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Recently we have seen multiple questions on various aspects of political correctness. They have sparked some measure of disagreement, which is what I wanted to examine here.

To what extent should we fear giving offense with what we write? To what extent should we, as writers, actively seek not to give offense?

Obviously, I do not argue here that we should deliberately hurt everyone in our path. Most of us don't want to offend people - that's as it should be.

But suppose I have a story element in mind. To what extent should I make sure it doesn't offend anyone? To what extent is it my responsibility? To what extent should it even be a priority - making it inoffensive? Suppose it does offend someone - does it mean I have to change that story element? Is there some sort of balance?

I have my own answer to this, but I'm curious what others think. For one thing, I'm not sure I fully understand the topic or have the right of it. Socrates, I believe, recommended hearing opposing arguments for the purpose of finding truth.

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    Which questions? I've seen several controversial questions here lately, but I don't know that I'd describe most of them as being primarily about either "political correctness" or "offense." That way of framing a debate not only suggests its own answer, it can also be a way of trivializing substantive issues by invoking the image of some fragile flower clutching his or her pearls in horror. – Chris Sunami Aug 26 at 19:26
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    @ChrisSunami What really sparked it for me were some of the answers to this question, as well as the formulation "is it legal, because it might be insulting?" in this question. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Aug 26 at 19:37
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    This feels very broad and opinion-based. The answers might be different for established writers with fan followings versus newcomers (and even more so if the established writers have certain kinds of reputations). They'll be different based on where you're publishing and who your intended audience is. They might vary by genre, market, or publisher. – Monica Cellio Aug 27 at 2:50

13 Answers 13

36

Trying to not offend in general, as a goal in and of itself, is automatically a losing proposition. Posed as an optimization problem, it resolves to saying nothing and reaching no one.

You cannot please everyone. Every choice attracts some potential readers and alienates others. This is normal.

There cannot be a universal list of permissible victim groups. The borders of said groups are always drawn by the attacker, who is at will to assign any and all "naughty" labels to predetermined targets.

You should excel at your craft and perfect your vision. This means if you set out to write a book promoting concept P, you should ensure that it indeed promotes P, as an obligation to your craft and vision. This has nothing to do with "political correctness".

There's only one group of people you need to avoid offending -- your audience. And the audience is retroactively defined as "the people who like the book". You respect the audience by refining your craft and vision. Throwing out a plot point because you realized it's bad is a normal part of writing. Sometimes the realization is prompted by reader feedback, other times you notice it yourself. Only laziness is objectively bad.

Suppose you're writing a fictionalized biography of a living person in collaboration with the subject. Sometimes, the subject would tell you, "No, this isn't something I'd say. And that isn't something I'd do." What do you do?

Well, at least you have one authoritative source in that scenario. Now imagine you're writing a book about a community, and each community member has different ideas on how everyone should and should not act in your book. Who do you listen to?

For a book in general, especially for a fiction book, the audience (in the artistic sense) isn't something that can be measured beforehand. Often, it's the writer who notices a pattern or a thought and crystallizes it into words for other people to find and express themselves with. It's that pattern and those people who you need to be faithful to, not the perpetually offended "influencers" who, what with all the things to be offended about, have no time to read.

Avoiding or inviting controversy are marketing strategies. It follows from Weierstrass's theorem that for every book, there's an optimal amount of controversy it has to generate to maximize the chance of landing a movie deal. But it's not a moral consideration.

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    “You can’t please everyone”—as evidenced by the plethora of bad writing that sells only because it has sex in it. Or the political books that one wing applauds while the other is enraged (and both buy them). – WGroleau Aug 27 at 5:43
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    "Weierstrass's theorem" - what has the extreme value theorem got to do with this?! :) – otah007 Aug 27 at 8:42
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    @otah007 In a 9-billion-dimensional continuum from "no one cares" to "everyone is absolutely furious", there exists a non-empty subset where the chance of landing a movie deal is the highest. If there's an amount of offense one "should" aim for, that's it. – aniline Aug 27 at 15:26
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    @aniline That's not how the EVT works - it states that for all continuous functions on a compact interval, the function takes extrema on that interval. But chance of a film deal as a function of controversy generated is not necessarily continuous, nor is it stable from day to day or from book to book. And anyway, generating high controversy is much less likely to get you a film deal than to, I don't know, write a good book! – otah007 Aug 27 at 15:32
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    Mandatory XKCD. xkcd.com/1172 - Every change ruins someone's workflow. Every speech has the potential to offend someone. – Mindwin Aug 27 at 18:40
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The problem isn't offense, the problem is harm

Words have power. The more people that your words reach, the more power they have. So it becomes important to consider the harm they can do.

Perpetuating stereotypes (particularly negative ones), normalizing violent or abusive behaviors, spreading falsehoods as if they are facts all have the power to cause harm.

There is no such thing as a harmful topic - there are only harmful treatments of particular topics. The trick is that it is rarely obvious to an outsider where the harm lies, which is why it is so important to listen to others (through research or beta readers) when they tell you that you were inadvertently causing harm.

There are people who generate outrage about things that are not actually causing harm (or at least are doing more good than harm). These people can safely be ignored - but be careful in your identification! Just because a grievance seems minuscule does not necessarily mean that it is misplaced! A large collection of small hurts can be just as harmful as a single large offense.

Treat all your subject matter as complex reality, and listen critically when people tell you that you've accidentally caused harm, and you'll be fine.

  • Perfect. I like it. Offense is not always warranted, and may in some cases even be a sign that you are speaking of the right things. – Andrew Aug 28 at 16:06
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I don't think it is possible to avoid giving offense unintentionally, obviously (to me) that is possible even if you think hard about not giving offense.

I also don't think it is reasonable to demand we give no offense to anybody: My daughter was offended, in Django Unchained, that one of the characters intentionally shot and killed an innocent (and healthy) horse. Of course no animal was harmed in the movie, it was a special effect. And she wasn't upset about the hundred humans "killed" in the movie. Just the horse.

Well, sorry kid, the plot demanded it. And it is true the plot could change to not demand it, but that would probably have taken more screen time, shooting the horse was quick and expedient.

A similar argument, I think, applies to pedophiliacs, rapists, serial killers, terrorists, sex slavers, White Supremacists, Nazis and brutally violent criminals, Mafia, hit men, drug lords and gang members.

All these people exist IRL, and have victimized and killed innocents, including children. It is pretty much the nature of fiction that such monsters are shown being successful, and getting away with their crimes, even laughing at the pain and suffering they have caused, or as they cause it. That may offend people that have suffered their predation, or have lost people to such predations.

But fiction isn't compelling if their callousness and crimes are not shown, fiction needs bad guys the audience hates, the bad guy can't always be a businessman that threw his half-eaten sandwich into the "plastics only" recycle bin.

(Sorry if that horrified anyone; proper recycling is an important responsibility.)

That's what I think you can't control. However, I think most of us can recognize superfluous offense, and eliminate it. If the racism, bigotry, prejudice, misogyny, homophobia, anti-semitic rants and other fictional slandering doesn't serve any real plot purpose (or some plot point is shoe-horned in to justify it, and could easily be done some other way) then it can be eliminated, and should be eliminated.

I think, as a writer, we should look for ways in which we may give offense, and educate ourselves in ways we may give offense, and decide if our story needs that, or if we are just stupidly perpetuating some deep prejudice learned when we were younger and dumber, when our culture was younger and dumber.

Sometimes offense components are necessary to tell a good story, make a good villain, or even make a good hero that can change for the better, or be redeemed. But that doesn't give us license to offend at will for no good reason.

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    Excellently put. In the immortal words of Wil Wheaton, "Don't be a dick." – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Aug 26 at 15:57
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    +1, awesome answer. There's "being offended", and then there's "being absolutely disgusted at thinly veiled bigotry". – weakdna says reinstate monica Aug 27 at 1:43
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    @MattHollands If that is intended for me, no. I think you missed my point: Their victims (or relatives thereof) might take offense to an author portraying them as successful and even delighting in the pain they cause others. The mother of a child raped and killed, that never got any justice, might be traumatized by a movie depicting something similar. <b>She</b> might take offense. A woman violently raped might be offended by the portrayal of a rapist that callously dismisses his victims as "meat." The mother of a lynched son might take offense at a Wh.Su. portrayed as an admired citizen. Etc. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 27 at 13:49
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    I was going to Answer with something similar. The audience often needs someone they find despicable in order for the hero to combat. Properly used, offensive behavior sets up the villain as the villain. This allows the hero to be the hero, by employing justice to take them down. Otherwise we end up with a lot of romance novels where everyone gets what they want without any struggle, and it's all very bland and lacking in any reality or meaning. – computercarguy Aug 27 at 23:27
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    @MattHollands Okay, read it again. Offense is NOT the controlling criteria. The thing to avoid is unnecessary offense, superfluous offense that is not needed for the plot, and is simply the author displaying their own prejudices and bigotries. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 28 at 10:15
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I'm sorry but I am offended. I'm not sure what my issue is, but in these times, that does not seem to matter. It is the age of outrage.

If you buy into the above nonsense, you will never write anything. If anyone in the entire world can shut you down simply by saying, "I am offended", there is no point even starting.

It seems that every statement has a counter statement. There are those who think that the world is flat and are offended by all of this talk of spheres. Should I not speak of globes because someone might be offended. My point is that the only safe haven is silence, and even that silence is offensive to some.

What you write is a pebble thrown into the water. Ripples ensue. What you and every other creator must decide is whether what you created provides more value than heartache. If what you write lifts up a thousand and offends a single individual, it that a failure? Could you arrange things differently to avoid the offense? If you can do so without diminishing the benefit for the thousand, perhaps you should do that. But what if that effort gets in the way of providing additional benefits? Continue this line of thinking for long enough and the madness comes.

I will end with an old adage: it is easier to seek forgiveness after the fact than to obtain permission before. Write. Seek feedback. Tally up the good and the bad. Learn. But above all else, act.

  • I like the cost-benefits analysis approach here. – Andrew Aug 28 at 16:09
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I don't necessarily take any issue with books filled with very bad people doing very bad things. Nor do I expect that every author be personally a saint. But I do believe that every novel has a moral dimension, one independent of either the author's or the characters' personal traits. And for that reason, I do hold the writer responsible --not for the characters' choices, but for the authorial choices.

I could read and enjoy a book with a protagonist who is racist, or a murderer, or any range of other bad things. But not a book whose conscious or unconscious theme is that racism (or murder) is right and justified and good. In this, I'm not saying that the bad moral choices disqualify it from being good, but rather that I don't believe you can produce good writing from a bad moral place. Of course, as with anything, no work is purely good or bad, but the point is that bad moral authorial choices never improve a work. At best, they can be forgivable flaws in an otherwise admirable work (just like you can love your racist grandfather without loving the racism in him).

It's worth noting that this really has nothing to do with offensiveness. There are bland tepid works that offend me entirely because they take the safest possible route. I still consider them morally bad even if no character in them ever does anything remotely worthy of reproach. The author has committed the "crime" of wasting the reader's time with inauthentic pandering.

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First, I would argue for the right to make mistakes

It's not unheard of, surely, inadvertently saying something wrong? That's what "I'm sorry" is for? Our starting point is "normally people do not seek to offend". Well, why shouldn't it be enough? G.R.R. Martin made a similar comment in an interview: "I'm an old white man, there are things I don't see. If you think something should be written differently, go ahead and write your stories - we should have more voices writing." (Not an exact quote - I can't find that interview now.)

Second, I would argue against self-censure and thought policing

Any time a writer thinks "I want to write this, but maybe I shouldn't", it frightens me. I value very highly the freedom a writer possesses to voice any opinion, to criticise anything - to think and share his thoughts. Censure is bad. Censure reeks of dictatorships, and I don't care if it's the "good guys" who do the censoring. Maybe I'm biased because samizdat was such an important part of my parents' youth, but I value this freedom above offended feelings.

I believe that opinions, ideas, should be expressed. Yes, even the offensive ones. Definitely the ones I disagree with. I believe the way to fight those ideas is to write more, write my ideas, write them well and let them do battle with the other ideas. I do not believe silencing ideas I disagree with is right.

I look at Charlie Hebdo as an example, any issue of that paper really. It's offensive, it's shocking, and I don't think it's very smart, to be honest. But being shocked is part of democratic discourse. Imagine a world where Charlie Hebdo went "this cartoon might offend someone, we shouldn't publish it".

So, to sum up, I do not think a writer should be afraid to give offense inadvertently, and I do not think a writer should change story elements rather than give offense.

  • A lot of 'I believe' and 'I think' in here, this sounds rather opinion-based to me. – DJ Spicy Deluxe Aug 26 at 13:47
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    I disagree, with both "I'm Sorry", and GRR Martin "write your own stories". First, "I'm Sorry" isn't enough, that is why IRL libel (a published false statement) can't be undone by a retraction, no matter how prominent the retraction is made. Same notion applies to GRR Martin, who has the reach and impact of GRRM? His suggested remedy is disingenuous and offers an empty response. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 26 at 14:03
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Claiming offense is the new Heckler's Veto, and it only succeeds if you willingly give in to it.

Storytelling is in part about telling our own truths. If some people are bothered by it, then so be it. And, this is okay because our art form is self-sustaining or self-constraining.

We write to reach out to others, if our work is so poor and ideas are perceived as vile, then we won't be read. The audience will put down the work and never finish it. And excellent work with wonderful ideas might be embraced and enjoyed -- if we are lucky and fortunate.

But excellent work with vile ideas is a challenging proposition. For example, I find it hard to imagine something written well enough that I would enjoy reading about graphic details of an act of brutality. Or, similarly, regardless of how well or badly a story was written, I don't think I would find the divisive racial theories of a story's protagonist engaging.

But, that said, and to try and put this idea together, censorship is never the answer to bad ideas. More ideas, discussion, debate, more writing, more words, are the best solution to dissolve the bad ideas in our world and promulgate new better ideas.

The censor succeeds when self-censorship starts.

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Be free, and truthful

If there is a truth, speak the truth. If you as an author decide what the truth is in your fictional world, then, again, speak it. You should only be worried about a lie: if it can be verified, you may be liable, if it is a lie to your artwork, your readers will notice and judge you for it.

The losing game (trigger warning: mildly strong language)

I find it preposterous to adapt artwork, or even place warnings for telling verifiable facts. It is a game where the most restrictive view wins, with utter disregard for the broader position. At the very end of this game there is no conflict, because someone is sensitive to conflict; there are no stakes because they require conflict and danger; and there is no diversity, because you can't acknowledge it. It is a losing game that restricts the infinite potential of art, for the sake of perpetuating a patriarchal stereotype that someone can decide what is proper and decent. Should writing reduce its scope to the sensitivity of unknown, potential, perhaps even future, yet unborn, readers?

Why writing then? Or why reading, if going out of the comfort zone is not a learning experience but the occasion for feeling offended?

Trigger warning: strong language

As a reader I have the choice to start and to continue reading. As a writer I have the choice of what to write and how to write it. Just as I may decide to remove racial discrimination in high fantasy, I may decide to create a contemporary world completely based on it. If the reader feels something when reading it, then I've succeeded at creating a work of art. If they feel offended they can take the occasion to explore the nature of their disagreement and kindly refrain to push their bigotry on the rest of us.

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    @openend: The paragraph uses quite a few verbs with strong inflection, is that not strong enough for you? Also, it triggered a comment by you, so a trigger warning clearly was appropriate. :-) – celtschk Aug 28 at 7:10
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If you find yourself wondering, “Should I care that this might offend someone?” dig a little deeper. The answer to “Why would this offend someone?” will usually tell you whether you care. Realistically, you probably also care about the answer to, “How much damage would this do to my reputation and career?” Even if you think you don’t, consider it anyway, so you aren’t surprised.

I’m sure you’re a decent person who wants to do good research and portray your characters and settings accurately, avoid falling into stereotypes and cliché, not portray one group of people as entitled to do things you judge others harshly for, not overlook important perspectives in favor of more familiar ones, and so on. You don’t want your readers to die because they tried something you wrote about at home—then they can’t buy more books. You might want to give your reader a shock, but not one that will make them throw their e-reader into the wall.

People roll their eyes when writers tick off boxes or pay homage to fashionable causes, with good reason. In 2019, people who hear your question are going to think of the Woke Left, not Christian parents’ groups writing letters to get a show that doesn’t preach their values cancelled, or government censors. That sort of thing leads to a backlash. Just don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. One thing that can go wrong is when people think a character, or maybe an event, represents something you didn’t intend: all left-handed people are like that, that kind of thing was the sole cause of the savings-and-loan crisis in the early ’90s. Maybe that’s broader than you meant: you know that the S&L crisis was more complicated than that, and you weren’t saying otherwise, just giving one anecdote. Maybe that’s narrower: you meant your Bhutanese jingoist as a satire of all jingoists, not just the Bhutanese ones, and certainly weren’t accusing Bhutanese culture of being the most jingoistic on Earth. So in some sense that kind of misreading could be unfair. But you also want to prevent it, not complain about it. Being aware of which character traits always seem to go together, and making an effort to decouple them, will help you do that. And to avoid getting repetitive.

If you ever find yourself saying, “They deserve to be excoriated! Of course they and the traitors defending them won’t agree, but I hope I offend them!” Stop. You’re about to make a huge mistake and write a political polemic full of strawman characters.

On the other hand, you have to accept the inevitability that you really, truly can’t please everyone. In the very best-case scenario, when your work is read many generations from now, society will have moved on and something you innocently wrote will feel like the old novel where the main character tells her friends she’s pregnant and drinks a toast “To the baby’s health!” At some point, you have to trust your reader to accept your good faith.

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The editor “will see to it that the sensibilities of the readers … have been respected and not unnecessarily offended”—Words Into Type (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974), p. 57. I agree, and it applies to writers, too, not just editors: Treat the readers with respect. Don’t offend them if it isn’t necessary. Is disturbing content or harsh language necessary to what you’re writing? OK. Include it. If it’s not necessary, think twice before using it.

  • Answers to this could go on forever. "The editor will see to it." +1. And if you're not HBO executives thinking about how much you should offend people, then you're probably in the clear. – Mazura Aug 26 at 22:54
  • First, not everybody can afford $thousands to hire an editor for their book. Second, both Agents and Publishers see a flood of bad writing submitted, and reject reject over 95% of it. Agents or Readers quickly reject books for minor issues like typos or formatting; these people exist to sell books, not train authors. They want a book ready to go. So do not, in fact, count on them to see your diamond in the rough and correct your deal-breaker mistakes. They will toss your book in the 95% "not for us" box and pick up the next one. New authors must be their own editors. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 27 at 17:15
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Some of my work strikes one person exactly opposite to my intent, which is eye-opening to say the least. And, the offending passages were crafted toward another goal, but for whatever reason at least one reader sees insidious messaging that was never intended in those passages.

Offense happens in art, maybe more so in the written word than other forms of art, in part because we project our inner selves onto art that we witness. We see what the art evokes in us.

So. To answer the question--Fear giving offense to whatever degree you personally choose. But also be certain to have readers on your work--enough readers that you can get a sense if you've missed something that others see, or if something one person sees as offensive is actually harmless by most standards.

But offense will be given. People were offended that Hermione was not white in JK's original view. That Albus was gay. Or that he was gay and it never came up. Take your pick. People were offended. Not everyone was offended.

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No, offend alway. If every artist asked this question art would not exist. You are bound to use cliches and tropes. All cliches and tropes are based on real life stereotypes. All stereotypes are offensive to that group. Even positive stereotypes. Don’t worry about it.

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    "All stereotypes are offensive to that group" - that's a big generalisation and not really true. – Rand al'Thor Aug 27 at 16:44
  • @Rand-althor if only you had said it was offensive, the irony would be complete. – Stian Yttervik Aug 28 at 16:40
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Write the story you want to

Writers have gone to jail, been tortured, killed, maimed, their families shot, every type of suffering has been undertaken in the name of free speech and the right to offend, even those in power.

Don't mock them by censoring yourself, especially if it is motivated by fear.

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