Do You Dare to Offend?
My previous newsletter on banned and challenged books made me think of the writer's position in the conflict. Writer's don't write to hurt anyone, and most don't purposely target any group with the intention to do harm--at least fiction writers don't. They write about life, and the good writers spell it out clearly so it's believable.
But the threat of being 'politically incorrect' and called all sorts of names, or worse, lies heavy in the back of our minds now-a-days, and while it is important to be mindful of others, it has caused many writers to become afraid to say exactly what they mean. It's an uncomfortable place to be in when we have to decide which way to go--be honest or possibly offend. They tend to squirm around concise words and finally just take the easy way out--whitewashing the truth.
Why are they so afraid? Anyone listening to the news in the last week or so heard about the big fiasco in the government when one political figure told his group, which was meeting privately behind closed doors by the way, that what they were proposing was retarded. Nothing stays behind closed doors, and someone is always offended by words--count on it. My goodness, what an uproar. If this happens between peers in private, imagine putting an offending word in a book for the public to read. The result is writers who are afraid to say what they mean.
Imagine you have a friend or family member who would make a great character. She's fat, a lesbian, and an alcoholic. You know if she reads your book, she's going to recognize herself and be peeved out of her mind. You also know the readers are going to tell you that you shouldn't have called her 'fat' or used the word 'dyke.' What do you call a four-hundred pound lesbian? Perhaps 'differently-sized?' She calls herself a dyke and for the story to work, it needs to be included, but writers are afraid to write it the way it is.
What you decide will make the difference between a story with meat on its bones or something that offends no one, but won't be a good story, either. It won't tell any truths about life. If you think that 'differently-abled' is an appropriate synonym for 'crippled,' or that 'appearance-challenged' is a better use of the English language than 'ugly,' you're limiting your story-telling possibilities.
We're not all the same. We are fat and thin and skinny; we are smart and stupid, geniuses and retards; we are straight and queer and everything in between; we are sick and healthy; we are tall and short; we are moral and immoral, good and evil; we are honest and we are liars. We come in two sexes, male and female. We're not black or white, red or yellow...we are various shades of brown.
Using only non-offensive language to censor this fact is not going to change the fact. Nor is it going to change the fact that Aunt Mamie is fat and stinks of sweat even on cool days, or that she's a rude, self-centered, demanding woman who thinks the world owes her something because she's a lesbian. She is who she is---a person and an individual. She is not a member of a class, nor is she an archetype or a symbol, and you can't compare her to any other people you know. She is who she is. And if you try to sugar-coat her to keep from offending people who are looking for the chance to be offended, you are going to end up eviscerating everything about her that makes her interesting and unique--that becomes a great character that readers will remember.
Say what you mean.
Humanity is worth getting to know in the form that it takes. People as they really are are fascinating, challenging, diverse, wonderful, awful, amazing, complex, many-faceted, colorful.
Don't sacrifice your writing or your characters because you're afraid of offending or afraid to face the nuts that come out of the woodwork when you say what you mean.
Write the words that tell your story, even if they hurt. Take a stand, knowing that the only way you are ever going to say something that matters is if you have the guts to say anything in the first place. Walk away from the weasel words, admit that death waits for you at the end of your life, and call your character short or fat or skinny or stupid or ugly or perverted.
Thanks for reading.