So the other day I saw an article that I actually shared on Facebook and Twitter that really got gears spinning for me. It was a piece on how an author that was called out for racial stereotypes in a book took the odd step of revising her book and halting the release date to do so. She ended up having to apologize fiercely and in my opinion waste money doing so. But here’s the thing. As a writer and person who has created multiple worlds and races when I read the arguments of the people complaining and then her statements, I was much more inclined to agree with her. The basic part of her statement that struck as right on the nose is that they were a fantasy race she made herself and not a racist caricature like they were being made out to be. In the end she ended up costing her publisher a lot of money revising everything because she decided it was an issue but it really made me think about a much bigger issue that afflicts creatives in our modern times and that issue is sensitivity. Today I’d like to discuss my personal standpoint on sensitivity and its place in creative works of fiction.
Are we Overly Sensitive?
The fact of the matter is that while social justice is important, we have a big problem in our society sometimes with being overly sensitive and using that as a tool to squash creativity. Racial issues are especially easy for people to take to social media and blow up beyond a reasonable magnitude. Let’s be clear here, folks. I’m very much brown so I’m not oblivious to racism but what baffles me is how little we scratch the surface on the issue of racism. We get very stuck on the same part of it as an issue and that part is the part people feel safe latching onto when in fact we never delve deeply into the many facets of racism and the main people bringing these race issues up on social media are usually white as the driven snow. I’m not saying you can’t be white and defending what is objectively an issue about racism toward non-white people but what I am saying is that when you defend a group from outside of that group a lot of things can get easily muddied very fast.
But what I really can’t stand is when what we call your typical social justice warrior or SJW turns a fake world and fake race into a platform for a real issue. I understand on a really spiritual level as a writer and character designer what goes into world building and creating a race of your own to populate a world of your own that has laws of its own. That being said, I find it very stupid when people nitpick a little too much on a world and people that exist outside of known reality. You are in effect ignoring the world building and immersion aspect of the fictional literature. If you’ve never written or even done some freeform roleplay this is probably all sounding like a foreign language but is is a genuine issue that stifles creativity.
Remembering that Evil Exists
Concepts like racism,sexism,religion, and even politics are in fact basic concepts of a society. They help form the more intangible framework of a world. When they apply to fantasy world building we need to remember that they may be just as unique as the world the author has built and view it with less nitpicking and more of a sense of discovery. While I’m sure there are fantasy authors who do have a racist agenda lurking underneath the surface of their book I think it’s overboard to go into a fantasy novel with grounding it via a social justice blitz as your goal. I understand audience sensitivity but I see so often these days how overly sensitive and nitpicky people are toward creative works these days. Everything has to be about some group being oppressed and that’s just not what’s actually going in world most of the time. We have a huge outbreak of manufactured oppression in our society and a surprising lack of focus when it comes to things we should actually be in an uproar about.
And lets be very real and mature here. The world wasn’t made out of fluffy clouds and rainbows. It’s made of rock and dirt. What I mean to say is that we as people and especially as adults shouldn’t expect the world to cradle us. We should be forming opinions on a realistic and solid moral ground and picking which issues become battles and escalate to wars with a more careful hand. We should be actually reading and thinking before yelling. What actually happens is that a short-sighted SJW with an agenda says something that fires people up and it quickly snowballs without anyone truly listening to any other party involved. Life doesn’t always have to be about social justice. Sometimes a book or even a word is just exactly what it is.
Understanding the Meaning of Words
One of my main contentions is the common issue of people picking at words without knowing the meaning of the word. I see a lot that people want to pick at words as being offensive when sometimes they are in fact being used correctly by an author but misconceived by a jaded and/or under-educated reader with an agenda. Considering our grasp of proper English has been muddied by a text speech dictionary at this point, I think wordplay is officially dead. But when you come from a generation that can’t understand why basic grammar is a key component of communication and abbreviate everything I’m thinking you may want to step back and really take time to understand the actual meaning of a word before you say it’s racist. Part of the debate on the author’s book and one I’ve seen fairly often was over the words native and savage. I read excerpts and to be perfectly honest the words were used properly. They weren’t offensive. The word native doesn’t automatically mean someone is pissing on a Native American grave. It’s actually a much more versatile and plain word in reality. A lot of words are like that.
This happens a lot. People just take the worst possible meaning for a word and twist it into something it isn’t. If you take the time to read it within context it might come off as completely innocent. We can’t just red flag certain words and assume every person is using them in the same context. But here’s something interesting you might not be too aware of. It’s something called a reading level. Every person reads at a different reading level and literacy greatly affect comprehension. When we don’t take the time to understand a meaning of a word we can easily lose the gist of what a person wrote. The average person reads at between a 4th and 6th grade level and most common publications are written well below a college level to accommodate this fact. The staggering number of borderline literacy in our society might actually surprise you though. The number of children we send out into the world that are not equipped to properly read and write at an acceptable adult level is a little higher than most people would be comfortable with.
When Sensitivity Blinds an Audience and Responding as a Creator
Let’s go back to how these concepts apply to world building and character design. When you design a fantasy world and a race it’s not uncommon to use a real world influence in there somewhere so there is some reality to that race. The problem that creates your imaginary race becoming a racial stereotype is often a two-sided issue. What the upset people are latching onto sometimes is an underdeveloped concept. As writers when we don’t create with a clear and fully developed idea, we set ourselves up. Incomplete world building or a poorly developed race populating it can be a tiny hole that expands into a crater. But even if you don’t create that hole you shouldn’t make the bigger mistake of letting others control your creative vision. This is a common mistake that’s afflicted the comic book industry a lot lately where people, often outside the buying audience, complain about things likes sexism and racism. Things like this are fine and dandy but can we all just take a moment to grasp that we’re arguing about sexism and racism in a fictional world.
When world building occurs it also includes variations in law,economy,politics, and religion. Some fictional novels and written works aren’t even in the same era. The futility of arguing about the fairness of something in a world you aren’t willing to take the time to understand is not only wasteful but rude to the creator of the content. Instead of jumping right to squashing someone’s fictional world, try taking a moment to journey into it as the author intended. You might find that in context the thing you’re upset about actually fits into that world just fine. That’s why it’s fiction. Stop measuring fiction with a measuring stick from reality and you might enjoy yourself.
Another key thing to remember is that not every fictional world or character needs to be likable. There are a lot of not ideal things in the world so when an author tackles world building, displaying social injustice within that world is realistic and a logical step to fill the ideology of that world out. I think a good example of this I’ve seen is actually within the game of Skyrim. One of the things I love and don’t find offensive at all are the small touches and lore but one of the most interesting concepts in the game is that depending on what race you pick,someone will treat you differently at some point in the game. This adds a sense of immersion and realism that shows a true understanding of world building at its core.
All societies deal with sensitive topics and we all have a choice on how that challenge is met but so often I see authors cheat themselves out of a fully built concept so people will like it more and not be turned off. The world is an ugly place and that translates to even fictional worlds. Creatives should be concerned about making something marketable and liked but don’t sacrifice your vision because of an unjustified attack on your work. When you create there will always be someone that doesn’t like what you create. Don’t bend over backwards and cheat yourself to please a fraction of people who aren’t truly interested in your work. Focus on bringing your work to life and creating something for your true audience, not your troll audience. Before you jump to make that revision, look at the situation with a cool head and clear mind. If you don’t feel you’re wrong and you’ve looked into the situation with an honest mindset to come to that conclusion, there’s no reason for you to scramble to reshape your work to pander to someone who probably isn’t in your actual audience.
If you’re reading a fictional piece and see sexism,racism or some kind of oppression, think first and look for the context before making a judgement. Don’t assume it’s some evil oppressive personal agenda on the author’s part because it may actually just be the story unfolding in a fictional world that has the same things that have plagued societies for centuries. When we take everything as a personal attack, reading a fictional novel is never going to work out and in our haste we may be destroying someone’s creative vision and starting a debate that never should have been.