February 19, 2017

The "Sensitivity Police"

The topic of "sensitivity" is again doing the rounds of writers and readers groups with the inevitable heated discussions both for and against. I am alarmed at the whole idea - who is going to police these "sensitivity police"? 

Here is the latest from The Chicago Tribune.

For a while I have been toying with the idea of re-issuing a couple of my earlier novels in e-book format and putting them out there to either sink or swim, but it is largely because of this prevailing politically-correct attitude that makes me reluctant  (OK, absolutely terrified is more like it!) to go ahead.  One title features a huge cast of characters, each with the potential to offend a section of the community in some way.

The story is based on truth, and I made it as historically accurate as I could possibly could. It is set in Central Africa, c. 1880-1920’s, warts-and-all the way it really was back in those days. I undertook years of solid research as well drawing on my own personal connections to people who knew some of the real characters involved. My main protagonist had some surprisingly tolerant views for the time, but my book is bound to fail to pass muster on too many levels.

The lead character is a man  ...
... As you are a woman writer, how can you possibly understand a male viewpoint?
A South African white man who had some enlightened views ...
... Impossible. South African white men are always crude and bigoted bad guys (Hollywood says so, thus we know this is true.)
He’s been a soldier ...
... Nope, as non-combatant female you are not qualified to write about the horrors of being in a battle, of fighting to the death ... etc.
He's a hunter too ... 
... The fact that he has to shoot endangered or protected animals out of necessity will not endear him to the environmentalists and animal protection lobby ...
He also forms and leads an army of black people ... 
... This would be seen as reinforcing all that squirmingly embarrassing imperialist/racist domination stuff, stereotyping, etc. (even if his one saving grace is that he hates Cecil Rhodes as much as those groups of modern student protesters demanding his statues be pulled down) ...
He also has both black and white women in his life ...
... Deeply personal area - if you haven't been involved in cross-racial sex/marriage, what can you possibly know about it ....
And my white man has a loyal black companion ... 
... Ooh, no, mega problem, how dare you try and imagine what this black man felt, what could you possibly know of the terror experienced when he was a small child witnessing the slaughter of his family by slave-traders ...
Then there is the group of misguided missionaries who end up going to hell with their good intentions ...
... But this is quite OK, because mocking Christians messing around in Africa is cool and trendy, for reference, see musical, The Book of Mormon ...
A maniacal witchdoctor ... 
... The International Witchdoctors Federation will sue you for misrepresentation ...
One particularly vile mixed-race slave trader ...
...  Added sensitivity issue here. Nobody is born just plain evil, he got that way due to bullying and racial identity issues as a child ...

I could go on and on ... 

In a real-life world that is increasingly immune to the worst kinds of violence - towards women in particular - and the most horrendous lies and verbal abuse appear daily in the press - why are some so “sensitive” now about such things in fiction? It’s fiction for goodness’ sake. Nobody forces you read it. It is: Invention. Imagination. Are we no longer allowed to have empathy, to try and to reach out and through our writing discover just a little of what it is like to be somebody else, to walk in their shoes. What it is/was like for any other human being in a certain situation, no matter their race or sex or political persuasion? Banning us writing in this way is sinister and echoes the book-burning policies of authoritarian regimes.

As to another novel of mine, also with a male protagonist who really existed and who was associated with an area not far from where I used to live, I haven’t forgotten the earnest and rather stern individual who came up to me at a book-signing and demanded to know what my connection to this man was and what gave me the right to write about him.

Right?! I was so taken aback I was unable to give a coherent answer, utterly at a loss as to why someone thought there was some impediment to me choosing a historical figure whose private life was a complete mystery, who has no known descendants, and for me to create a fictional personal life for him in a novel.  Should I have first rushed about checking that it was okay with his x-times removed distant cousins in Scotland or the fifth-generation descendants of his neighbours and gain their approval? 

During my research, I had contacted individuals in the area with direct links to the man I was writing about and they had been more than happy to give me information and let me have a copy of a portrait in their possession for my book cover. I did not disparage any of their ancestors in my book, but was dismayed when I discovered another recent novel with the same background that had made them into the complete opposites of what they were historically and switched them from religious teetotalers into irreverent and rip-roaring drunks.  Clearly, this writer had no compunction about "sensitivity" or "right" to the story. 

Perhaps my problem is I'm too sensitive ...


Copyright Calvin & Hobbs?





http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-publishers-hiring-book-readers-to-flag-sensitivity-20170215-story.html

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