Congrats on the guest post! Very interesting topic that makes us stop to reflect on what our values are and what we base them on. Looking forward to the details to come!

  4. OK, I can accept all of the claims you've made here. I think it's particularly useful to spend time on Nine in a big election cycle.

    Regarding Ten, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts about what is (or should be) influencing your opinion about what a new conception should be. Put another way, if you're already thinking about where your conception of good came from and also what it should be in the future, what's the process you're using to analyze the variables (potentially) leading you to identify a "value gap" in the present? And what are the external influences on that analytical process? Not sure if that makes sense; hopefully, you're getting the gist.