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Monday, February 2, 2015

The P.C. Police! (Mailbox)

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Monday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox, but likely only if you ask a question. You might want to check my back entries before you ask me a question you don't want to know the answer to.]    

Content warning: picture of domestic abuse victim and misogynist "joke." 

Anonymous asks:

Come on Chris. Seriously now. Don't you think it's a bad thing that the P.C. police are censoring writers? Every time I use a word, the P.C. police kick in my door like Scott Pilgrim. ("On December 21st you did knowingly say 'spaz.'" "Spaz is isn't PC?" "It's ableism, bitch!" "On February 5th you did knowingly refer to a person who actually is fat as fat." "Fat isn't PC?" "Decongenialize him!" ) It's like we can't write anything without it offending someone. I can't keep track anymore. When will people understand that words only have the power people give them? And shouldn't good writing offend people?

My reply: 

Nope. Good writing makes people feel comfortable about what they already think. Great writing offends people.

However, Anonymous, you need to perk up your earholes because you missed the mark like the guy who hit the golf ball the wrong way with a practice swing. I'm afraid now that you've been decongenialized, I have to snark-head-butt you so hard you burst.

"You wrote in as e-non.
But soon you will be gone."

Eh, it's almost as good as the rhyme in the movie.

You seem to be confusing hurtful slurs with merely causing "offense." Humbert Humbert offends me, but I don't think Nabokov is making a case that has contributed to the rise of pedophilia or statutory rape. Using the word "spaz" doesn't particularly offend me, but I do recognize that it plays into systematic ableism. And further, the word "fat" itself generally doesn't offend overweight people; it's whispering and tiptoeing around the word fat with concerned looks and euphemisms like being fat is something to be ashamed, making fun of people's weight that does or slinging it around like it's a shameful slur rather than a descriptor.

Let me explain the difference.

Terribly offensive. Causes no real harm.

First of all, shame on you. Seriously.

That "sticks and stones" bullshit might work when you're five and you need to pull up your big kid pants and get over the fact that Jennifer Wilkins called you a dodo head. But as a writer you should know unequivocally that our species literally defines its reality and its perception of the world around it through stories. Everything is a story. Who you are. How you got here. Where you're going. What you think of X thing. It's all related to stories. It's part of what makes us uniquely human: we exist only in one ineffable instant, but the celluloid that shapes and defines our world something other than chaotic survival is stories. Everything from our ability to pass on the sum of our knowledge to our ability to make an inference is based on stories.

And the building blocks of those stories are words. Words shape the stories we tell.

So if your stories are filled with words that equate a class of people with negative stories, what do you think happens to your opinion of those people? Even if you "don't mean it that way*" what sorts of connections do you think people draw? What are you saying about their value as humans? What are you reinforcing to yourself? How about others? How about when you ignore those people who tell you what the word means to them and it's history and context?

*And you have about as much control over what words mean as the a-holes who are trying to get decimate to not mean destroyed utterly.

It is in this way that many in positions of power conflate "offense" with "harm." Dick and fart jokes are offensive (to some). Dead baby jokes are offensive (to many). Saying white people like Starbucks might be offensive (to a few). None of these jokes actually contributes to oppression. Calling someone a spaz as a way of making fun of them--using the word spaz as synonymous with lacking intelligence or being inept causes everyone who meets someone with cerebral palsy (which is not an affliction of the mind) to make assumptions (conscious or unconscious) about their intelligence or aptitude. You've equated those people with a negative characteristic.

And, in fact, what happens when people meet folks with C.P. is that they treat them like they're not intelligence and are inept. Now it's not just a matter of someone having their delicate sensibilities offended.

Slurs, stereotypes, and hate speech contribute to the systematic oppression of marginalized people. They are the hum in the background that justifies slights. They lead to unequal applications of empathy, nuance, and intellectual rigor. We see time and again the results of bigoted words have actual measurable effects on bigoted behavior. There have even been studies linking use of slurs with increased prejudicial behavior (if anyone has the link to the most recent one, I'd love it). Horrific police brutality, employee discrimination, foreign policy regarding non-European nations, doctors who ignore preventable health problems to dismiss fat people by telling them just to lose weight, buildings without disabled access, normalizing sex without consent, housing discrimination, and even tacit justification for violent crime--including people being killed just for who they are. (And if you think that racism doesn't have a body count, that misogyny doesn't have a body count, that transphobia doesn't have a body count, that homophobia doesn't have.......well you just aren't paying attention.)

Not offensive (to many men) since it's "just a joke."
Contributes to real and actual harm.

That isn't a category of speech people can just "get over." That goes beyond "offended." (Although it's usually actually offensive as well.) No one is entitled to never be offended. But everyone has the right to call out when the words that are shaping their reality do not confer upon them basic human dignity. (And if that OFFENDS you, isn't that ironic.) It is those at the top of of social hierarchies (white men in particular) who think words can't really hurt people because there are no words that can do more than merely offend them.

Is your "one word" going to cause a hate crime? No. Is an entire culture's repeated, constant, ubiquitous use of contempt and disrespect going to create a dehumanization that leads to hate crimes? Well, we can see very clearly that they do.

No, this isn't about censorship. It's certainly not about the censorship where the government agents come to your house, kick open your door, seize your computer, and throw you in prison. Then you could complain about how oppressed you are in a way that just isn't quite validated by having to endure a few angry tweets. But, in fact, police don't even care about death threats.

However this is not even the "chilling effect on discourse" flavor of "censorship" that some–almost always those who are not harmed by such words (whites, men, able bodied, heterosexual, etc...)–use when they are forced to consider the impact of their slurs the next time they want to insult a sports team by calling them gay, their broken microwave a cunt, or a losing team a bunch of women. Because honestly what these people want is not freedom of speech, it's freedom FROM consequence.

No, this is about words.

It's about words and people who have the temerity to point out to you that your words can do them real and lasting psychological harm. And ten points see if you can find the irony in trying to silence one's detractors by claiming censorship. God fucking forbid you, as a writer, take a moment to consider what your words mean. Or did you miss the day they taught writing at writing school?

Look, Anon, there are roughly nine categories of speech you have to be careful about? Racism, misogyny/sexism, ableism, transphobia/transantagonism, fatphobia, homophobia/heteronormativity, classism, ageism and certain kinds of religious/ethnic bigotry that don't fit neatly into race. There are some variations on a theme (like using words that violently shame sex workers), but mostly those are the words that harm people beyond mere "offense."

That's it.

This isn't like a huge list of words that could be slurs or an impossible morass of concepts to wrap one's head around, and it's absolutely a power dynamic when people say that they can't be bothered to learn it. Spoiler: "I can't keep track of all that," always always ALWAYS means "I don't want to bother with keeping track." Most of us memorized more words when we were forced to recite the preamble to the constitution in elementary school, and have conceptualized far more ideas for a chapter test in geometry. Granted, there's a little more to understanding hate speech than learning a list of words that make you look like an ass, but you're talking about people calling you out directly for the things you write. So you don't have to do a whole lot more if empathy and listening to other's stories is too fucking much for you to stomach.

And by the way, it wasn't "those people" and their desert flower sensitivity that "gave words power." It's the oppressors who use those words to to justify their oppression, who have used these words to strip humans of their humanity, often in a bloody historical legacy, so it's really not asking that much for you to use .00001% of your ten terabytes of memory to learn the words that contribute to the systematic oppression of others.

Dudebro nerd: You don't call him Strider because he was really Aragorn II son of Arathorn, the heir of Isildur and rightful claimant to the thrones of Arnor and Gondor all along. He was named Estel by the elves to keep him safe because if anyone knew who he really was, Sauron might kill him. And he went by Thorongil when he served Theoden and Denathor's fathers (Thengel and Ecthelion II respectively). He was also the Chieftain of the DĂșnedain rangers and carries the sword Narsil, which was renamed Anduril but was originally the Sword of Elendil.
Also dudebro nerd: I can't keep track of the fact that that's a slur.

If you're going to claim that losing access to couple hundred words in a language with a million of them is stymieing your vaunted creativity, you should just embrace your inner sphincter (which is a lot like your outer sphincter except shittier), and stop writing to me for permission to be a repugnant troll. People will say ow every single time you step on their toes, and will explain why you're an ass if you tell them that they aren't really in pain because your intention wasn't to hurt their foot.

And not to put too fine a point on it, Anon, but if you're going to get all hurt and emotional about being told you're being offensive, you are probably not the champion of free speech that you think you are, and you might want to just stop using offensive words so people will stop hurting your widdle feewings with their free speech.

CAN you say these things? Of course you can. Because after all, you live in a place where government agents WON'T kick open your door. And if you want to put them into the words of a character within fiction they will be seen as a bigot–perhaps with other, nuanced, redeeming qualities by some or perhaps as a garbage human by others, but that is your choice as the author. (Though if it becomes clear that you agree with your characters or find nothing wrong with their behavior, you may be called out as an author as well.)

WILL you be able to say these things so without consequence? Not so much now that the internet has prevented rich, white, able, cishet men from controlling ALL the spaces and all the voices. But the consequences will be pretty minor if you turn off FB and Twitter notifications for a couple of days.

SHOULD you stop saying them? Obviously I think you should (outside of contexts like problematic characters). But it's something you'll have to decide for yourself as part of your own empathy and moral code towards other human beings and your comfort with playing a part in the linguistics of systematic oppression.

But I will say this, and let me put it as bluntly as I possibly can, so there's no POSSIBLE loss in translation:

If you can't insult people without needing a slur from a marginalized group to do so, you're probably a very, very shitty writer. 

10 comments:

  1. I was so hoping you would write on this topic. Thanks for reading my mind! This is a work of art. I seriously wish every white, male, cis-het writer who writes in New York magazine about political correctness would read this.

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  2. Wonderful!

    I think that there may be a difference in culture as well about words like the "spazz" - here (UK) it's pretty well known as a serious harmful/offensive word - pretty much close to using the N or P word regarding race. There was much incredulity when the news broke that there was going to be a new transformers toy called "Spastic". People seriously couldn't believe anyone could be that ignorant and offensive.. but I think it just hadn't been something they were aware of.

    Thing is, not being aware that a word is offensive and using in ignorance isn't your fault. Being told "um... you may want to reword that..." and not saying "Really? OK, sorry, will do." (which would be the end of it in most cases) but saying "HOW DARE YOU OPPRESS MY FREEDOM!!!!" is your fault.

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    Replies
    1. Your last paragraph....I want to marry it. (Or at least take it on a getaway weekend to the Caribbean.)

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    2. My last paragraph is very flattered, and wonders if there would be a groupie threesome involved... it, you, and Evil Chris?

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    3. A bit of editing Chris...

      "And further word "fat" generally" - comma after "further" and "word" is redundant

      "being fat is something to be ashamed of that does or slinging it" - I think you amalgamated "to be ashamed of" with "ashamed of that"

      I enjoy your writing, just trying to help :-)

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  3. You might like this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IYx4Bc6_eE

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  4. Does the irony of using 'dudebro nerd' strike you, in anyway? I would gamble my non-binary partner's life savings on you having a reason why it doesnt.

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    Replies
    1. Tokenizing your partner so transparently isn't going to change the fact that the term dudebro doesn't describe a marginalized group. However, an account created this month (perhaps just to comment here?) with nothing but a name to identify it, a lack of awareness of why "dudebro" is oft used in certain circles to describe more of a classic toxic masculinity mindset (usually encased within a cis male who is very often white and het) in a community of gender variance where terms like "man" don't always fit, and a one-size-fits-all take that metonymy and slurs are the same thing does make me wonder if they're fully on board with this comment or your use of them to try to make it more legitimate, but feel free to email me if you feel like I have misstepped in my approach (or better have them) and I promise that I will be receptive. chris.brecheen@gmail.com

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  5. Well said. I mean, is saying 'hey, try not to step on other people' really asking too much?

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