Is This Politically Correct?

PC

The idea of political correctness can be a bit of a hot potato. However, one of the most valuable things I’ve learnt from working with an editor has been the importance of being sensitive to stereotyping, particularly when writing for children and young adults.

Gender stereotyping

Below are two examples I’ve taken from an early version of my novel, Fury, both of which my editor pulled me up on. I’ve underlined the offending sentences and included her comments below.

Nadia tore a twig from her hair. She glared at him, then taking hold of her horse’s reins, she stalked off towards the camp. Slav scratched his head. He would never understand women.

This is what my editor had to say – Can we take this out? Seems unnecessary to offer this gender stereotyping to young readers?

“Do what?” Vedrashko asked. “Free you from a burden? A squalling brat demanding all your time, taking you away from me.” Slav hadn’t seen Nadia with any children, though there were several in the camp. She didn’t seem the mothering type.

And my editor said this – Can we take this out, to avoid stereotyping? I’m sure lots of people who are mothers, and good ones, don’t seem ‘the type’.

Needless to say I made the necessary changes.

The Language of Disability

In Fury my protagonist has a lame leg and his best friend was born blind. It was important for me to consider the kind of language I was using to describe them. So I came up with this question to try and put things into perspective.

Should we say ‘disabled person’ or ‘person with a disability’? Is there a difference or are we just splitting hairs?

Here’s how I answered it:

By using the adjective ‘disabled’ to describe a person you constrict the way people think about them. They have been defined. They are disabled. If you say they are a disabled person who eats a lot of ice-cream, it sounds as if the fact they love ice-cream should be noted as an unusual aspect of their character (which has been defined by one word – disabled). In effect you have put them in a box.

But if you say they are a person with a disability, it’s a lot easier to go on to add … who hates ice-cream and loves swimming in the sea. Their disability is only a single aspect. There is much more to know about this person.

How can our fictional characters benefit from PC thinking?

He is a vampire, she is a call girl, they are punk rockers. Defining characters by a single attribute can blinker us as writers, because so many of the words we use come with the baggage of preconceived ideas.

He is so much more than a vampire. He is a boy who likes Mozart, hates biting his nails and needs to consume human blood to survive. She is a girl who loves her sister, hates drinking coffee and makes her living sleeping with business men.

Thanks to my editor, I have taken what I’ve learnt from the PC debate and used it to change how I think about my characters.

It’s worth reflecting on the way we describe others. Are we restricting ourselves, our readers and those we write about because our words are ill chosen? Dialogue reveals a character’s subconscious views, and it may be appropriate for them to speak in limited terms about others, but when narrating our stories shouldn’t we be more aware than our characters of the language we use and how it reflects our thinking.

(Picture courtesy of Caroline Holden-Hotopf)

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23 thoughts on “Is This Politically Correct?

  1. Lorrie,

    Sorry, but I vehemently disagree with your Editor and lamentably disagree with your choice to amend your prose so as to render it more palatable to that same Editor. (I’d frankly be very surprised if your readers had any problem with it.)

    What I find much harder to swallow is your use of “they” to describe one person. I would NEVER say or write “they are a person with a disability” so as not to offend one gender or the other (not to mention the trans-gendered genders somewhere in the middle or on the fringes!). Rather, I’d decide whether I was describing a male or a female, then use the appropriate pronoun(s) and adjective(s).

    By the way, this business of using “they/them/their” so as to avoid apparent gender discrimination has a long history. I wrote a treatise on the issue in college and discovered in my research that your Jeremy Bentham first remarked upon it several hundred years ago. What other (primarily Romance) languages manage to avoid by having the possessive adjective agree in number and gender with the noun it modifies is something we lack in English.

    As the French would say, “Tant pis!” The French would probably also say something about your too fastidious Editor, but equally sensitive eyes and ears reading this comment might take offense. And so, I’ll just say “Pardon my French” and let it go at that.

    Russell

    • Hi Russell
      I knew this would be a hot potato topic. I understand your view about using the word ‘they’. Interesting that I was so busy looking at the adjectives, the use of an ‘offensive’ pronoun had escaped me. So thank you for pointing that out. It is interesting the balance between writer and editor, and how much you can fight your corner, and how much you find yourself compromising. I think, perhaps, it’s more important to be aware of the possible connotations of the language you use, and then make an informed decision. (Obviously I still have some way to go.) Thanks for starting off the debate.
      Lorrie.

      • Lorrie,

        I would never visit an Editor/Publisher without my copy of THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE in hand. (I believe your equivalent would be THE OXFORD MANUAL OF STYLE.) And then, in the event of a stand-off (Mexican, Brit, Yank or any other except French*), I’d gently nudge THE MANUAL in his or her (or “their,” if you please) direction and ask to see the specific entry that governs that Editor’s/Publisher’s mandate to alter my prose in some fashion to suit contemporary tastes and/or mores.

        Mind you, the nudge would not lack the courtesy of a smile.

        For what it’s worth, Lorrie, I simply don’t submit to an Editor (or put something out into the public domain) unless and until I’ve done my homework — and a thorough re-edit or six. If I’ve still overlooked a typo or two (we’re ALL subject to a bit of “snow blindness” where our work is concerned), I’ll be grateful and beg forgiveness. Otherwise, and on SUBJECTIVE questions, I’ll stand my ground. And then, if necessary, find a new agent, Editor or Publisher.

        Russell

        * If the stand-off is French, I’d probably suggest lunch. If the Editor/Publisher is particularly easy on the eye, I might even suggest she and I go chase down some dessert.

  2. Frankly, the editorial preoccupation with political correctness is a disease that can sap the vigor from writing. Tolerance, inclusion, and awareness are far more important than political correctness. Their opposites are all part and parcel of today’s reality, and writing for a young audience should take these into account. Sometimes the best way to promote the good is to hold up a mirror to our intolerance and insensitivity. Stereotypes are part of human reality. If we write characters without this all-but-universal shortcoming, we are creating stick figures for the sake of editorial propriety. Having a character remark that he will never understand women is not an endorsement of gender stereotyping or discrimination. You might have him say it aloud and get a response: “Maybe that’s because you never tried.”

    • Hi Larry
      Certainly dialogue is a place where a character’s opinions should be expressed to reflect the nature of their character. Story explores the whole of the human condition, not a selected and sanitised version. It is important as writers, though, that we’re aware when we use stereotypes and do so for the sake of the story, and not because we simply haven’t considered this aspect of our writing. I’m all for tolerance, inclusion and awareness.

  3. Larry,

    Hear, hear! Well said!

    Russell

  4. Ireca says:

    Great topic, as writers it is important how we use our descriptive words. Although, we want our readers to connect we do not want to limit our characters, or limit our perspective. I appreciate, your thoughts on this issue-it gives me something to think about, when introducing my characters.

  5. I think political correctness has gone insane. I just heard on the radio today that people have problems with the words freshman and woman, because they have too much gender bias…really. Insanity. I don’t try to purposefully offend anyone, but it gets ridiculous as the world turns too afraid to speak.

    • Hi Sabrina
      If we took away the term ‘political correctness’ and replace it with ‘treating people as human beings’ life might be a lot less complicated. But every middleground, has an extreme at either end. All we can do is hope we get the right balance.
      L.

  6. Liz says:

    An answer to the disability dilemma is to avoid using the d word at all but instead stick to show-not-tell. For example: Fred couldn’t eat ice cream and wheel his chair at the same time, consequently he spent a lot of time watching people as he ate … etc. And as style guides have been mentioned, I like the Guardian newspaper’s instruction to use neutral language, e.g. don’t say someone suffers from a disability unless you know they do suffere. They may be perfectly content, or very happy.

    • Liz,

      Good point (that you and the Guardian make).

      But I have to wonder… how would you and the Guardian(s) revise the King James version (already a revision, I believe) of “Suffer the little children…”? It seems to me there’s just no way of easily getting around the little buggers. 🙂

      Russell

      • Liz says:

        Hi Russell, you’re right it isn’t easy! I think overall it’s about context and often than means the period of the story. In contemporary fiction we are moving towards individuals who happen to be disabled and authors increasingly are writing the issues that result from the mix of disability, character, social background etc. Liz Jensen’s ‘The Rapture’ is a good example.

      • Liz says:

        I’m not implying by the way that the Bible is fiction – I pressed something by mistake before I’d finished!! But the language used would most likely be different if it were being written now – at any rate if the Guardian were involved! So to that extent my ‘history/time setting’ argument applies. It all adds to the difficulties for writers – which words to choose …

      • Sorry, Liz, I was waxing a tad too tongue in cheek for my own good there.

        I frankly don’t care whether people think the Bible is fact, fiction or fantasy. For me, personally, it’s just a reference book with some interesting poetry and a few good stories. (And, of course, that “begat…begat…begat” business leads one to assume there was a great deal of phucking going on in Biblical times. No PC about it!)

        I’ve always wanted my kiddoes to study the Bible at least enough to understand its role in Western art, music and literature. But I, too, have had to “suffer the little children” and their insufferably short attention span for anything more demanding than Disney.

        C’est la vie. Tant pis.

        Russell

  7. Liz says:

    That should be suffer without the last e. The bit about neutral language of course may not apply in fiction but it’s a good starting point I think for clearing the mind before you decide excactly what you do wish to say.

  8. Thank God I am not “easy on the eye”

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