Some of us played a game on long bus rides. We called it “Three Bags of Gold”. It wasn’t much of a game. It was primarily an opportunity to concoct horrific, stomach-churning, soulless scenarios and to half-heartedly consider them in the context of our greed and morality. It was like a hypothetical version of Fear Factor with ethical elements.
Someone would yell out a test. “Would you cut off your little finger, grill it and eat it for three bags of gold?” We’d iron out the details. How would the amputation occur? Would there be immediate medical treatment for the lost finger prior to the barbecue? Could we season our severed digit when it was time to dine? Right hand or left? We discussed the current market price of gold and the size of the bags at great length again and again.
The scenarios weren’t always gross-out exercises. “Would you frame a friend for a crime that would result in his imprisonment for three bags of gold?” “Would you ‘pull the plug’ on a stranger who had requested to stay on life support for three bags of gold?” Under what situations would our morality bend in the face of three bags of gold? When would we finally lie, cheat or steal? Why?
We’d respond to the scenarios with a collective, reactive “no”. As the conversation progressed, someone might admit a willingness to engage in whatever twisted behavior under consideration.
It was all a silly diversion designed to kill time on empty stretches of interstate with open conversation and jokes. We didn’t take it very seriously, though we sometimes learned a bit about one another. Sometimes those lessons made folks a little less attractive.
I hadn’t thought about Three Bags of Gold for nearly twenty years. Yesterday, I realized that I was playing the game professionally now.
The email included a job offer. The client needed a variety of materials to assist in the marketing of Product X. He was willing to pay a fair rate.
The problem? I don’t like Product X. I don’t particularly like it in principle and I certainly don’t like it in practice. Product X isn’t dangerous and it isn’t obviously immoral. I just happen to believe that the world would be marginally better off if it and its competitors didn’t exist.
“Would you write copy for Product X for three bags of gold?”
I said it aloud as I considered the offer.
Then, I found myself thinking about the size of the bags and just how much that gold was worth to me right now.
Would I compromise my personal integrity for a check? Would the number of zeroes on the check influence my thinking? How should I weigh the value of that gold to my cash-strapped family against contributing to the potential success of something I dislike and wish would disappear? Would I be able to create compelling words in favor of Product X, considering my disposition toward it?
When you’re in your early twenties cruising down an empty highway late at night, Three Bags of Gold is all theoretical. No one has a knife and a portable barbecue grill waiting for your left pinky. No one has three bags of gold.
Now, the gold is real. It pays for electricity, cars, daycare, shoes for the kids, food for the fridge and laundry soap. The gold even makes payments on the student loans that financed Three Bags of Gold in the old days.
And the decisions are real. We all face them. We all make them.
“Would you write an anti-Semitic screed for three bags of gold?”
“Would you write copy for a crappy product for three bags of gold?”
“Would you write a political essay contrary to your personal beliefs for three bags of gold?”
Would your current bank account balance guide your decision? Would necessity force compromise? Would greed flex your morality?
These questions matter.
I believe that we are responsible for our words. Even if the contractual terms of a ghostwriting project relieve us of legal liability for our efforts, we are creating something that has the potential for impact and we carry with us some level of responsibility for any outcomes it generates. We’re also responsible to our clients. And to our readers. And to ourselves. And to the profession. I tend to believe that writers have a somewhat elevated responsibilities to use their gifts for the betterment of the world. Maybe that sounds hokey to you, but I believe it.
That’s a heap of responsibilities and they don’t always match up nicely. When they compete and cause dissonance, either we walk away or we compromise in some way. Compromise is all but inevitable in so many cases.
Sometimes, we just say, “screw it”. We take the three bags of gold.
Are Your Hands Clean?
My hands aren’t clean. I’ve written half-assed pieces of web content in order score a quick buck even though I don’t embrace the idea of filling the world with half-assed web content. I’ve written sales copy for things that probably didn’t impress too many buyers, if you know what I mean. I’ve made furniture sales seem like the second coming of Christ.
I can rationalize those transgressions. We needed the money. I’m not responsible for what people do, I’m just imparting information. If I didn’t do it, someone else would. Who am I to decide what’s valuable and what’s useless or to draw lines separating good from bad? This is how the world works. No one can advance through life in a market-based economy without compromise. Etc.
In the end, those rationalizations don’t really mitigate my irresponsibility.
I’ve chopped off my finger. I’ve betrayed my friend. I’ve pulled the plug. I took the gold and ran.
I bet you’ve done it, too. Maybe you’ve stayed pure in ways that I haven’t, but you’ve compromised your responsibilities. You’ve done something short of your best work. You’ve pandered to an audience, to a client, or to your own writing vanity. You’ve made your deals with devils, even if your devils are incredibly cute and small.
If you haven’t, I bet you will. Someday.
You’ll get that call about a project you don’t really love. It will come shortly after the water heater goes bad or on the heels of a medical bill. It will come a week before your daughter’s sixteenth birthday or right when your son’s tuition payment is due. The three bags of gold will be large enough to break a mule’s back and you’ll find yourself accepting the offer.
You’ll hold your breath while you peddle the snake oil or while you make the not-so-bright subject of a press release into an eminent expert in her field. You’ll crank through an article at Mach III, knowing that you’re not providing readers with enough meat for their information sandwich or you’ll realize that the client for whom you’re working doesn’t have the world’s best interests at heart.
Rationalization, Blissful Ignorance or Discomfort? Choose.
Three Bags of Gold isn’t funny when it’s real. The easiest way to handle the game is to pretend as if you’re not playing. Don’t think too hard. Keep yourself on the right side of the “morally reprehensible” line and don’t sweat the stuff that isn’t really obnoxious. Just keep on truckin’ and try to make up for the sell-outs with acts of kindness, confession and penance. Whatever gets you through the night, right?
The alternative is scary.
And that’s where I am right now. I’m tired of playing and I’m looking for a way out that can serve all of my responsibilities and that can be consistent with my worldview without all of that uncomfortable compromise. When I take the three bags of gold, I want to do it with plenty of pride and without even the slightest shred of regret.
This is all proof that ignorance is bliss, of course. Life is easier when you don’t realize the back stories of those with whom you’re working or the repercussions of your actions. Three Bags of Gold is an easy game when you don’t have a conscience, but it’s almost as easy if you’ve found a way to keep your head in the sand.
Writers, however, tend to be aware. We see through things. We dig, research and think. That’s what allows us to do remarkable things. Ignorance isn’t an option.
We play Three Bags of Gold and eventually we realize it.
Let’s play a round right here, right now.
What would you do for three bags of gold?
What would you refuse to do for three bags of gold?
And let’s create a little opportunity to come clean, while we’re at it.
What compromises have you made? What responsibilities have you ducked? How did you justify it at the time and how do you feel about it now?
I’d love to see some answers.