On Writing: Censorship, Sensitivity and Appropriation

I’d like to preface this post by saying that these are big topics. Huge topics. I don’t believe my opinion is the be all end all of the subjects, or even covering the majority of the issues. But I do think when it comes to crazy complex subjects that the best path is to talk about it, discuss openly, stew on it a while, discuss again and not stop discussing.

So what am I talking about exactly here?

Well there have been a few discussions floating around recently about books and publishing which are getting pretty heated and controversial in some sectors, the subjects being:

And I just wanted to add some words to spark some thought, not to necessarily solve anything, but at least to put something out there on these controversial areas.

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Let’s start with censorship. Like all the topics this issue has a large quantity of worms just waiting for the can to be popped, but I’m just going to try and keep it simple and throw a few thoughts around.

On the one extreme censorship is usually associated with ideas like the graphic on your left, 1984, and people with power generally being all around douches. On the more benevolent side censorship is considered an appropriate way to protect, particularly vulnerable people, from harm.

So where the heck is the line?

In the example linked about U.S. schools are looking at teaching students about a Huckleberry Finn novel with the word ‘Nigger’ replaced by the word ‘Slave.’ This presents a pretty tricky question of suitable censorship. One might ask whether it’s worth kicking up much of a fuss, after all the N word is a considerably offensive term, and I’m pretty confident that the last thing anyone wants in 2017 is more racial tension.

On the other hand there is a risk of softening a message that is actually acting in favour of confronting the harm that the censorship also aims to prevent. The article I read strongly argued that Huckleberry Finn is an anti-slavery novel and to minimize the language used minimizes the wrong that was done to many African Americans.

I wish had all the answers to such a tricky situation, but I merely have two points for consideration. The first being that whatever the censorship its important to have a clear idea of exactly why something is being censored in the first place and keep working with that, not that I support any rational, but rather that clarity of intent is needed to make an ethical decision.

Which brings me to my next (odd) point: I think there is a major difference between replacing and blank censoring. I can still remember reading Catcher in the Rye and seeing that a few F bombs were replaced by —– in some editions. To be honest it made me feel vaguely uncomfortable, but it highlighted that to replace words can mislead people to the original intent, whereas blanking words simply leaves a gap that people can understand is there and try to work around if they choose.  (It’s a bit like the difference between a politician straight up lying to you, versus claiming something is classified.) Not that I have a right to make an opinion on the Huck Finn issue as a non US citizen and hardly an expert on the book, but I’m gently suggesting that a blanked line doesn’t shove an offensive term in student’s faces but it also it pretty obvious what is being said to an astute reader thus not diminishing the books message/power as much as a replaced word.

And that’s just one example of controversial censorship, I think I have to move on for the purposes of actually finishing this blog today, but I get the feeling I’ll be coming back to this topic in the future.

Onto diversity and Sensitivity editing

Diversity has long been a controversial topic in fiction. The issue of ‘white washing’ has been frequently raised for MCU movies like Doctor Strange, and series like Iron Fist. The fantasy genre often seems plagued by accusations of all the ‘good guys’ being white,

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I think diversity is about being able to multiple truths like “I agree with this sentiment but its tacky AF

while other non-Caucasian cultures are either depicted as primitive and/or bad-guys or worse other cultures are supplanted by literal different races such as dwarfs, elves, hobbits or orcs.

Which seems to be where sensitivity editing comes in. Well to be more specific when authors try to be diverse but don’t want to resort to stereotype, depict something wrong, or generally offend a minority group, apparently sensitivity editing is where it’s at. I confess to having mixed feelings about the subject.

On the one had it makes complete sense to grab a beta-reader with lived experience of something to get first-hand experience and a genuine response from a book. After all resorting to stereotype and assumption are not good practices for an author.

I do worry about people who claim to charge for the privilege however. In the same way I don’t speak for middle-class white guys, just because someone belongs to a group doesn’t mean they can rule out offending others of said group. There is also something ironically offensive about the whole thing “let’s check with one of them to make sure we don’t say anything too upsetting”. I’m probably exaggerating with the last point, but something about this whole idea rubs me up the wrong way, I think I have a somewhat natural selection streak where I want authors to simply be sensitive themselves or allow themselves to be insensitive and let communities suss it out themselves.

This probably draws together the trickiest parts of censorship and sensitivity to the awkward question:

Is is better to have potentially offensive material out there, to hold a mirror up to society, to raise the difficult questions of prejudice and insensitivity OR is it better to protect vulnerable people and be sensitive in fiction?

With that totally easy to answer question I want to live hesitantly into the final topic: cultural appropriation.

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The controversial side of me wants to say that writers are getting somewhat mixed messages these days: be diverse, but do it sensitively and don’t offend anyone, and for the love of Mike DO NOT culturally appropriate!

 

Cultural appropriation is a tricky one because as a hetero-sexual, middle-class white male I’m kind of positioned to be the most oblivious to the topic and the issues it raises. I’m not even sure how to explain or describe the topic fully other than to say it’s a wide ranging concern that touches on tourism, the music industry, sports and of course fiction. The concern being a powerful or dominant culture essentially taking aspects of a more vulnerable culture for its own or exploiting it. It’s a highly controversial topic to say the least, and I think part of that stems from it’s complexity. I’m going to try and stay on the topic of fiction, partly just to keep my head straight on the matter and partly to prevent this post getting any longer.

The article I linked to described a slammed opinion piece that suggested that writers should simply continue to write what they ‘don’t know’ and that to stretch into other cultures was an appropriate action for fiction writers and basically poo pooed the need for anything like authenticity.

While I found the opinion somewhat tone-deaf it also raised a heck of a lot of questions. Such as:

  • What comes first – diversity or avoiding cultural appropriation?
  • What are the limits of appropriation?
  • What is the actual goal of criticizing cultural appropriation, a more sensitive publishing scene, authors only publishing within their ‘rights’ or a more diverse publishing population?

I think many people would agree (or if not love to discuss why not) that the idea that writers must stick to their own is rather abhorrent, but probably also agree that there are certain flavours of fiction that handle culture rather poorly. My problem is where are the lines? Some of the sensitivity being presented seems more like counter-oppression as opposed to working towards a better world. Maybe its the cynic in me but I can’t quite help but wonder if the real problem is less of an ethical one and more of an opportunistic one, from both sides of the debate.

As I began this post I mostly just wanted to throw ideas out there, all these topics are complex and ever-changing so I more just wanted to prompt thought and discussion than settle anything.

Would love to hear other’s thoughts!

 

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