Tuesday, December 01, 2015

I'm Sorry, Did I Offend You?

As we enter the silly season, my twitter and Facebook feeds are filled with people who are "offended" for one reason or another. This happens every year, of course. And every year, common sense thinking people have to deal with the faux-outrage about "the war on Christmas" and putting "Christ" back in Christmas, as if saying "Happy Holidays" is somehow offensive. This year, we had a new twist when a private company (Starbucks) decided to use red cups instead, hell, I'm not sure, putting a nativity scene on them? We even had a presidential candidate, Adolph Hitler, err, Donald Trump, suggesting we boycott Starbucks for this great sin. Okay, it's Trump, and he's the prince clown of fools, but he's still the leading Republican candidate for president.

To be "offended" by the likes of cups and holiday greetings in nonsensical, But it happens every year, which leads to the question; when should I be offended? As a novelist, I'm forced to ask myself that question not only as a human, but as a writer. When should my characters be offended? And what am I revealing about who they are when I show that kind of reaction?

When Should I be Offended?

Novelists are, by nature, observers of human behaviour. But that observation needs to start in the mirror. Always. An un-self-aware writer is not an artist. And someone who doesn't understand why people respond to their art in a certain way probably haven't spent enough time staring into the looking glass.

For example, I get upset when people (non-scientists) use the word "retarded." As someone who has spent their life working with developmentally disabled students, that word is offensive because it's representing a group of humans in a condescending way. The same is true for "faggot" and "gay."

It also offends me when people use misogynistic language. This week, on one of my Facebook threads, these two white "bros" told me not to "get my panties in a bunch." If you can't understand why that's offensive, then again, that un-self-awareness is going to hurt you, both as an empathetic human and an artist. Particularly as an artist.

That's not to say you can't have characters who use those terms, but if you do, then make sure they're doing it for a reason. We see it a lot in film. Blockbusters especially tend to portray women as shrewish idiots, which again, is acceptable if the artist is aware of it and they're doing it purposely within the context of the work. But most, like Jurassic World, don't even know what the Bechdel Test is, and quite frankly, don't care.


This is problematic, because even the most well meaning artists have blind spots. I certainly do. I consider myself a pretty strong feminist, and yet, after my editor looked at the first three books in my upcoming Desolate Kingdom Series, she noted that my female characters weren't nearly as complex as my male leads. They were all kick ass heroines, which was fine, but because of my desire to write strong women, they came off like fan-boy art, and not the good kind. And two of my beta-readers, both women, made a number of suggestions regarding certain scenes in which I was guilty of tainting my female characters with one-size-fits-all brush. It took me a number of edits to fix, but I was happy to do it.

As a man, I can't know the experience of being a woman. As someone straight, I can't know the experience of being gay. I don't know what it's like to be black or Asian or trans-gender, and if I'm not careful, I can offend people unintentionally, which is exactly what I do not want to do.

It's one thing if my characters offend my readers. It's something else altogether if I do it unintentionally.

Good art should always challenge the way people think, but bad art offends people for all the wrong reasons. A book can sell five million copies, but that means little. In fact, a lot of so-called artists make a lot of money because they refuse to challenge societal conventions, whether it's the portrayal of women or minorities or whatever, for that very reason.

I'll be honest, it can be really frustrating. But there's nothing for us to do except help balance the scales a little. That doesn't mean we have it all figured out, of course not. I'm certain I'll need my bet-readers' eyes as my series progresses. If I'm going to offend someone, I want to make sure that I'm doing it for the right reasons. Not because I'm trying to be "Politically Correct," (a term I despise, since most people who complain about "political correctness" are only upset because they want to say hateful things about minorities) but because I want to be -- and need to be -- self-aware as an artist.

Whatever my creation is saying, I need to hear it first. I need everything within it to be purposeful. So long as that happens, I don't care who I offend.

And neither should you.

-Steve