The Censorship of Sensitivity

After a summer spent working on a new book on plotting, I am ready to begin a fiction project. I have been weighing the merits of writing a western versus a science fiction story. Not so much one instead of the other, but more of which one to begin first.

The western idea presently is developed more than the SF, largely because I plotted it at the beginning of my summer break, and it’s more ready to go. However, I set it aside in May to do the nonfiction manuscript. Now, especially in light of recent controversies and riots, I find myself pausing. Is my proposed manuscript insensitive to anyone? Is my story premise going to offend anyone? I don’t want to denigrate a person, a gender, or an ethnicity. I want people to enjoy my stories, not be hurt by them.

So I’ve begun to second-guess my idea. And now I’m second-guessing my second-guessing. My artistic temperament has flared up. I feel constricted and rebellious. Instead of concentrating on my characters and story events, here I am wondering if I’m going to hurt some random reader’s feelings by something a character does or says.

After all, a western has a historical setting. Behavior toward minorities was anything but sensitive in the 1870s.  Consequently, now there yawns before me the chasm of indecision. Do I stick with historical accuracy? Or do I sanitize history lest the wrath of someone come down on my head?

In a day and age so crazy-sensitive that some people think it’s wrong for a Caucasian to cook a burrito, here I am, in effect, censoring myself. I can ditch my western and just write the SF story instead, but does that make me a coward? I can toss my plot and start over, but does that do justice to a solid premise? I can jettison accuracy or omit an ethnicity altogether, but does that respect the setting?

And so I find myself tied in a Gordian knot of indecision and dithering.

When I was in high school, my Civics class taught us that our individual freedoms ended where another’s began. In other words, I have the right to say what I please, unless my words hurt another individual deliberately. I have the right to walk where I wish, unless I trespass on another person’s property. An individual has the right to criticize town property, but not destroy what taxpayers have paid for. A person has the right to conduct a civic protest, but not smash windows.

There is a quote in my campus office that says, “Closing books shuts out ideas.” It was issued in support of banned books and celebrating the freedom to read.

But if writers are shut down at the source, unsure or too timid to write what grips their imaginations, will there even be books to ban?

My mind goes to HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain. This book has stirred controversy through much of the twentieth century. Yet was Twain trying to be insensitive? I don’t think so. His focus was elsewhere. His words, dialects, dialogue, and comments reflected the times in which he wrote. They were accurate to the era. They mirrored the general attitudes of the culture and place Twain knew. Does that hurt some readers today? Yes it does. Should the book be banned? Should we say, “Twain never should have written this racist book” and hate him because he did? No we shouldn’t. We don’t have to force anyone to read it, but neither do we have to avoid facing the hurt it has engendered or avoid discussing that openly.

When did the public become so weak that it cannot bear to face the mistakes and wrongness of the past? When did the public become so fearful that it cannot accept any opinion but its own? When did the public become so spineless that it allows suppression of expression and wants only carefully edited history lest anyone be embarrassed or offended?

If I decided that I wanted to write about the Mississippi River delta in the nineteenth-century, what would I mention? What would I leave out? Must I tiptoe past so-called trigger words or omit them altogether?

Writers of modern children’s fiction are facing such issues daily. They want to include diverse characters, yet they must avoid descriptive racial tags. Are there ways to do this? Somewhat, of course, but it’s challenging to say the least.

Writers of women’s fiction might long to address the topic of weight and body image, yet will they inadvertently generate fat shame if they do so? It’s a statistical fact that Americans are becoming increasingly overweight–to the endangerment of their health–yet no one is allowed today to criticize another individual regarding obesity. While fat shame can spawn extreme reactions such as anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, is it such a terrible thing if it keeps a mother from allowing her child to overeat and emulate Honey Boo-Boo?

How suppressed should writers be in the cause of sensitivity? I remember a time when people said what they thought and everyone rolled with the punch. Should writers be more sensitive, or should readers be less?

I know; I know–it’s all about balance. Which seems to be in short supply these days.

Meanwhile, I have a western to sanitize.


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4 responses to “The Censorship of Sensitivity

  1. I hope you DON’T sanitize your western. Had Sam Clemens sanitized Huck, or even more to the point, failed to write Puddn’head Wilson, we now would not be aware of his true feelings about the conditions in which he lived. Part of our duty as writers is to document ordinary life — in addition to providing what Foster-Harris openly described as parables in which each of them carries a moral message!

    Foster’s 1+1 and 1-1 formulae may seem simplistic and ancient in these days, and certainly those of you who followed and teach us the lessons of character development and scenes have richened the possibilities, but our stories can still carry those moral messages and convey them subliminally to our readers.

    My current Work In Progress deals with a few historical facts, and if its characters follow the plan I’ve set forth will also turn some of history inside out. More than a year ago I posted a snippet of it in an on-line writing group, asking for comment about some of the characters — and got a hot diatribe accusing me of disrespect for a native culture (I had envisioned a young Cheyenne girl becoming friends with a Pawnee, and the Pawnee girl defying her family’s orders). The ensuing discussion prompted me to do some deeper research. That specific plot line is no longer present, but the Cheyenne’s motivation remains and has become even stronger now that I know more about her moral compass and can make it more explicit.

    In other words, awareness of the possibility of offense is a good thing to encourage, but honesty in portrayal of events — even those that never happened or could happen — is more important. It’s perfectly okay to have an evil person who happens to belong to an identifiable group, but NOT okay to have the rest of the group be equally evil. Personally I think the parable comes through better when both the “good” and the “bad” characters come from the same group; that underscores that morals are individual matters! Your plots may vary, though. Difference of opinion, someone said, is what makes for horse races.

    My heritage of getting paid by the word is showing; time to shut up. Do both the stories!

  2. Maxie Lee

    Thank you for writing this, it’s given me a lot to think about. Every one has a freedom to read what he or she wishes –or not– and every writer has the same freedom to write. In the end what’s most important is writing a book that YOU will be happy with. Be true to yourself and to your story. You can always explain your position in the preface or introduction, if needed. I am looking forward to your new book.

    • You’re welcome! There are so many issues flying around us these days. Sometimes it’s hard to keep balanced and remember common sense plus artistic freedom.

      Thanks for your response!

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