My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

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 word "fat" generally doesn't offend fat people, it's whispering and tiptoeing around the word fat with concerned looks and euphemisms like being fat is something to be ashamed of that does or slinging it around like it's a shameful slur rather than a discriptor.

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 use of contempt and disrespect going to lead 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, and people who have the temerity to point out to you that your words harm them. 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 about nine categories of speech you have to be careful about? Racism, misogyny/sexism, ableism, transphobia, fatphobia, homophobia/heteronormativity, classism, ageism and certain kinds of religious/ethnic bigotry like Islamaphobia or antisemitism.

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.

If you're going to claim that losing access to couple hundred words in a language with a million (and a couple hundred thousand even if you ignore the anachronistic stuff) 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.

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.

SHOULD you stop saying them? Obviously I think you should, but I can't tell you whether or not to contribute to systematic oppression. I try to check myself. These days, I don't even use "stupid" as a slur and "moron" or "imbecile" are right out. (I have a whole rainbow of colorful substitutes that convey my displeasure quite adequately.) But it's something you'll have to decide for yourself as part of your own empathy and moral code towards other human beings.

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. 


  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.

  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.

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

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

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