Gods know I hate to offend people or step on their toes. So it upsets me to find that something I’ve posted on social media or something I’ve said in passing was hurtful. That’s not to say I haven’t on rare occasion given voice to a sentiment I knew would be hurtful. I’m only human, and I do have a temper. I can think of a handful of times where I felt the situation warranted bald truth and did not hold back. But in all those cases, the recipient of my verbal barbs knew without a doubt that my words were intentional. Most of those individuals are no longer in my life, and I am better off without them.
More often, my offenses are unintentional either because I didn’t think before I spoke/wrote, or because it never occurred to me that my words could possibly be interpreted as affronts. Areas of sensitivity seem to be multiplying by leaps and bounds in recent years, or maybe they’ve always been there and we are only now being made aware of them. I try to be mindful of words and phrases that exacerbate the disempowerment of women, racist mindset, gender or sexuality bias, or dialogue that might trigger victims of violence. I make every effort to speak inclusively of people with differing physical or intellectual capacities, and to be mindful of class or cultural bias in my imagery.
But I have to admit that it’s hard to keep up sometimes with all the “proper” terms for addressing these issues, almost as hard as it is to successfully dance around all the potentials for upset. I suppose that is a testament to my privilege. While I am a woman, and can speak first-hand about the struggles women face every day, I am cis-gender, with white skin, of at least average intelligence. I am unhampered by long-term illness or chronic pain or other debilitating physical conditions. I’m not financially wealthy, but I have a roof over my head, food in my belly, a working vehicle and a steady job. I have good medical insurance, so I’m able to see a doctor when I need one and obtain necessary medications. I want for very little, but I am keenly aware that my good fortune is not as common as we might wish. No matter how careful I am, it is far too easy for me to inadvertently say or write something wrong without realizing it until the offense has already been given.
Fiction, at least, allows the writer an opportunity to wield a seemingly careless bludgeon with the hands of an unlikable character. It isn’t the writer’s words or actions the reader will detest; it’s the villain’s. Even a protagonist can demonstrate a failure to display “proper” or “honorable” actions, as long as they redeem themselves in some other way. Behind the façade of fictional tales, writers can say indelicate things in poignant or impactful ways, address sensitive issues in relevant ways without taking too big a hit from readers. We almost expect that sort of thing in a story that isn’t real. Look at the old Star Trek episodes (even Next Gen, or some of the other variations of the franchise). Most of them weren’t even subtle in their “hidden” messages.
Writers of non-fiction, however, have no such shield. They must weigh every word against intent and guess at the reception, then forge ahead and hope for the best. Unfortunately, the outcome is not always everything they wanted—sometimes far less. Even the simplest of statements can easily be taken out of context and become fodder for insult, whether or not it was ever intended as such.
I’ve written in a prior post about how to pen lifestyles unlike my own experience. There, I was mostly concerned with creating a realistic character portrayal. Here I’m asking a different set of questions:
- Where is the line between authentic expression of emotion or opinion and withholding that expression out of respect for others’ space or, at the least, the desire to remain inoffensive?
- Can we as writers keep ourselves small, so as to not intrude on those around us, and still write something worthy of our craft?
- Can our words still have any significant impact if we are always cushioning the blow?
- How many readers can we expect to follow volume after volume of pablum with nary a chewy morsel?
There are many flavors and shades of Truth, maybe as many as there are humans. Defenders of any one camp disbelieve—and sometimes protest—the truth of those in the other camps. The truth is, we may never bring everyone to agreement on most things of importance. Perhaps the secret is to write one’s own Truth, as honestly and clearly as we can, to know ahead of time that not everyone will like what we say (what was that old adage about making an omelette? Apologies to my fellow vegans) and be ready for that before we print our words, to be willing to defend one’s position when necessary and, when we see we are wrong, to apologize and change position. Life, culture, society is ever-evolving. We have to be able to grow along with it if we hope to remain standing or—in our case as writers—to keep writing relevant works.