Is it PC?

Comments: 9

What about being politically correct or PC? I’m not talking about purposely offending someone, or a group of someones (I know that’s not a proper word, so you don’t have to criticize me for using it). But, I know the PC police love to take people, authors especially, to task over subject matters they have deemed to be offensive.

However, I believe being PC is not always being truthful. I’m not one for being offensive, but to sugar coat, or revise, history or some social issue for the sake of being PC, can be academically and/or morally dishonest. Personally, I think people who are offended so easily need to develop a thicker skin.

For instance, people talked differently in 1860 than they do today. In those days, black people were called Negroes or worse. Today, that term could land a writer in the morgue, figuratively speaking, and maybe even literally. The way people used to talk is a fact. There’s nothing we today can do about that. So, why do we have to be historical revisionists just because someone has deemed an expression, or a word to not be PC? If I ever write a novel set in the early days of this country, I would not hesitate to use the terms used during those days.

In my original version of “Bridgetown High,” I had a scene in which the antagonist, Jeff Marino, and his scummy friends, Bobby Baker and Alan Benaducci, go on a tirade, calling blacks Niggers, and worse (and I hope I didn’t offend someone by using that term here). I wasn’t calling them that. It was my characters who are total scum bags and delinquents that were calling them that. The scene is not part of “Sweet Revenge” (the revision of “Bridgetown High”), at least not for now, but only because the I needed to cut somewhere to bring the novel down to the proper size to attract an agent, not because I was afraid of offending someone. I may consider putting it into “Sweet Revenge.” I haven’t decided yet.

Ultimately, I feel an author has the right to use whatever language he/she determines is appropriate for the genre and age group he/she is writing for. Fiction writing is an art. We writers are mimicking reality, but to do so we often need to use whatever language and wording necessary to paint the pictures we paint with our words, and at times that includes words that are unpleasant. I feel to alter a work for the sake of being PC is being intellectually dishonest.

Now, for my disclaimer, and this will sound contradictory.

I will never use the infamous “F” word in my writing. I draw the line there. Not because I’m concerned about being PC, but because of decency. I do not feel we writers need to use vulgarity to paint an accurate portrait of a fictional, or even a real person, or to achieve “shock” value as some writers claim. There are other ways to achieve this without lowering our moral standards. I think of this as a moral issue, not a PC issue.
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About Paul West

Paul West is a freelance writer and novelist. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Paul claims to be a "Prune Picker," though he now makes his home in Taylorsville, Utah.

You can follower him on Twitter: @PaulWWest

Published: Wednesday, July 25, 2007

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  1. I am a little surprised this post didn't raise a discussion, but I definitely agree. Unfortunately, our lives as authors are controlled by a very fickle reading public who can certainly determine whether our stories find homes, and if it offends, then they won't buy it.

    But who are we supposed to be true to?

  2. I have this problem in a novel I am writing now that takes place in Japan. I lived in Japan for almost two decades and wouldn't call anyone 'Jap' unless you put a gun to my head, but if you are writing about older Americans who are discussing Japan's wartime past, that term is going to have to come up - or else your dialogue is going to sound stupid.

    I can see where all the PC stuff came from: I have been amazed by the number of white people who feel that it is fine to use all sorts of racist terms around me, as I look (and I suppose am) white. There are people who enjoy using those terms and feel safe doing it around other Caucasians. But sometimes in our zeal to show that we are not racist, we go to such extremes that I wonder if that isn't a form of racism too.

  3. I too am disappointed this didn't get more criticism, especially from the PC crowd. Maybe they agree with me for some reason.

    Mary, if you ever read this, I say plow ahead. I just read a recently written novel set in WWII. The author uses the word "Jap" numerous times, as that's what Americans call them at that time. So, I say go for it, if it's necessary to maintain a feeling for the times and setting.

  4. Hello, Paul. I've just finished a very good memoir about POWs of the Japanese, but it was so riddled with the word 'Jap' that I fear it will put a lot of younger people off. The very audience the author might hope to reach will probably never read his book. Frankly, if I notice a book that is bristling with racist language, I am generally repelled. There is a huge difference between using racist terms for periodic authenticity and spreading them around gratuitously just to cock a snook at the PC brigade. The writer has to strike a balance and then hope that the readers will be discerning -- and intelligent -- enough to see what s/he has done.

  5. Hi Mary,

    Cock a snook? What in the world is that? You must be British or Australian as I've never heard that phrase before.

    Unfortunately, you're right. Some people do use any excuse to use racial, or ethnic, etc., slurs. I try to avoid reading that kind of stuff if I can.

    What I find even more sad than that is the attitude of many writers, even those of young adult and children's literature, that it is okay to use the infamous "F" word. But these same people would never use the "N" word or any other kind of racial slur. I have to ask: which is worse?

    Both are bad, but I can't help thinking the "F" word is far worse. It reaches down into our most basic moral structure, and thus is far more deadly to our souls. I would never think of using the "F" word in young adult or even adult literature, and I can't stand to read or hear that word. But, like I said, if you're describing a historical period, or a specific kind of crass character, I think it could be appropriate to use the "N" word or some other racial or ethnic slur, not to be demeaning to those people, but rather to be demeaning to the character(s) who is portrayed as using that kind of word.

    Does that make any sense?

  6. To 'cock a snook' means to thumb your nose at something in disdain. I am an American, but have lived in the U.K. and elsewhere for the past 20 years, but my mother, also an American, used this expression quite a bit. I just checked and found it in the Columbia Guide to Standard American English, 1993. Honest!

    As for the F-word, I agree that it is now used gratuitously far too often, but I do feel that it has its place in literature. I tell my kids that they can only use extreme swear words only in the direst of emergencies or they lose their efficacy. Fortunately, they have come to see this themselves, as they know many kids who swear so frequently that they just sound silly. Personally, I find racist terms uglier than the F-word because there is real hatred behind them, not just a desire to shock or be cool.

  7. Mary, I'm not sure I totally agree with you. Certainly, racism is ugly and should not be tolerated, but if a crude or crass character wants to show himself as the creep he is by using a derrogative racist term, I think in literature it should be allowed. But the "F" word, at least as far as I'm concerned, has no place where something can't be substitued for it, or alude to it without using the actual word.

    Perhaps the racist terms can be done that way too.

    As for childrens' literature, I think the "F" word certainly has no place. Kids hear anough of that sort of thing, and I think we, as adults, need to show a better example of proper behavior and language. We do not need to stoop to the level of delinquent children to portray them in our literature.

    I've read numerous young adult novels that depict horrible kids, but never use the "F" word or even a lot of other swear or cuss words. They are merely alluded to, but never spoken.

    It can be done and done effectivelly.

  8. I tend to read my books as if I were reading them to my son. Some things in them, I wouldn't read to him right now. He's five. But when he's older, I still want him to respect what I've done, and I don't really want him using vulgar language as if it were de rigeuer, as some people do.

    I guess other examples would be, what if you had to read it to your minister, your mom, an African-American, a Japanese-American?

    That said, not everything can be PC, and we can't deny that vulgarisms and vulgar people exist. Do we have to write the words they say? Do we have to read the books that contain those words?

    I used to be a very different person from who I am today. Cussing and smoking and drinking were a part of my life. I can't believe how terrible I was in those days. So I know how offhand a lot of that stuff is to those who practice it daily. Yet I absolutely don't feel the need to use it in my writings, and when I read it in others', I generally stop reading because it is not enjoyable.

    When I hear or read vulgarisms, I tend to wonder what the person is really trying to say and why he can't say it. I'm always led to the same conclusion: it's laziness. Sometimes--and I think as writers, we can agree on this--sometimes it's hard to come up with the right word, the perfect phrase. By inserting a meaningless participial or gerund based on some physical act or another, we put the onus of the right word onto the listener.

    Hehehe. Just try to convince the next foul-mouthed pervert you come across of that and see what they say.

  9. Bob, that was great! You said it much better than I could. Thank you.

    Yes, I agree that using vulgarities, or racist comments, in our writing is a display of laziness. Sometimes it's difficult to find a more appropriate way to express those things, but I think the writing can be richer, and more pleasant to read, if we do.

    Read John Steinbeck. Yes, he uses some minor vulgarities, but never the "F" word, and I've never read a racist comment, unless it was by a crude character in his novel somewhere, but I don't even recall any of those.

    Thanks again for expressing it better than I could.