On Writers, Sensitivity, and the Supposed Threat to Free Speech

Last week, I wrote about sensitivity readers.

That is to say, about those who are subject matter experts on different forms of marginalization in society, who writers can recruit to help them bring verisimilitude to the portrayal of marginalized characters in fiction.

The use of sensitivity readers is a growing trend in fiction as more and more stories about marginalized characters are being published – particularly since more and more of these sorts of stories are being written by writers who themselves are not marginalized.

Some people – both readers and other writers – are not in favour of sensitivity readers.

Last week, I discussed the broad category of dissenters who seem not to recognize how writers actually operate: dissenters who don’t understand that writers already seek out expert opinions when writing about things outside of their direct experience, and that sensitivity readers – with their intimate understanding of marginalization – are just another example of this.

This week, I’m writing about those people who do understand this.  But really just couldn’t care less.

Free for not all

The second broad group of dissenters from the handful of articles I’ve read about sensitivity readers of late were those who decried the practice as a threat to free speech.

More specifically, these commenters deem artful and accurate portrayals of marginalized people to the point that a sensitivity reader becomes a useful contributor as an attack of “political correctness”.

“Political correctness”, of course, being the term that’s invoked anytime the target of a misrepresentation has the temerity to speak out against it.

Some of these dissenters even erroneously assert that sensitivity readers would prevent stories that are explicitly about marginalization and oppression from being published.

As if,

  1. A sensitivity reader isn’t clever enough to tell the difference between an intentionally oppressive character whose presence helps subvert and critique social inequality and a character whose unskillful, uninformed portrayal further contributes to the problem. And,
  2. Someone who considers the insight of a person who’s actually experienced marginalization as a hindrance to fostering dialogue on the topic is truly interested in using fiction to help dismantle inequality to begin with.

And all the while completely overlooking the fact that sensitivity readers have no power whatsoever to enforce any changes they might suggest to a writer.

As well as overlooking the fact that free speech has nothing to do with how the reading public receives a given writer’s novel, instead relating to the inability of governments to censor or retaliate against one’s freedom of expression save in legal exceptions.

What those who accuse sensitivity readers of threatening free speech are actually saying is this: that readers shouldn’t have a right to call out problematic portrayals of marginalized characters since doing so impedes writers’ ability to represent characters whosoever they want, which is clearly considered more important.

They may even be saying that readers should be happy to have marginalized characters in mainstream media at all, no matter how stereotyped or uninformed by reality they might be.

In this regard, it’s seemingly less the use of yet another subject matter expert that’s so objectionable as the specific content this expert is on the lookout for.

As if making a point to represent marginalized groups accurately and thoughtfully without falling back on the same harmful stereotypes that pervade mainstream media is not only an inconvenient task but a needless one as well.

The true sound of silence

It’s telling how the people who clamour the loudest about free speech are often the first ones seeking to silence others.

Free speech in any way absolves a person of any consequences that might result from what they have to say.

In point of fact, writers can represent characters how they choose.  But that doesn’t mean readers have to like it.  Or buy it, promote it, endorse it, review it, or associate themselves with the creators of it.

Or remain silent about it.  For many of its loudest proponents, free speech fondly recalls a time when those wishing to criticize popular media had no way to make these feelings known on a large scale. (Or even if they could, they often didn’t for fear of the repercussions and their personal safety.)

Because of this seemingly silent response, it may have appeared that marginalized people used to be unfazed by the stereotypical treatment they received in mainstream media – that it’s only recently that people have become so sensitive.

Which is a ridiculous supposition.  The inability to criticize should never be equated with an absence of criticism.

Marginalized people have always disapproved of media misrepresentation.  It’s just taken until the modern day, with the ubiquity of social media, where almost anyone can broadcast their message widely, in the process gaining support and momentum from others who feel the same way.

It’s taken until the modern day that marginalized people can communicate their concerns directly to creators, and can have their message heard.

But some free speech advocates hate this, evidently believing in only their free speech, and that which agrees of it.

Someone else’s story

Free speech, however, cuts both ways.  You can say whatever misinformed or deliberately offensive thing you like (notwithstanding the question of why you’d want to be deliberately offensive), and people who know better can correct you.

They can even be mean-spirited about it.  I personally don’t condone this, instead preferring these sorts of conversations to be open and civil on both sides, but it is what it is.

That fact that reader response to misrepresentation often is so heated is an indication of how important the issue is, and also how long people’s concerns have gone unheeded in this regard.

It does bear noting, however, that even the use of a sensitivity reader won’t necessarily insulate a writer from reader criticism.

No two marginalized people are exactly the same.  They don’t experience marginalization exactly the same, which means they mightn’t feel the same as to what makes for a skillfully represented marginalized character.

No writer will ever please everyone.  As such, when writing outside of one’s direct experience, writers must be prepared to avail themselves of their thick writer’s skin to help protect their feelings and egos from whatever might come.

That, and also ask of themselves: if I truly can’t stand the thought of negative feedback – if defensive and affront is all I’ll be able to muster, rather than using the experience as an opportunity to learn to do better the next time – than am I certain this isn’t a story better left for someone else to write?

For as much as any writer should feel empowered to tell any story that calls to them, it’s not enough to simply have more diverse books.  We also need more diverse books written by people who actually experience that diversity firsthand.

What are your thoughts on the relationship between reader feedback and writer confidence and comfort given topics?  Do writers have a responsibility to readers?  Do readers have a responsibility to writers?  Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1 and #2)

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3 thoughts on “On Writers, Sensitivity, and the Supposed Threat to Free Speech

  1. Good post – and great questions.

    I think writers do have a responsibility – and that is to write whatever they choose, but do it WELL. And they have a responsibility to be true to themselves – to know WHY they make the choices they make, and make them deliberately.

    I write in the space you’re talking about, where people may disagree with how I portray my characters – I’ve had people say I spend too much on Kary’s disability, that she seems to have it too easy, or that it’s not like that for them. Being as there aren’t a bunch of novels out there which are popular and have given varying representations of CFS, that was bound to happen.

    So even when you have a character with an aspect you know a lot about, you won’t get it ‘right’ for everyone.

    I go back to the ‘book of the heart’ concept, and the fact that this is how I want to write this story. When I’m finished, readers will see the reasons for some of my choices – it is not a novel ABOUT disability; it is a novel about how society – and the disabled themselves – deal with some of the aspects of the limitations, and how that isn’t necessarily the right way to do it.

    I compare it to walking a crest-line in the Himalayas – I can slide in either direction very easily with a false step, and the work is done is rarefied atmosphere and freezing cold and howling winds.

    Nobody said this would be easy.

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    • Great comments. I definitely agree that writers should write well, should write books that are close to their heart, and should understand their artistic choices. Of the three responsibilities, I think the last one is the most difficult. We are all subject to so many influences in life, and not all of them positive. The reason most writers write, I believe, is to try to make sense of these influences – to try to sort out their thoughts and beliefs on the page (this is certainly why I do).

      However, our biases are very real and so many of them are implicit – fed to us as fact by the unequal society we live in – that we’re often not even aware of what we’re saying with our words – of who we might be harming, even if it’s not deliberate (or likewise who we might be helping). That is the power of writing, and like all powers, it needs to be wielded for good.

      I think readers also have a responsibility – the responsibility to be respectful to writers (just as we should all be respectful to everyone). I’m not saying that readers can’t get angry or offended by what they read or can’t leave a negative review. But some of the personal attacking and scorched earth politics I’ve seen writers subjected to doesn’t help anybody, especially when so much of the bias we all hold is implicit bias. (I’ve also seen some writers sandblasting readers for leaving negative reviews and calling out problematic content, which likewise is inappropriate.)

      I think writers and readers both have a lot to learn from each other to help make books (and society in general) better. However, this needs to happen in the form of a dialogue where both sides remain respectful, open-minded, willing to acknowledge mistakes, and willing to learn to do better.

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      • A recipe for civil discourse – for the whole world. It works – unless the ‘other side’ is a Soviet-style antgonist; then civil discourse and the willingness to compromise are seen as weakness – and trampled.

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