Weekly Musing: Free Speech

With today being the 4th of July I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom. In particular free speech, a topic that is dear to my heart not only as an American but as a writer as well. Free speech is always a hot button issue, but over the past few years the argument seems to be becoming more contentious. For some reason free speech to some seems to be about who is right vs. who is wrong. Yet this should be kept in mind: no matter how compassionate, empathetic, sympathetic of a person who think you are, someone out there will find you offensive. Good people offend people just as much as bad people do.

This musing is about what I see as vital to free speech for writers. We shouldn’t feel the need to hold back on language used in our prose. This does a huge disservice to both the story and the characters. Our characters are the ones who tell the story; we are just their vessel.

Yet something I’ve seen twice this week gave me great pause. On two separate days, two different authors asked within a Facebook group I’m in about usage of racial slurs in their manuscripts. One mentioned how her editor wanted her to substitute an historically accurate racial slur for something more politically correct. Many of us responded considering the place and time period of the story, if the word was what was commonly used, then it should be in the story regardless of how offensive it is. What disturbed me most was it was an editor advising the author to sanitize and make the story more in keeping with today’s sensibilities. It made me wonder if this editor had any prior experience with editing historical fiction or if the editor works for a publisher that doesn’t want to rock the boat or even perhaps the editor is allowing his or her own self to be offended rather than looking at the story as a whole.

Unfortunately, just a few days later there was yet another question posted by a different author about usage of racial slurs in their manuscript. This author expressed hesitation over including offensive terms and was curious to hear others’ thoughts. Overwhelming the response was again, if it is in keeping with the characters, the time period, and place, then yes, they must be included. Many advised against over usage especially in the narrative unless it’s first person. I responded that if people read the offensive term and aren’t offended then that says to me they’ve become de-sensitized to such language which is a far bigger issue.

Both of these dilemmas along with numerous online debates I see on a variety of topics regarding what is or isn’t offensive gets me thinking. Being offended by someone’s differing point of view, no matter how vile it is, is not a justification for censorship. With free speech comes the inherent right to be offended by someone else. This is completely and utterly okay. Two people do not agree 100% on everything all the time. Debate is great until it turns into an attempt to shame and guilt the other person. It’s also not the way to go about trying to change someone’s opinion.

When it comes to literature, the fictional world, like the real world, can be an ugly place full of people who say and do things that turn our stomachs and who have different morals and ethics from our own. So why the hell should literature be turned into a sanitized, unrealistic, and inaccurate version of life to appease the majority? And who is this majority? And why is the majority considered to be correct? And why does this mythical majority feel the need to squash stories about individuals, whether set in past, present, or future times, which are considered to be offensive? Our differences should be respected but that is not the same as agreeing with an opinion or action which we find offensive.

What I find the most offensive is when this real life need to suppress, shame, and guilt others dribbles down the literature pipeline. In our real lives we all know plenty of people whose views and experiences are so vastly different from our own that we legitimately wonder what the hell their problem is. We question how they came to what seems such an illogical conclusion. But one of the beautiful things about reading a wide-range of books is through others’ stories we can hope to learn the why behind such illogical actions. And if we are smart, we then apply those lessons to those we come across in our real lives, hopefully viewing them with a little more understanding.

We as writers should always remember to keep the story, characters, and language authentic no matter how repulsive it will be to some people. This isn’t to advocate for going overboard to shock and anger as many people as possible just for the hell of it. Ultimately the reader has the choice to close a book and move onto something that doesn’t offend them.