Last week I took a class (on Zoom, of course) offered by my book’s publisher on "Sensitivity in Fiction." We are living in an amazing time, a time like no other — and not only because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because of the Black Lives Matter movement, we can no longer shrug our shoulders and ignore various facts of racism.
I know we are tired and exhausted as the disease rears its ugly head around the globe. Yet, I believe that one of the positive things to come out of this bleak time is increased awareness of our fellow human beings. The first change that readers of many publications are observing is that Black, with a capitalized “B” as a descriptor of race, is almost universally, and overnight, being adopted in print. Like many events denoting social change, this has happened quickly, all at once, and with little fuss. Even if we’re tired and have change fatigue, there is more.
In this seminar for fiction writers, the choice of words was discussed. Almost every kid I know, and sometimes even myself, has uttered the expression, “That’s lame.” We know what the writer or speaker is trying to say, something to the effect of: that’s weak or dull or that’s silly. Yet the Oxford English dictionary says that lame means limping or disabled or hobbling. I work at the Santa Ynez Valley Therapeutic Riding Program. I love what this program accomplishes and the last thing I want to do is make an insulting remark that might hurt the feelings of one of the students with mobility issues — or lameness.
Between the COVID-19 Pandemic and the despondency caused by the videotaped murder of George Floyd—evidence of more systemic racism in our country—some good news was needed for America’s birthday.
What about the expression, “That’s insane!"? Since the beginning of my professional life, I have worked in mental health as a clinician and then educator. It is estimated that mental health issues affect 1 in 4 people. Ah, by now you’re probably grumbling. Why must there be so much political correctness? Enough already. And here is the answer we talked about at that seminar. If only one of our readers is spared the pain of such an offhand remark, it is worth the effort to choose our words more carefully.
Not long ago, making a slur against Jewish people was pretty common. I’d venture to say that most people of the Jewish religion or heritage have heard reference to Jewish people as being penny-pinching or cheap, or to Jewish women being spoiled or entitled princesses. What about long noses? I have heard such remarks, often in the guise of a joke. Sometimes I even smiled. “Can’t you take a joke?” people ask.
What about women? References to physical characteristics such having big (or small) breasts, or being called pushy or bitchy, are as common in school yards and offices, such as last week on the steps of the United States Capitol. (Check out what vile words Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez read into the House record — repeating the exact words and curses flung at her by another member of the U.S. House of Representatives.) I can’t tell you how many times it’s been said to me, after such similar insults, “Just kidding.”
And each year we must learn anew which words may be insulting to a particular group. I know a lot of people are rolling their eyes about the name change of the professional sports team — the Washington Redskins, now called the Washington Football Team. Come on, it’s just a name. "Lighten up," some people are saying. Yet why should a Native American child or adult watching on television or attending a football game in Washington be insulted by such a demeaning logo and team name?
We have learned, and are learning, that certain words are hurtful to specific genders, sexual orientations or races, and so we are being asked to consider our word choices.
It’s not that people didn’t “used to” talk about politics, or religion, or other such topics, it’s that they talk about them differently on social media.
We would never allow our children to call their friend a faggot. It is simply unacceptable language that a child would be corrected on today. Yet, I remember hearing that terrible word thrown around years ago on playing fields when my own kids were young.
We can learn. We can grow in sensitivity.
After taking this seminar for writers, I will try harder, trying to avoid inadvertent insults to people. I’m sure I won’t be perfect. And, I am sure as we grow in awareness, there will be even more to discover in our written and spoken language. But, fortunately, English has a vast store of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. If I am writing to reach people, as I hope I am, I can search for words that are less hurtful.
To even discuss relative age and say one thing is older or younger than something else, implies impermanence; a beginning and an ending; birth and death. So perhaps it would best serve here to examine the beginning of light.
Elayne Klasson, PhD in psychology, is a writer and recent transplant to the Valley. She was formerly on the faculty at San Jose State University. Her recent novel, Love is a Rebellious Bird, was released in November 2019.
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