Being True to Characters, Being Politically Correct, Censorship—a bit of a rant.

In the Question-of-the-Week thread on a writing forum that I moderate, someone brought up political correctness and asked for thoughts about what to do if you’re “told that it’s ‘politically incorrect’ to say you’re crazy or mad or out of your mind, things like that, because you are offending mentally ill people . . . Having [my MC] tear her hair and say “Oh, I must be mentally ill” isn’t gonna cut it but I don’t want to go out of my way to be offensive either.”

The asker inadvertently stumbled on one of my instant hot buttons.

People who critique characters and/or dialogue according to whether or not said characters/quotes are politically correct are IDIOTS!!! (Heh, heh, how’s that for potentially offensive?) Authors have a responsibility to show life as it is really experienced and to create people who are real—a story should never be a tool for propaganda (even if the PC view is actually a valuable or “correct” view).

Besides, in my experience, most would be PC police are completely obtuse, focusing on random words that they find personally offensive (which, very interestingly to me, usually have nothing to do with them personally), ignoring context and theme. I.E. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird is still frequently banned (ARGH about book banning, period!), not by racist groups hoping to subvert her message, but by no-mind white people who object to her use of the word “nigger.” As if using it in the story somehow promotes its use rather than confronts it.

Back to the original question, almost no one questioning his/her sanity would contemplate whether they were experiencing mental illness, and ones who would couch it that way and speak of “disordered thinking,” etc., would be very specific characters. One of my MCs is a psychologist, for example, and she, understandably, uses shoptalk as she analyzes herself. However, even she reverts to the type of shorthand people really use when they’re afraid: insane, crazy, mad—though she would never use such talk with clients, and—something I find interesting about her—never even thinks in those terms for most clients, only herself. Writing is always about being true to the character(s).

Does a character feel like he’s losing his marbles? Is she going insane, or going mental? Is he worried about going postal, or is he just a few bricks short of a load? Is he afraid he’s losing it, or is he totally f*cked up? (Insert about a bazillion other ways people really refer to questions of mental illness. Every individual would think of and express that fear in a way unique to him/herself.

We need to write honest stories and should only listen to criticism that says, “Hmm, this doesn’t ring true to me somehow,” NEVER to comments like, “Well, that’s offensive.”

People who struggle with mental health issues (or any other “issues”—racism, abuse, etc) aren’t offended by honest portrayals of a character going through the same. Likewise, showing the awful treatment people endure may be painful, even disturbing, but it shouldn’t offend us—it should challenge us.

If anything, it’s the opposite of what the PC crowd says: books that deal with life as it is really experienced open doors for thought and conversations that might actually have the power to bring about the changes that supposedly the PC-obsessed want to see. Emotionally true stories make us sympathetic, make us ask questions, make us consider what we believe and why we believe it.

Why can’t more people understand:

Stories that use the F-word aren’t about swearing being cool.

Stories that depict racism as it actually exists are not racist.

Stories that show violence as it all to often occurs are not promoting violence.

Stories that explore sexuality in all its weird, wonderful (and yes, sometimes horrific and unhealthy) are not porn.

Stories are written to help make sense of the world and the things that exist in it; avoiding the portrayal of something doesn’t make it cease to be.

And IF the stories _are_ actually endorsing things that are offensive, awful, “sinful,” etc . . . they still need to be out there. We learn as much (or more!) from what we hate as we do from what we agree with. Are there books/topics that I wish didn’t exist? Absolutely. Would I fight for their right to stay on shelves? Without exception. Mein Kampf encourages absolutely revolting, illogical, repugnant opinions; it also incites people to realize that even “quiet” forms of racism should be confronted.

That last point is crucial: we are allowed to, in fact, we must challenge ideas put forth, question attitudes displayed, point out what we see as flawed, harmful, hateful . . . Everyone has a right to publish; not everything is right. Not the latter by any means. I deplore the content/philosophy/pov some insist on putting out there (and attack it vehemently). I loathe gratuitous sex and violence in books or “art,” and I’m not silent when people are portrayed as commodities to be used for slaking lust. That’s why we have voices: to use them. We can’t take away someone else’s without saying it would be fine to have ours stolen too.

It may seem that I’ve leaped from worrying about the “small” thing of political correctness to addressing the larger issue of censorship, but I don’t think it’s a leap at all. The former is just the latter with a good makeover.

I think the voices of what’s appropriate/proper, etc. assail all writers to some degree or another. What are your thoughts on the topic? I assume you have places you “don’t go” as an author, but do you believe that there are places no one should be allowed to go?

The author who contributed the question that sparked the fire of all this thought offered a glass of wine and chocolate to those who responded—perhaps I should offer the same to you who read my rant. Virtual wine and chocolate for us all!

4 thoughts on “Being True to Characters, Being Politically Correct, Censorship—a bit of a rant.

  1. It may seem that I’ve leaped from worrying about the “small” thing of political correctness to addressing the larger issue of censorship, but I don’t think it’s a leap at all. The former is just the latter with a good makeover.

    Absolutely true. People easily slip into believing that censorship only exists when its blacking out what they *want* to hear. In truth it’s blacking out anything at all. I have a favourite quote from the writer/editor/teacher GraceAnne DeCandido:

    “If librarianship is the connecting of people to ideas – and I believe that is the truest definition of what we do – it is crucial to remember that we must keep and make available not just good ideas and noble ideas, but bad ideas, silly ideas, and yes, even dangerous or wicked ideas.”

    And I think that goes not just for librarians but everyone with an interest in ideas and keeping the world honest.

    Like

  2. “Stories are written to help make sense of the world and the things that exist in it; avoiding the portrayal of something doesn’t make it cease to be.” I agree with this completely!
    It can hard to write about…and sometimes I put aside certain books because I don’t have the proper headspace for it.
    To me it goes hand in hand with Disney deciding death is bad, and giving Iron Man a G ratting. Teaching kids that violence is without blood and death. That life is without death.

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  3. Dear Jen,

    >>>People easily slip into believing that censorship only exists when its blacking out what they *want* to hear. In truth it’s blacking out anything at all.<<<<

    Exactly–and it's not like I don't sympathize. There is stuff that I don't want to hear, feel it does no-one any good to hear, but you can't make that kind of decision for someone else (and even if you can communist China, for example, you _shouldn't_. It's tyranny.)

    In a *nice twist of irony, I often meet Christians who support the notion of at least form of censorship. Yet my faith is one of the chief reasons I see the danger: the bible is banned in 52 (53?) countries. People don't seem to realize exactly what you said: "censorship . . . it’s blacking out anything at all. Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, FREEDOM can uncomfortable sometimes, maybe, but they're inalienable human rights, and when someone, anyone, tries to squash another's rights, it is wrong no matter how fervent their intentions for good might be.

    I love your quote. It's important and true. Here's another that I think fits in that latter category.

    "Where books are burned, people will be be too." ~ Heinrich Heine

    *In another twist of irony–or hypocrisy, perhaps 😦 I might have slightly different opinions of some types of film/ photography. I am still (always!) trying to work out what I exactly believe . . .

    Thank for responding. Sorry my response to your response is so long-winded!

    Like

  4. Dear Jennifer,

    I know what you mean about “It can hard to write about…and sometimes I put aside certain books because I don’t have the proper headspace for it.” I think that’s the proper response–being anti-censorship doesn’t mean a person feels they (and everyone else) benefits from being subjected to _everything_.

    And I totally hear you re: the Disney problem. It’s funny the things that some people find offensive while embracing the worst kinds of sugary-false-dishonest glop.

    >>>To me it goes hand in hand with Disney deciding death is bad, and giving Iron Man a G rating. Teaching kids that violence is without blood and death. That life is without death.<<<

    Gah. The last bit is very powerful. And you're right: wrong.

    Like

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