Today I was reading a review blog that I generally like, but used to like a lot more than I do now. There are various reasons for this, but the one that prompted this blogpost is that the blogger puts things like this: “The original text contains the use of the words “mad” and “stupid”.” Well, no, actually. That’s what made me start thinking about the blogpost. What made me actually make it though was when instead of spelling out the word “crazy”, the blogger wrote “c***y”.
I understand the philosophy there. I know there’s this idea among some social justice activist sorts that no one should ever use a word that’s ever been used to hurt someone.
The problem is, well, look at the video. “It” is a perfectly innocuous word, but it hurts the Knights Who Formerly Said Ni. A ridiculous example, yes, but the same applies in reality.
I understand the logic behind avoiding “mad”, “crazy”, “psycho”, etc. I have OCD and anxiety. I’ve been called all of those things. Yes, it hurt. But, the word itself isn’t what hurt me. The intent was. Reading something described as a “crazy plan” isn’t going to cause me any sort of trauma . . . and if it was, then I should hope that someone helps me realize that I need professional help because that’s not normal for anyone. Seriously, if a word is hurting you regardless of context, get help!
Language stops working if we eliminate every word that’s ever been used to hurt. Intent matters. Yes, people should try not to use words that only exist to hurt. I’m not advocating calling people “gooks” and “niggers” here. But, well . . . I have a character who looked at the five small fighters in his squadron and the one big ship the bad guys had and thought “We can take them.” What am I supposed to have people call that but a “crazy plan”? Am I supposed to have the other characters call it a “mentally ill plan”? Nope, can’t do that either because that’s still stigmatizing the mentally ill! So, “logic lacking plan”, I guess? See, eliminate the words “crazy” and “mad” and such, and you’ve just made certain concepts a lot more difficult. (Also, this character uses the word “crippled” to describe himself and I know that’s going to get me negative reviews. There are times I want to grab my fellow liberal sf fans and scream “Quit proving the Puppies right!”. (If that sentence made no sense, don’t worry. It just means you had better things to do with your spring and summer than follow the controversy over the Hugo awards.))
And this isn’t even getting into the cultural differences in word usage. I saw a discussion, in that blog’s comments in fact, once that was talking about how calling someone “Oriental” isn’t seen as nearly as insulting in Britain as it is in America. I saw a discussion there today about how the way one of the dinosaur names is abbreviated in Jurassic World makes it sound like a British racist term, one that doesn’t exist in American English apparently. (Because Britain’s race issues are not our race issues, what with the countries having different demographics and all.) So to communicate online, where we potentially have readers from all over the world, I guess we should avoid all words ever used to hurt anyone in any language? That’ll leave damned few words left.
Oh, “damned”! That brings me to another, relatedish, point! I’ve noticed that the people who go on about not using “crazy” and whatnot in any context never seem to be willing to listen when deeply religious people tell them that they are made uncomfortable by reading swear words. Double standard, much?
Personally, when I’m writing, I’m writing what words are needed for the story. Sometimes those are going to be “triggery” words. (In quotation marks for reasons I’ll get into below.) Viktor isn’t going to stop calling himself crippled because just seeing the word apparently causes some people distress. I’m sorry if you’re one of those people. But if you are, I’m cool with you putting my book down and reading something else, you know? Not everything is for everyone. Likewise, if the 26 uses of “fuck” in the 72ish pages of The Crown of Eldrete upset you, then don’t read it. It’s cool. I know this isn’t the sort of thing an author’s supposed to say, but I’m totally cool with people not reading my books if they don’t want to.
Now, since I brought up triggers, I’ll go ahead and say this here instead of in another blogpost: I’m not opposed to trigger warnings . . . within reason. Unfortunately in the society we live in, putting a warning that your book contains graphic depictions of rape or violence or child abuse or anything else depressingly common like that is probably a good thing to do. Too many people are legitimately triggered — by which I mean, using the term the way it was when I first encountered it years ago, “caused severe mental or emotional distress” — by those for it not to be something an author should at least consider. Yes, then you do get into the “what counts as graphic?” thing, but it would at least help.
But, do note that I said “graphic”. If your book has mention of someone having been raped in the distant past, then I don’t think you need to put a trigger warning. Yes, it’s triggering to some people just to be reminded that rape is a thing that exists. And I hope those people are getting the help they needed. Also, I think some people really need to realize that not everyone is using the word “triggered” the same way these days; some are using it the way people who rail against the term claim it’s being used: to mean something made them uncomfortable. I doubt there are many people who are actually triggered by the word “crazy” being in the text; I can believe there are lots of people who are somewhat uncomfortable with it, especially in certain circumstances. Which comes back to my original point, somewhat. Same as you can’t eliminate every word that hurts someone, you can’t possibly warn for everything your book contains that might trigger someone.
Jake’s Last Mission has some non-graphic violence (by any sensible definition), references to old people having a sex life, some swearing, and speciesism. It doesn’t have trigger warnings, despite the fact that all of those things undoubtedly bother someone. I’m not writing for all seven billion people on Earth. I can’t. Same as it would be impossible to figure out what universally appeal to them, I can’t figure out what would universally upset them.