A Certain Sensitivity

There are certain subjects that, in many social circles, are considered taboo. Some people will treat these subjects insultingly or cruelly. Some will misrepresent or dismiss them. Still others will, in response to others’ treatments, ignore any objective view of the subjective, defending them boldly, bravely, and blindly against everyone. Controversial topics are often avoided due to these treatments, and thus, we develop a certain sensitivity to them. When reading about topics such as racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and more, we unconsciously look for any nuance that may or may not indicate a “wrong” bias towards the issue. We seek any excuse to cry foul. Whether we realize it or not, our society’s past handlings of controversial topics has encouraged us to expect nothing but biased, high-handed insults, and so we label an innocent piece as “racist” or “sexist” without ever really reading it. (Then, too, there are works that really are racist or sexist.) Yes, there are those who can look past that and see what is really being said. But there are also those (myself included) who, upon seeing that a work deals with a controversial topic, proceed warily, expecting to meet with misinformation, ignorance, and hate.

Now, this puts a writer in a very difficult position. When taking on a controversial topic, we can pick one of three sides: for it, against it, or neutral. Obviously, each position will have opposition. If you take one side definitively, then the other side will turn up their nose or openly condemn you. If you stay neutral, then you risk both sides arguing over what you’re “really” saying and condemning you for being “afraid to take a side.” I’ll warn you now: You can’t please everyone. The best you can do is take your position and stick with it. A controversial topic has that name for a reason.

There is  one thing that I cannot stress enough, though, when dealing with one of these topics. No matter what side you do or don’t take, always treat the subject, the people being discussed, and the other half of the argument with respect and tact. In every issue, there are at least two sides. Two sides that deeply believe they are right. Two sides who are looking for every opportunity to claim insult from their opponent’s own words. If you are writing about such an issue in fiction, then you have a unique position of needing to know, at least on a cursory level, both sides of an issue. You must be able to represent both sides accurately, not just present your own position in a good light and demonize everything else. Realistic representation lends credibility to your characters and plot which will bring the work to life.

There are some things that must remember when writing though. First, don’t beat your audience over the head with your “racism is bad” message. Subtlety is key. Show your readers the evidence they need to come to the conclusion you want. An author can manipulate the reader to see what they see, hear what they hear, and feel what they feel. Take advantage of this. Your readers like to believe they are in control, and having your message spelled bluntly makes them feel you’ve insulted their intelligence. This is bad, and they will instinctively shy away from your work.

Second, there are likely people who disagree with your side of an issue who will start to read your work. Unless you want to completely clear out a portion of your readerbase, you want to not offend these people. Doing this involves my first point very heavily: be subtle about your message and let your reader come to your conclusion without being told. Just as important is to address the topic in a way that shows you understand both positions and are not blatantly misrepresenting one.

Third, separate any disagreement of an idea or position from people, especially people you know. So, don’t insert Evil Character B (who happens to be just like your nemesis in real life) and portrayed him as the epitome of evil or stupidity due to not having the same view as your Awesome Main Character of Good.

Fourth, don’t use biased language when addressing the topic. Biased language gives no acknowledgement that the other side deserves respect. It thrives on insults and literary fallacies, leaving innumerable loopholes in any representation you make. Obviously, not all language that takes a definitive stance is biased; the difference is that biased language puts the focus on detracting from opposition and appearing high and mighty while stanced writing puts the focus on upholding your own side without stooping to dirty tricks.

Fifth, be accurate. I know that we’re all (more or less) very passionate about certain subjects, and this can lead some of us to deliberately misrepresent one or both sides. Don’t do this. Anyone who is reasonably informed on your topic will spot it a mile away and know that you haven’t done your homework.

And, because I have been working on this post for two hours, I think I have exhausted myself  on this potentially controversial topic.

Happy writing, everyone.


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