We wouldn’t need political correctness, or “PC,” if people were simply kinder, more compassionate, and more polite. Political correctness is slapping a crumbling veneer of gentility on a snarling hyena. It doesn’t make you want to invite the hyena over for dinner, but if you’re fooled into doing so, it’s still a hyena and it’s going to destroy your house and maul your other guests.
Some days you just want to smack some people over the head with a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette.
The writer’s job has never been to write in politically correct terms. It is our uncomfortable duty to hold a mirror up to society – to show it in all its ugly glory, its beautiful chaos, its confusing and conflicting and intriguing self. That takes courage; writers have been killed for less. Here are just a few examples:
- China’s Literary Inquisition
- Nikolay Olenikov
- The Subversive Pen: Prison Writing in the Tower of London
- Writers join worldwide action to protest Palestinian poet’s death sentence in Saudi Arabia
- Salman Rushdie
I would argue that if you’re going to risk death and torture, the least you can do is a bit of research – to be sure you get it right – and to use words with thoughtful deliberation.
Thoughtlessness and Willful Ignorance are No Excuse
A discussion recently arose among a group of writers regarding the use of the word “gypsy.” The question was simple enough: “Is it offensive? Can I use it in a story?” A number of broad themes emerged from the answers, including:
- Don’t worry about offending people – you’re a writer, for the love of God – write whatever you want to!
- It’s always better to use the politically correct terms and avoid putting people off.
- Politically correct language is inclusive. I’d hate to alienate my readers.
- Political correctness is stupid. (And part of a liberal plot to overthrow civilization as we know it.)
- What the hell is wrong with the word “gypsy”?
- My ancestors were gypsies. Doesn’t bother me when people call me one.
- “Gypsy” is always a derogatory term. You shouldn’t use it anymore than you’d use the n-word. (Ah, the n-word; the Voldemort of the English language!)
I also found responses from black writers particularly interesting – they ran the same gamut of “what’s wrong with it?” to “that’s offensive!” with only one or two suggesting that the author ask people of Roma or Irish Traveller descent how they felt about it. These same people wouldn’t feel the same way about use of the n-word. We can be stunnngly un-self-aware sometimes. We put “the other” under a microscope but never see them; what we really see is our own perception, our own ignorance, and our own prejudice reflected back at us. Several people did a little research in search of an objective answer and cited sources; most just gave personal opinions; a few climbed up on a soapbox to excoriate (or extol the virtues of) political correctness and bemoan the hypersensitivity of people nowadays.
Five Minutes’ Worth of Research
Curious about the real answers? You might want to start here:
Also, the term “gypsy” doesn’t come from the word “gyp” (as in, “to cheat” someone). It’s the other way around. “Gypsy” comes from the mistaken belief that the Romani were from Egypt (they were mostly of Indian descent). The point, here, is that before speculating on (or simply making up) the history and origin of a word, there are well researched things called “dictionaries” that contain the “etymology” of words – there’s even an online Etymology that’s dedicated to tracing the history and roots of English words – for example, gypsy.
Again, how brave do you feel as an author? One writer bowed out, saying that’s why they stuck to writing fantasy, where they could build whole worlds and groups and make stuff up without offending real people. I jokingly called that writer, “Chicken!” but there’s a certain wisdom in it – through fiction, we can tell the greatest truths. You see yourself reflected in the attitudes of an alien race? How does that make you feel? Are you going to call anyone out on it – and admit that you’ve just seen yourself portrayed in a not so flattering light? Does it make you think?
A Writer’s Job
A writer’s job is
- to care enough about his subject to get it right;
- to do basic research before characterizing a whole group of people in ways that are stereotypical, derogatory, or offensive;
- to illustrate aspects of society with specificity and unflinching honesty;
- to recognize that it’s okay to portray someone unfairly through the eyes of a character who reflects the prevailing attitudes of his time and place;
- to use language that is appropriate in context;
- to seek out opinions from a diverse set of “beta readers” (including members of any group portrayed in order to ensure that basic facts are accurate and that any offense is deliberate);
- to edit, to ensure that the work is – at least – not inadvertently offensive.
A writer’s job is not
- to please everyone;
- to whitewash or sugarcoat the truth;
- to twist or lie about facts to make one group look better or worse than is fair (if writing about factual historical events);
- to portray the world as a bland, happy, homogeneous place where nothing bad ever happens; or,
- to play it safe.
If you cannot be bothered to care enough to do that, stick to “safe” subjects. Stick to writing about your own community and the people you belong to – the ones you’ve grow up with and can describe accurately and fairly through close, personal experience. Write about how to put together a coffee pot or how to use a software application. Write greeting card verses or letters to a friend. Writing about society, politics, religion, sex, race, gender, or the world at large requires unflinching courage and opinions based on facts – but it needs no more ignorant bullies.
Writing demands an appreciation of diversity. And diversity is useless without inclusivity. Tolerance, like political correctness, is not the goal – and implies that there is something about another person that must be “tolerated.” The goal is to embrace all of humanity with the understanding that we are all a product of our place, our time, our genetic heritage; that we are all – without exception – flawed in some way, yet we all bring unique perspectives, skills, and talents to the world. I think that it is difficult to write about what you “hate”; the hated person or group is a two-dimensional, lifeless caricature. It can be just as difficult to flesh out on the page that which you love and admire, because the temptation to gloss over any negative traits is hard to resist.
The writer’s job is to be empathetic to all – to be like the mother who can see her misbehaving, tantrum-throwing, grubby-fingered, three-year-old, tyrant wannabe for what he is, yet tenderly soothe his agitation, wash his face and hands, banish his fears, feed him a hot meal, wrap him in her arms, and send him to sleep with a lullaby softly sung in his velvety-soft ear, knowing that tomorrow will bring fresh joy, fresh sorrow, and fresh challenges. She doesn’t imagine her child to be perfect, but sees his potential and loves him just the same.
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