Creativity and the Fear of Offense

TRIGGER WARNING: THIS POST IS LIKELY TO OFFEND AND CONTAINS UNPOPULAR OPINIONS. READ AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION.

Social Media. Everyone knows it; everyone uses it. It’s a place to connect, to feel supported by like-minded individuals, to stand up for one’s beliefs. And lately, it has become toxic. Activism comes in many forms, and is a basic human right, but there comes a point when I feel it starts to do more harm than good.

Does the world need to change? Absolutely. Should people fight to be heard? Yes. But when that fight goes from being advocacy for a better world to mob mentality with a hair trigger, we’ve gone from progress to living in fear — the fear of offending.

This is exactly what’s happened to the online writing communities over the past few years. There’s a movement within publishing which advocates for more inclusive literature. And it’s a movement I actually agree with, before anyone tries to twist what I’m saying and claim otherwise. Everyone should have books, characters, stories they can see themselves in. But the problem is that the fight for that inclusive diversity has started to poison the very cause it seeks to spotlight.

Agents and editors are now looking for books which include diversity, yes, but in their attempt to listen to the calls of the community, we’ve turned diversity into a selling point, a box to be checked. The marginalized groups fighting to be heard are not token elements to be thrown into a story simply to increase its chances of acceptance. That’s not how this works. My personal belief is that diversity should just be, the way it is in real life (though I’m well aware that the fight for equality in real life is far from over, and yes, fiction should do better than reality in that regard). Those characters and elements should be treated first and foremost as people, not whatever race/religion/sexuality/disability they might possess. And — here comes a highly unpopular opinion; brace yourselves — I don’t believe that every story needs to feature these things. Forcing a story to be inclusive when, by its nature, it doesn’t want to be, is actually a disservice to the marginalized voices you’re trying to represent.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying that we should go back to the way publishing used to be. No, what I’m saying is that writers who are distinctly unqualified to write about something outside their own personal experience should STOP DOING SO. There’s an undercurrent in the queries I’m seeing, in the whispered opinions no one is brave enough to voice in public, that writers feel they must chase diversity in order to be published. No. That’s absolutely not true. And I’m sorry, but unless you have the personal life experience to pour into your work, you’ll never accurately portray the reality of whatever marginalized group you’re trying to represent. I don’t care how much research you do, or how many sensitivity readers you have, you cannot do them justice if you do not belong to said group. So move aside, let the writers who can tell those stories tell them and tell them well.

These are opinions I’ve held for awhile now, but have never really made public. Why? Well, did you notice what I did there? I put disclaimers and explanations and the equivalent of written cowering in those last few paragraphs. Because I’m a cis, heterosexual white woman, and therefore what right do I have to say any of this? And this, my friends, is exactly what I’m talking about. This is the subversive toxicity that’s permeating all forms of social media. I haven’t said these things because I’ve been afraid of the torches and pitchforks that will likely follow.

But writing is about expression. Creativity is supposed to be free, to represent a piece of the person’s soul. It’s not supposed to be muzzled with the fear of offending the mob, stifled by the terror of being torn to shreds if you make the wrong move. And yet, that’s exactly what’s happened to my own creativity. It’s the reason this blog has fallen semi-dormant; it’s the reason I’m not writing anymore. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. I am afraid. I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing, of unintentionally causing someone pain, of having my life torn apart by the bloodthirsty mob for a single misstep, even one I’d gladly apologize for and learn from. So instead, I hide. I let the fear stifle my creativity until it’s nearly gone completely. Because the toxic environment that has become the online writing community tells me my voice isn’t worthy. My opinions are wrong. I don’t matter.

Again, to be clear, I’m not saying that problematic opinions and stories should not be called out. What I’m saying is that we’ve gone past the point where we’re educating the ignorant, where we’re moving forward, where we’re making the world a better place. Instead, we’re inciting fear; we’re terrorizing those who make mistakes instead of helping them do better, be better. We’ve taken our supportive little community and turned it into a piranha-filled cesspool where only the arrogant, the prejudiced, the assholes feel safe, because they simply don’t care.

Is that really what we want, though? In fighting to be heard, do you, Activist Authors of the World, really want to push away the people who are willing to listen, to correct their ways and be respectful? Do you really want to make them feel so crippled with fear that they stop creating anything at all? To me, that seems like the exact opposite of the intent behind the fight for equality in literature. Perhaps, instead of a social media feed that’s constantly filled with anger, and hate, and vitriol, we should try not being dramatically offended by every little thing. We should try approaching the conversation civilly, without the shaming, the threats, the destruction. We should realize that, in a world where someone will always be offended by something, no writer can ever be 100% perfect; that no one can ever avoid all the possible land mines out there and still sound like a person. Maybe, just maybe, we cut each other some slack and punish only those who truly aren’t willing to grow. But then, what do I know? I’m not one of the marginalized, so I’m not important, right?

10 thoughts on “Creativity and the Fear of Offense

  1. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who’s been having these thoughts. *high fives* I’ve found myself not engaging on twitter like I used to, simply because so many more of the conversations center around issues of diversity; like you, I’m cis, white, heterosexual. I read through a lot of the conversations because I feel it’s important to really take in these opinions, but I never join in because I feel as if I don’t have the “right” to add my voice when I clearly don’t come from a background that qualifies me.

    Which, I mean, I’m okay with that. While I agree with many of the movements, I’ve always kept many of my opinions to myself to avoid stirring waters that are otherwise calm. But I completely agree with you: there comes an unfortunate moment in many movements’ lifecycles where they become more toxic than helpful, and I really hate to see such a noble cause (diversity and representation in literature, particularly YA and otherwise) self-destructing because it’s becoming a “selling point” and aspiring writers feel they need to force it into their novels.

    Thanks for saying it, Kisa 🙂

    • Thank you for reading and responding. It is definitely nice to hear that I’m not alone in these feelings. I figured I wasn’t, and that it might be nice for others harboring these views to know they aren’t alone either. I still feel like I probably just pulled the pin out of a grenade, but oh well. I just hope people can see that I do actually support the need for more diverse voices in literature. I’d just like to see those stories told by the people with the backgrounds to tell them, and to see the war zone that social media has become be a little more tempered with the compassion and equality the movement proclaims to desire.

  2. I too am a hetero white female. I have seen much of what you speak of. I wrote my series with a hetero white female lead because that’s what I know best. I included a wide cast because those are the kinds of people I have worked with and have had as friends over the years. It’s terrible to see writing advisors telling people to watch the trends and WRITE THAT! I like to think my stuff matches the world we live in, snapshot-wise. I don’t cram every type person in there because they might make the books sell or to avoid accusations. I don’t know or have experience with every type of person! I absolutely agree with your point which agrees with the adage – write what you know. Let someone else write what they know! Then let’s read each other’s stories and learn something.

    • Exactly! I want to see diversity in stories because real life is diverse. And I want to read about the experiences of people unlike me so I can learn and grow to be a better person. But I don’t want to feel like I, personally, HAVE to include things I know nothing about and could never hope to portray correctly. I want to tell my stories, my experiences. And yes, I will be conscientious of my choices and do what I can not to overtly offend anyone, but at what point does the fight for diversity become another form of censorship? When people are too afraid to be themselves for fear of retaliation, what have we really gained?

      Thank you for reading, and for the support. 🙂

  3. Very thought-provoking post. And it’s the first time I’ve seen anyone say this out loud. No, I’m not offended. I find myself nodding along to pretty much everything you just said. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Here here! Again, hetero white girl, so I write about hetero white girls. Yeah, often they’re in mixed race relationships, but that’s because I’m married to a Navajo! I get the mixed race relationship. That aside, I don’t feel comfortable portraying LGBT or people with disabilities because I don’t feel as if I can do them justice, because it’s just not me. However, I have been told while querying that I should change my characters, give them disabilities, make them fall for a girl, and those thing will completely change what I wrote and destroy what I created. I was also told once to remove evidence of Christianity from one of my books because it was “offensive” but that’s another topic entirely. So although I like to create nice messages within what I write, it’s being overlooked because just mixed races aren’t “diverse” enough. It’s discouraging, and makes me sad.
    So yes, those who know about being a marginalized group, or have experience with them should definitely lend them a voice, but I find it discouraging when my hard work and creative efforts are shunted because they’re not all encompassing.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, and especially for the evidence supporting what I was saying. The fact that authors are flat-out being told to alter what they’ve created to fit the diversity “trend” is horrible and sickening. That’s exactly the kind of the thing we shouldn’t be telling people, because it diminishes the very groups who are fighting so hard to be heard! Stories should reflect the beliefs and life experiences of the people writing them, and if those beliefs are harmful, then they should be addressed. But to tell someone that their life, their beliefs, have less value than those of another group . . . isn’t that exactly what we’re supposed to be fixing?

  5. And be mindful of the fact that an individual’s “world”, what they have been exposed to, is limited and not judge them for that. I recently opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking and then had someone tell me it wasn’t enough, that my tiny step forward didn’t matter. The statements meant to open our eyes have become people simply screaming. I admit to being scared to death to write any marginalized character because they won’t be written the way someone else thinks they should be.
    You are a brave woman to finally say this out loud. I am going to hug you forever now.

    • Aw, thanks! And thank you for raising a good point that I missed. You’re 100% right. Shaming someone for not having grown “enough” isn’t exactly going to encourage them to keep expanding their horizons, is it? I understand that it’s frustrating for marginalized people to constantly have to “educate” everyone else, but expecting people to magically just know without ever having had a resource to learn from is unrealistic. It also sends mixed signals to those of us who do wish to learn and be more respectful, since that’s like asking an animal to take a treat from your hand and then smacking them on the nose when they do. The responsibility to become aware of and fix problematic views lies with the person who needs to grow, not the person who’s been marginalized, but how can we do that if we’re not given an opportunity to do so?

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