Ruben Palma


Fabulating Ethics

1)   Globalization.

The very first steps of mankind were already steps directed towards the whole world, towards globalization.

Through our history runs an endless chain of meetings and clashes between different cultures – for good and bad, for progress and tragedy.

Centuries of technological development have left us all in a small, tight world, where people from the other side of the world can - and do - become our neighbours overnight.  

In an age where we are able to find Coca Cola in the Amazons and we can pay for a breakfast at the Great Chinese Wall with a credit card, one could expect cultural clashes to be a matter of the past. 

But… it seems that any historical moment must contain one or more paradoxes. A paradox of our times is the development of two very different mental attitudes in a relatively small place.

On the one side there is an all embracing, flexible consciousness seeking common traces in every culture. 

And, on the other side, a strong, differentiating attitude is also developing. This attitude is intolerant and aggressive. It sees differences as inimical and intends to impose its own view of the world on others. 

2) Globalization and intolerance.

In general terms we could say that… on the one hand we are aware that people different from us are not so different. And on the other hand we want to make different people even more different.

The clash of cultures and ways of defecting are not happening on a large scale or at an international level. It happens at a street, school, working places, neighbourhood  levels and so on.

Following the news in Denmark and the rest of Europe, observing my surroundings and listening to my own experience…. I am not at all an optimist. I find it very difficult to believe that inter  cultural tensions will diminish in the future.  

This is a feeling that may sound very negative or –at least- alarmist when expressed.

Well, I hope I am wrong. I hope I am very wrong.

Whatever the future dimension of the conflicts created by cultural differences will be, we can all agree that in almost every European country and many other countries of the world there is a latent or ongoing problem. 

If we think that the conflicts of a not distant tomorrow  will be carried by today´s children, then an appropriate question in the context of this congress could be:

What should  the role of children's literature confronted with the harsh reality of intercultural conflicts be?
3)  Can literature do anything ? 

Personally, I think literature can play a significant role in promoting attitudes contrary to those that create the conflicts.

I have seen children's books meant to prepare a child for situations like a visit to a dentist or moving to a new neighbourhood.  In those books the possible feelings of the child who has to come to terms with the new situation were very well described. I am sure that kind of book has some degree of utility.

However, of course, it does not stop me realising that visiting a dentist or moving to a new neighbourhood is a lot less complicated than intercultural conflicts.

If literature is a transference or re-creation of experience, knowledge, values and visions…  why should children not be able to be entertained or recreated while they learn about open-mindedness, flexibility and intelligent actions thorough good, catching stories. 

 Literature is a perfect tool to reveal that intolerance, fanaticism and stupidity are basic to cultural clashes.

Yes, I believe children literature can play a very significant role in this context. 

Such a proposal can be met by a fierce argument such as:  It is not the task of art to educate.  Children's literature is literary art. And it is not the task of art to educate or agitate for a point of view. 

And I agree… to some extent.

It is not THE task of art to educate.

Art is and does many things. Because good art fulfils many tasks… sometimes by having no task at all.

But I believe nobody can deny that art has indeed educating and formative functions. Something that  has been very well understood and abused by political wings, religious cults and totalitarian regimes.
4)  Literature and explicit ethics.

I am not an expert in writing children's literature. But a field where I consider myself an expert is in my own experience as a child reader. 

I remember the readings of my childhood as being amazing worlds of fabulation.

But besides these fabulation worlds there were other stories with the clearly defined purpose to make a social human being out of a wild child. These other stories showed how to behave in front of  moral and ethical situations. From the perspective of today they were very old fashioned. But I owe them some of the attitudes and values I am today very proud of having.  

Later, when the tide turned and I was an adult reading stories to a child, I got the impression that children stories were mostly orientated towards fabulation and fantasy  – and not to tangible ethical situations.  

It seems to me that in children's literature fabulation has won the preferences of writers and publishers.  A story having ethical messages is considered less artistical. Again: This is an impression – not positive knowledge. 

5) The challenge.

In the context of intercultural conflicts I believe there is a need for more than the classical  "be kind to your new neighbour from far away". I see a need of exploring the many situations where decisions between right or wrong are involved.

I am not proposing an evangelization of naivety in a world that is far from being perfect.

On the contrary, I think children's stories should cover complicated questions:  When are you prudent - and when a coward? What is the difference between being loyal - or being fanatical?  When are you defending your self - and when the aggressor? What is the difference between being open-minded – or just naive?... Et cetera.

It is not easy. Because stories showing ethical choices depend on the degree of ethical and moral definition of the adults writing them.

And there are some traps too. Including moral or ethical messages in a story implies always a serious risk of ruining the story, to end with a cheap propaganda pamphlet. 

People seriously interested in art do not want cheap pamphlets disguised as art. 

For that reason I think writers wanting to enter a positive input in the field of  socio cultural conflicts should have solid experiences or have thoughtfully researched what they write about. All human relations are complex and surprising. But in this particular field, I dare to say, even more : Things are seldom what they seem to be.

I see a challenge in finding the right combination between amusement and education, between fabulation and the ethical lesson.

I hope more writers and more publishers will dare to write and publish books targeting this dark field of human reality: The inter cultural conflicts.   

Literature alone can not push the world in a certain direction. But literature can put a little, good seed in the mind of children at a certain moment and a certain place.

And that is why I think it is worth trying.

It can be a small… but important investment in our common future.

Rubén Palma (Denmark)

IBBY World Congress, Copenhagen, Denmark, September 2008