14 March 2017

The Sensitivity Police

by Paul D. Marks

Before I get to this week’s post, a little BSP. I’m thrilled to announce that my short story, “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. In fact, I’m blown away. I want to thank everyone who voted for it! And I’m tempted to give Sally Field a run for her money and say, “You like me, you really like me,” or at least my story 😉. If you’d like to read it (and maybe consider it for other awards) you can read it free on my website: http://pauldmarks.com/stories/ 

And now to the subject at hand: I recently came across an article in the Chicago Tribune titled “Publishers are hiring 'sensitivity readers' to flag potentially offensive content.” That, of course, piqued my interest. And I will say at the outset that I’m a free speech absolutist. If you don’t like something don’t read it, but don’t stop others from saying it or reading it.

After all, who’s to say what’s offensive? What’s offensive to me might not be to you and vice versa. That said, I see things every day that I disagree with. I don’t like to say that I find them offensive because I think that word is overused and I also think people tend to get offended too easily and by too many things.

As writers I think this is something we should be concerned about. Because, even if you agree with something that’s blue-penciled today tomorrow there might be something you write where you disagree with the blue-pencil. Where does it end? Also, as a writer, I want to be able to say what I want. If people don’t like it they don’t have to read it. I don’t want to be offensive, though perhaps something may hit someone that way. But we can’t worry about every little “offense” because there are so many things to be offended about.

It’s getting to the point where we have to constantly second guess ourselves as we worry who might be offended by this or that? In my novel, White Heat, I use the N word. And don’t think I didn’t spend a lot of deliberating about whether I should tone that down, because truly I did not want to hurt or offend anyone. But ultimately I thought it was important for the story I was trying to tell and people of all races seemed to like the book. I think context is important. But even without context, as a free speech absolutist, I think people should be allowed to say what they want. There used to be an argument that went around that the way to combat negative speech was with more speech, but that doesn’t seem to be the case today. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly.”

And, of course, publishers have the right to publish what they want. But limiting things doesn’t change much. It just goes underground.

The Tribune article says, “More recently, author Veronica Roth - of ‘Divergent’ fame - came under fire for her new novel, ‘Carve the Mark.’ In addition to being called racist, the book was criticized for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.” So now we have to worry about how we portray people with chronic pain. Again, where does it end?

I’ve dealt with chronic pain. Should I be offended every time someone says something about those things that I don’t like. Get over it, as the Eagles say in their eponymous song. The piece also talks about writers hiring people to vet their stories for various things, in one case transgender issues. If it’s part of one’s research I don’t have a problem with that. Or if it’s to make something more authentic. But if it’s to censor a writer or sanitize or change the writer’s voice, that’s another story.

There’s also talk about a database of readers who will go over your story to look for various issues. But again, who’s to say what issues offend what people? Do you need a reader for this issue and another for that? If we try to please everyone we end up pleasing no one and having a book of nearly blank or redacted pages. Or if not literally that then a book that might have some of its heart gutted.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for authenticity but I think this kind of thing often goes beyond that. When we put out “sanitized” versions of Huck Finn or banning books like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which has also been banned and of which Wikipedia says, “Commonly cited justifications for banning the book include sexual explicitness, explicit language, violence, and homosexuality.”

The Wall Street Journal also talks about this issue, saying in part, “One such firm, Writing in the Margins, says that it will review ‘a manuscript for internalized bias and negatively charged language,’ helping to ensure that an author writing ‘outside of their own culture and experience” doesn’t accidentally say something hurtful.’ I’m not saying one should be hurtful, but I am saying one should write what they want to write. And if taken to the ultimate extreme then we would only be “allowed” to write about our own little group. And that would make our writing much poorer.

I’m not trying to hurt anyone. But I do believe in free speech, even if it is sometimes hurtful.

We should think about the consequences of not allowing writers to write about certain things, or things outside of their experience. Think of the many great books that wouldn’t have been written, think of your own work that would have to be trashed because you aren’t “qualified” to write about it. There are many things in the world that hurt and offend and that aren’t fair. And let’s remember what Justice Brandeis said.

In closing one more quote from the Journal article: “Even the Bard could have benefited. Back when Shakespeare was writing ‘Macbeth,’ it was still OK to use phrases like, ‘It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ But that is no longer so. The word ‘idiot’ is now considered cruelly judgmental, demeaning those who, through no fault of their own, are idiots. A sensitivity reader could propose something less abusive, such as, ‘It is a tale told by a well-meaning screw-up, signifying very little but still signifying something. I mean, the poor little ding-dong was trying.’”


And now for the usual BSP:

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is available at Amazon.com and Down & Out Books.


  1. Congratulations on topping the EQMM Readers poll!
    That is terrific and good recognition for a good story.

  2. Paul, sincere congratulations on the EQ poll!! Well deserved.

  3. Congrats again on your readers poll award--such a great honor, and so richly deserved!
    I saw that article too (it was originally published in the Washington Post), and I'm of two minds about it: On the one hand, I think that sensitivity can be taken too far, and I certainly don't think publishers should encourage changes without reason--i.e. without considering the author's voice, intent, context, etc. etc.; however, at the same time, I think that some authors--particularly thinking of children's and YA authors, given those younger and more impressionable audiences--might want some greater awareness/perspective about any missteps they might have taken, especially if they're writing outside of their own experiences (or more to the point outside their comfort zone). In some recent discussions around the Sisters in Crime report from this past year on diversity in mystery fiction, some authors mentioned that they would love to include a more diverse cast of characters in their fiction but they're hesitant about their abilities to represent accurately characters from other racial or ethnic backgrounds accurately/realistically. While that might go beyond the issues of "sensitivity" readers, I do think that getting outside perspectives--through workshop even, our beta readers--could be a key and important part of that process in some ways. And there's some some resonance between that move and this article, I think.

  4. Paul,

    Congratulations on the award.

    Your discussion becomes more pertinent by the day, too. I remember being on a committee, probably in the 1990s, when we were in charge of selecting books for students to read over the summer for extra credit. One of the dozens we were given to choose from involved the accidental death of a gay man in a small southern town. The story dealt intelligently with homophobia and religious intolerance, and was well written. I wish I could remember the title or author now, but I can't.

    At any rate, our supervisor vetoed it because she felt it was "controversial." We said that was the point, but she didn't want the kids exposed to unpopular ideas. Kind of nullifies the whole purpose of the project, doesn't it?

    Sensitivity editors who can say aye or nay because they project their own value systems onto readers endanger the whole point of literature, especially of journalism, which has deservedly come under fire in recent months. You can't force a person to think, but you can certainly give her or him the opportunity to do so. If we don't do that, we're failing as artists.

    I'm always amazed and dismayed at how selective the process is, too. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a much more racist and offensive book than Huckleberry Finn because it portrays the blacks as docile and stupid, more like well-trained golden retrievers than humans. At the same time, the most admirable character in Huck Finn is Jim.

  5. Congratulations on being #1 in the EQMM readers poll! Wow!

    Personally, I hate watered down anything. I always hated Reader's Digest Condensed Books.
    My attitude on being offended is this: I am mightily offended by violence porn, especially torture porn against women; I HATE IT. Thus I don't watch, read, or give it any of my time, attention or dollars, and I tell people, when they ask, exactly what I think of it. The authors have the right to write it; I have the right to object to it.

  6. As I said before, congrats on the Readers Poll--richly deserved. Gotta love those readers. After all, they're what its all about.

    I agree with your take on the sensitivity police. This same kind of thing went on in the Soviet Union, only there it was done by a hard-working branch of the government. They went so far as to airbrush people who had incurred the ire of the politburo out of history books. The Cultural Revolution in China is perhaps even closer to the mark. There, dedicated young people, acted as "cultural warriors" to root out all things counter-revolutionary. They did a good job once they got the hang of it. People, books, art work, etc...were all scrutinized and sanitized. As George Orwell's "1984" makes so clear, those that control the intent and meaning of words, control the people. I don't think it's a road we should go down. Like you said, it may be someone you disagree with today, but it could just as easily be you tomorrow. As for writing about things with which you may have little, or no, experience, that's a risk all writers take sooner or later. No one can experience everything the world has to offer. That being said, research can go a long way to bridging many gaps. If we were to observe a "write only what you are absolutely grounded in" rule, then there would be no science fiction and horror literature just for starts. There must be hundreds of classic novels and stories that would be pulled from the shelves if this standard were to be rigorously applied.

    Good piece, Paul, and, again, congrats!

  7. Paul, good for you being number 1 in the EQMM Reader Poll. And yep, I believe in free speech, even though there are some Idiotic people out there saying Idiotic things, but then I'm sure they probably wouldn't agree with some of the things I say.

  8. First of all, congratulations on the EQMM award. You're in very distinguished company, and rightly so. And I'm a free-speech advocate, too, though I think it's good for writers to ask for advice from members of minority groups (or, in some cases, majority groups)when it seems appropriate and helpful. I've done that from time to time--e.g., when writing about Deaf characters--and I've learned a lot.

  9. Congratulations on coming in first in the EQMM poll! I'm sure your award is well deserved. I haven't read your story yet but I am going to download & read it today.

    Freedom of speech is complicated, especially these days since we have a Resident in the White House who says anything that pops into his head & as far as I know, has never had to suffer the consequences of anything he has ever said or done. And yet, the rest of us are supposed to be so careful not to ever say the wrong thing!!!

    I grew up in Virginia & I remember an expression that was popular through the 1970s or so: "free, white, and 21." I haven't heard anyone say that in years & would consider it dreadfully offensive if I did.

  10. Extremely well stated Paul.

  11. Here's my responses to everyone's comments to this point. Hope I didn't miss anyone.

    Thanks, Janice!

    Thank you, John!

    Thanks, Art! And I agree that it doesn’t hurt to get outside opinions. We can’t know about everything so we have to do research. What I object to is being told what we can or can’t/should or shouldn’t do. And then either not getting things published or as in the case of many books having them banned.

    Thanks, Steve! And you bring up a lot of good points. As you say re: the book about the death of the gay man, the point is to get people to think and expose them to things they might not necessarily be exposed to normally.

    Thank you, Eve! And your attitude re: “sensitivity” is mine too. There are things that offend me and that I might not want to watch or read, but I don’t want to stop them from getting published or made.

    Thanks, David! The poll was definitely a surprise, but a very nice one! – I remember that about people getting airbrushed out of pictures in the Soviet Union. And, as you say, we can’t all experience everything, and I’m fine with research. Just not with people telling us what we can ultimately do. And yes, many books would have to be pulled off the shelves if this was rigorously applied but we’d be very limited in what we could write if it was soley based on personal experience. After all, we’re all crime writers here, but how many of us are really criminals?

    Thanks, R.T.! And there sure are idiotic people out there, but I guess we can’t use that term anymore if we follow some of the current dictates ;-) . And no matter what kind of “policing” there is there will still be idiots out there. And I don’t want anyone telling me what I can or can’t say so I don’t tell them.

    Thanks, B.K.! I do feel honored to be in such distinguished company. – And, as I say in response to others above, I think research and talking with people in various groups is fine. But, bottom line, I don’t want to be told what I can and can’t do. The other problem in talking with people of various groups is, who do you talk to? Because different people in different groups will have varying things to say. So ultimately one has to decide on their own anyway.

    Thanks, Elizabeth! Hope you enjoy the story. – Freedom of speech might be complicated today, as you say, but I don’t think it should be. And I think that’s the point, or at least one of them, that I was trying to say. And there’s a lot of things that are offensive to various people or groups, but that doesn’t mean they should be censored. Free speech isn’t always pretty. As I said in the post, I find a lot of things “offensive,” but I don’t want to stop anyone from saying them.

    Thanks, AJ!

  12. Sorry I'm late to the dance. Dentist. I tried to get my books on the BANNED list of the Catholic CLARION HERALD but the priest I sent it to liked the book - not the profanity - but wouldn't ban a book he liked. My luck.

  13. Funny, O'Neil. Thing is, if your book did get on the banned list it probably would have sold through the roof. That's how it works, right ;-) ?

  14. D’accord, Paul, I’m a free speech absolutist and civil libertarian (emphasis on civil). Don’t like it? Don’t read it. Don’t prevent anyone else from reading it.

    Your mention of Veronica Roth made me think of Stephen R. Donaldson’s trilogy trilogy, The Chronicles of  Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. His main character dealt with leprosy. What would Roth’s readers make of that?

    As mentioned earlier, The San Francisco Examiner and the University of Michigan now have policies where interviewees and students must be queried for their preferred personal pronoun.

    I think it was my romance writer / editor friend Sharon who mentioned a well regarded erotica reader who didn’t include lesbian scenes in her books. Apparently a handful of readers felt that a shortcoming (pardon the puns), so even though she’s a straight woman, she now strives to include at least one girl-on-girl encounter.

    The part about idiots… I’d love to hear what Shakespeare or better yet Voltaire might have to say about that. If a person were mentally impaired, I wouldn’t call them an idiot. I reserve that label for political candidates and politically correct. If they’re offended, good. But I doubt if the ‘idiots’ they designate would be offended in the least to have politicos referred to in that way.

    CONGRATULATIONS on winning The Readers’ Choice Award! Super well done! Yay, Paul!

  15. Thanks, Leigh! And I think you make a lot of good points. I don’t even know where to begin, what would Roth’s readers make of the character with leprosy? And the erotica tale. But ultimately it comes down what yous aid in your first graph, if someone doesn’t like don’t read it but don’t stop anyone else from writing or reading what they want to.

  16. Great post. People forget to apply context. Shakespeare was using the vocabulary of his time. I probably shouldn't admit this, but I use idiot all the time, though not for the mentally disabled. I'm trying to move on to my husband's favorite - knuckle-head - though I also like Banana Brain. (One my mother has used.)

  17. Thanks, Jackie. And I agree with you about context and also that knucklehead is a good one! Anything that's good enough for The Three Stooges is good enough for me :-)

  18. Congratulations on your award! I loved this post. People are going too crazy with political correctness. If you're writing historicals, which is mostly what I write, you have to write with the views of the time in which the book is set.

  19. Sometimes being offended can give a person a better understanding of people and the world we live in. Better to be offended than muzzled. Congratulations on the award and a discerning look at the subject.

  20. Thanks, Caroline! And glad you liked the post. I agree that one has to be true to the time frame of the story. I've written things that take place in the recent past and during WWII and attitudes were definitely different then.

  21. Thanks, JR! Couldn’t agree more: better to be offended than muzzled. And agree with your other point about giving people better understanding. It’s good to know all sides, how else do you put things in perspective?


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