Thursday, March 3, 2011

Some Thoughts on Language and Diversity

We've been having some interesting discussions the past few days, here in Puddletown, centering on language and diversity. We've got a great book coming out, an historical romance set in the Civil War, and we've had to take a long look at what we will publish in terms of language. The words used in the book were common in their time. They were used appropriately. They were not used gratuitously. And Mark Twain used them in his work. Of course, he was writing in a different time.

I finally had to take a personal look at how I felt. My immediate family has African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, people of many faiths and no faith, extremely rich folks, and folks living on welfare. It's a very large family, a true microcosm of America, and I love them all. I don't want to hurt any of them. I want every one of them to be able to read any of Puddletown's books without being offended by language. 

So we have decided that our books must not contain words referring to any ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation that would offend a member of that group. What does that mean in practical terms? Well, I'm a lesbian, writing for other lesbians. I can use words that non-lesbians, writing for a non-lesbian audience can't. African Americans can use words I wouldn't presume to use. A Jewish person writing about the Holocaust can take liberties a Christian can't. 

Yes, it is political correctness. However, it's important to remember that political correctness has been co-opted by a segment of our society as a slur, much like the words "liberal" and "feminist" have been turned on their side and used to mean something they are not.

The idea of politically correct language came out of the early feminist movement as a way to make people aware of the ways language can be used against people, particularly woman. But it's not just women who are hurt by language. Most of us probably belong to a group that is maligned through the use of words we'd rather not hear used against us. 

Just for myself, I am a woman, a lesbian, a liberal Christian, the granddaughter of a Jewish woman, and the grandmother of the Hispanic Wonder Babe. My other grandchildren are the whitest of the white, and Army brats to boot. I have several friends who are transexuals. My comadre y compadre are Hispanic. I have several African American nieces and nephews, and an Asian niece and grandniece. 

I'm sure if you think about it, you probably have friends or loved ones in some of those groups, or maybe in others. Please, as we write, let's remember that we are writing in the 21st century, and we know better.


  1. First of all, welcome to Blogger!

    I understand that I can call my brother a redneck and you can't. And you can call someone butch, and I can't. But how do you feel about letting a character use perjorative terms as an indication of their character? Or must Simon Legree say, "Oh, hell, you can beat the crap out of those African Americans. It's not like they're real people." ?

    Ow, I can feel the wrath already, and I haven't even posted. But if i want the reader to really hate Simon, this is bound to do it. I hate him totally, and I don't know anything else about him. Maybe this makes it a cheap shot, though.

    Anyhow, you're the editor. Can we use the bad words to indicate bad, ignorant characters?

  2. Hah! You just wanted the wiggly little fishies on your blog Beth

  3. That line between historical accuracy and sensitivity is a hard one, isn't it? In addition to being a liberal feminist *wink* I also am a white woman who studies disparities for a living, so I am very aware of where I lack authenticity. I also know there are vastly different opinions on what the words OUGHT to be depending on generation--a man I know, when asked if he's Hispanic, says, "I'm not from Espana. I am Latino." with great force, yet when I was doing graduate work Hispanic was the 'sensitive' label.

    I totally respect your decision, though I think I also would have respected historical accuracty with a forward explaining word choice.

  4. Good post-
    I do think to some degree if you have a character who talks and acts a certain way that the political correct might not wager quite as well.
    Though I do think it is polite to be aware of the correct way to use language with people in general.
    I found you here- so I switched your link from wordpress to blogger! Have a terrific day fellow crusader!

  5. I can't say I agree with you. (Sorry.) If we are going to argue that books like The Adventures of Huck Finn should stay in schools, and that the use of the word nigger is for historical accuracy and that there's nothing wrong with it, isn't it wrong to now prohibit people using negative words for historical accuracy today? Isn't it called accuracy for a reason? I mean, I remember reading The Piano Lesson in english class in HS, the only girl brave enough to say the "n word" out loud. And it was painful to do, because it's not something I would EVER say in real life. I don't like the word. But it made reading the story more real, because I didn't feel like the writer was holding back for me, keeping me distanced from the truth. I understand not wanting to make readers uncomfortable, but I feel that words like that (in books)should be used when necessary and only when necessary and only to prove the mind set of the character. Still, as someone who has felt the force of some of those hurtful words, I do understand and appreciate what you are trying to do.

    <3 Gina Blechman

  6. I just reread To Kill a Mockingbird last week, and was impressed/sort of shocked by Harper Lee's use of the n word and negro as it was used in 1935. I don't think I could do it. But she made it true to the time and the way people spoke in that state.

  7. I can understand not saying such things in real life, but in writing? No, say it as it is. This stupid PCness has got to end sometime.

    Fellow crusader

  8. Very interesting discussion about language and labels. I hate being called a liberal, even though I lean left on many, many issues. "Liberal" is a nasty word these days, though it shouldn't be. Thanks for the awesome food for thought!

    I'm a fellow crusader! Great to meet you :))

  9. I find it offensive to hear and read the F-bomb peppered all over the place, but the argument is that is reflects reality. (And my kids say, "Oh Mom, it's just a word.")

    Yet if a teen boy character, whom we are supposed to dislike intensely, calls a developmentally challenged girl a "stupid retard" in 1959, we get all PC and decide it must not happen. I would not personally, in 2011, call someone that, but a teen in 1959 would and certainly many did. It certainly reflects the reality of teen boys in 1959.

    Like the men in Macon, Georgia calling a black person a nigger in 1935.


  10. Hi Susan, it's good to meet you via internet. Thanks for your input. I really appreciate every comment I can get. Hopefully our paths will cross somewhere. I look forward to following you.

    Also, I've had a discussion similar to this with one of my friends. We were trying to figure out if one should use Elizabethan dialogue if a book was set in that period, even though it would hurt its readability. We concluded it was a poor idea.

  11. It's a slippery slope. I understand your reasoning, but I have to agree with Hart, respecting historical accuracy and explaining word choice would have been my decision.

    Culture is communicated through language. Yes, language can be used against others. But to homogenize it, strips it not only of our diversity but of our history. A few months ago, I read the first Nancy Drew, the original 30s edition. The blatant racism made me cringe. It clearly reflected a different time. Sure, the contemporary sanitized version would have been more comfortable reading, but it wouldn't have given me the same glimpse into the past.

    It's crucial we don't forget where we came from. If we do, we could find ourselves back there.

  12. Same with Theresa about reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

    I'm now following you! Great blog! :) Welcome to blogger :)

  13. Hi, crusader!

    I think that there shouldn't be place for political correctness in the world.

    No, not because I'm a bigoted fool, but because I believe that there is a falseness to it that I cannot tolerate.

    I mean. Call me what you want. But do it to my face.

    Don't ma'am me upfront when everything in your attitude screams that you have zero respect for who I am.

    Lip-work isn't worth the paper it's written on.

    So I don't want pc. I want respect.

    And yes, I come from the country that has become the crown jewel of pc.

    As for writing, I believe that no one. I repeat NO ONE has a right to censor what someone has written. If you have a problem with what you read, put down the book. Or advise everyone you know not to read it. Whatever. But don't tell people what they can and cannot write. Because the day that we do, we might as well start with the book burnings and author excecutions.

    Sorry if this sounds harsh, but I feel very strongly about it - coming from a country where everyone pays lipservice while pussyfooting around the real issues.

  14. Sounds like you have a wonderfully diverse family! Agree that as writers and people, we should be respectful of other people's race/s ad choices. Saw your tweet, so here to follow!

  15. Not sure whether I just lost my comment or not, but I'm a crusader, here to support your effort.

  16. Thanks for all your responses. They certainly give me food for thought. That said, I'd still rather err on the side of thoughtfulness about my reader's feelings. I know that sometimes there is no other word that will do, but if there is, why not use it? Why risk causing pain to a reader by using words that hurt?


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