Talking about: Sensitivity, Ableism and Appropriation

I really didn’t know what image to associate with this post:


Links for the studious:

Sensitivity Editing

Disability and Ableist Stories


When I last blogged about this

I’ve been reading the above articles with much interest, and I’ve been dying to blog about the subject again, however I have to confess the issue is so large, complicated and overall tricky to pin down I’m afraid my head is being done in. Ergo this is probably going to be one of those posts which is more about trying to get my head straight on the issue, but hopefully sparks some thoughts or convos for others too!

I apologize in advance for the very tangental piece. I’m tired, this issue has been bubbling around in my cranium and I don’t have much free time while my fam is out and I have a bit of quiet time.

One of the things I like to do to help my understanding of a topic is ask what seem like bizarre and reductionist questions like, is oppression bad? The reason I posit these is not because I’m genuinely confused, but by clarifying some super-obvious basics I can usually proceed a bit more confidently into the more nitty gritty of a topic.


Is Oppression Bad? If so why?

Most people in 2017 in relatively peaceful countries I suspect would say yes it’s simply wrong to oppress people, to arbitrarily remove rights, harm and otherwise hurt any particular group of people. The problem I see arising is that people disagree on what counts as oppression and whether things like insensitive or unethical fiction can contribute.

I often see many arguments like ‘racism used to be so much worse’ or ‘women have is so much better nowadays’ or in the area I world in many people lament how much “power” people with disabilities have these days.

My stance is that this is a fallacious comparison. Sure I agree that sexist jokes around the lunchroom are somewhat less nasty in outcome that say women simply not being allowed to work. But the problem is that this doesn’t in any way justify the former situation. For example I may find it a relief to have a local bully to reduce his physical attacks to mere verbal abuse, however this in no way makes verbal abuse acceptable or categorically different from being bullied.

So regardless of my tangent why exactly is oppression in any of its forms bad?

Again this may seems like a ridiculous question, but lets explore it. First of all oppression has a lot of negative outcomes for all. Obviously there is direct harm to certain groups through whatever mechanism they are oppressed by, but the oppressors are also impaired by their own ill ethics, like mob-mentality I believe that derogating others is a cognitive trap not unlike addiction where one chooses a simpler, more evil path to the detriment of one’s own philosophy.

Oppression also leads to disharmony and hostility with society and communities. We don’t want that.

Can Fiction Really Contribute to Oppression?

I kind of can’t blame people for ignoring these issues in fiction. Compared to all the horrific law, wars and history of the world I think it is worthwhile questioning what fiction’s place is in ethical behaviour.

Personally I think for most part stories are a force for good in the word, however there are some ways I believe written work can contribute to the suffering of others.

An obvious start are stereotypes. Stereotypes could probably consume a whole post, in short they are a kind of cognitive blueprint that people use to make generalizations about things, including groups of people. Stereotypes are not necessary a bad thing, but their use and abuse can lead to some severe harm such as when a negative stereotype becomes so perpetuated in a culture that people don’t stop to question why they believe it, or how it effects members of that group when they are constantly exposed to the idea.

A clarifying example (I’m trying to play it a little safe here) I Googled stereotypes of gamers and discovered that the typical image of a gamer is a lazy, no future, socially inept male.

So the problem with this image is not that gamers are immune from those criticisms but that if that the more that stereotype is used and perpetuated the more everybody begins to think its a correct assessment, non-gamers may judge people who are revealed to play video games, gamers may feel ashamed and react defensively to hide it. I hope its not hard to see how more serious, and hurtful stereotypes can do real damage to people.

Getting back to fiction, people use stories to explore and help understand the world and the people in it. Fiction has long seen the use of stereotype in characterization and in my opinion can be particularly influential as the written word tends to carry considerable authority. After all well  written tends to feel ‘real’.


Another way fiction can contribute to oppression is in how the world is portrayed within the story. Now I know this is a topic that tends to generate controversy so I’d just like to point out that I am just some guy, trying to make sense of these issues. This topic is too broad and too complicated for one person to nail completely right in one blog post, so go easy.

For example in Man of Steel, superman is a not only a high powered alien debating his role as a superhero, he is a handsome, incredible buff white male.

Now there is nothing wrong with this intrinsically, after all our characters have to be someone, isn’t tokenism just as bad? Indeed it’s when fiction like this is seen in the context of the wider world that the problem arises. I.E. when the Justice League is revealed to be a group of buff white guys, bar a Martian (not really sure where that fits regarding sensitivity) and a Black guy who surprise surprise has a backstory involving athletics and hanging around with criminals.

Now before I get lynched for all this, bear in mind that the discussion is not a myopic ‘alright fiction is racist, sexist and ableist everyone should feel bad’ conversation, rather an examination of what this is all about. So my point is that the fictional stories that we tell create an impression of the world and the less diverse, more supportive of current power structures a story is, the more this contributes to the normalization of that idea.

It’s probably important to point out that all of this needs to be considered in context. Obviously books don’t create the oppressive structures that exist today or historically, fiction is just one of many factors that contribute to a more even society, or maintain the status quo.


So what are writers to do?

Arg shoot me now.

I don’t know.

Personally my belief is that the world we want is one where people are considering the consequences of their actions, whether its publishing a book or making a joke in the work lunch room. I note that many of the articles I linked above take hard line approaches to sensitivity in writing which I now that I’ve processed this blog I completely disagree with.

Oppression, discrimination, and all the rest are not necessarily issues that can be proscribed away. Obviously outright criminal behaviours needs to be curtailed and laws should support all people to live full lives. BUT when it comes to the hearts and minds of people you simply can’t set lines in the sand and expect people never to scuff the boundary.

I know this sounds sounds contrary to my earlier point that oppression of all kinds is bad – it still is- this part is about our responses. I think in 2017 we’ve gotten too focused on controlling ideas (which we all know is never a successful venture) rather than persuading people. After all if you had the choice between waving a magic wand and destroying all the potentially discriminatory fiction OR planting a seed of egalitarianism in writer’s hears which would you choose?

Well I’m no less tired writing this piece, but I do feel my head is starting to get around the topic. There is still so many things to discuss, but I feel that I need some time to be socially inept, lazy and no futurely for a few minutes.

Let me know your thoughts of course, please, please send me challenging questions and critiques, again apologies for being all over the show, blame my brain (I do)!



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