Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Question time:

Both Joe and I love to read. We try to read a variety of books. Primarily we read historical fiction and of that sub-genre we typically choose mysteries. Even so we try to vary what we read - science fiction, contemporary, political thrillers and humour. We believe it's best to give the old neurons a shake every now and then. So both "Cloud Atlas" to "The Book Thief" are on our book shelf. This would explain why I picked up "Skippy Dies". I'd just finished a heavy book set in pre-war Germany and wanted a bit of comic relief.

The book involves the inner lives of the modern teen. I can't tell much more than that because I'm only 50 or so pages into a book that clocks in at nearly 700. Here's the thing, I should have expected that any honest depiction of teens would be flooded with slang and, therefore, the 'r word' would be used frequently. And, it's reared its ugly head early on in the book.

There's two things about this that make me wonder. First, is the fact that the word is only used (so far at least) by what would be considered kind of 'thugish' teens who use racist language, terrify people for fun and crush up prescription drugs to snort. It's like it's another way to indicate the poor character of these kids. Another way of telegraphing to the reader that these are kids that you'd have to be wary of, physically and emotionally if you knew them. I wonder if this is then a 'good' use of the word. To pair it with anti-social and racist behaviour. Is there a 'good way' for the word to be used in literature and art?

I hate to admit the second thing and therefore am going to preface this by saying that I'm not happy with myself here and I recognize that I need to do some deep self examination and some plain old pondering. OK, take a deep breath and keep writing ... I find the use of the 'r word' much more disturbing and upsetting than some of the other racist language in the book (they have not used the 'n word' which I know would equally appall me). I'm not sure why I am more sensitive to words that demean one group of people than another. I don't like this and don't understand it. But there it is. If I'm going to tell the truth then I have to tell the truth.

So I thought I'd ask two questions:

1) Can the 'r word' be used acceptably in art in order to define character and to make realistic some one's language and culture?

2) Do others find themselves reacting more strongly to some words than others? Why is that? Isn't all oppression wrong?

I'd like to know your thoughts on these two issues.


Iris said...

I think that it's natural to have a more visceral reaction to the types of oppressions that are closest to us - either because we experience them or because we spend a lot of time actively trying to stop them. In your case, you've got both going on.

You know, intellectually, that other types of oppression are also wrong. As long as you are equally willing to act according to your principles in both cases, I don't especially think that having an imbalanced initial reaction is wrong. Perhaps it's something you'd like to work on, but I don't think it's a moral failing, more like an imaginative lag.

CL said...

The question about art is an interesting one. I do believe it's okay if characters use derogatory language when it makes sense that they would -- but I also believe the author should carefully think through every instance of the word, whether it's necessary, and whether he or she might inadvertently be glorifying it a little, by making it sound like a cool thing to say.

When I hear teenage boys call things "gay" and use the r-word there's something sad about it to me that goes beyond my taking offense (though I do take offense). When kids throw around hurtful language, I hear something defensive in their tone, reflecting insecurities and fear and even pain. Relentlessly calling other people insulting names part of what it means to be a teenage boy in my culture, and that's sad for all the teenage boys. They're not just perpetrators but victims because they are internalizing these hurtful putdowns that make them afraid of being different or even mistaken for different. I don't think that should be erased from art, as long as it's treated that way and not as something that an otherwise cool, smart, admirable character says without thinking.

As for hurtful words, I think I do have a more visceral reaction to hateful words about lesbians (I am a lesbian) even though I am disgusted by other derogatory language. I think it's because I feel more pain and fear when my identity is the target of hate, it's a more sensitive wound even though I care deeply about all forms of oppression.

It's a natural reaction, as bookselves said (I think bookselves put it very well). It doesn't mean you care more about the r-word than racism.

J. said...

1) Yes, I think it can. Seeing the word makes me feel sick to my stomach but art is supposed to make us feel. It is supposed to make us feel the real things happening in a story. Avoiding the word or using more respectful and appropriate words would, in some instance, protect us from feeling the fear and rage we should feel in response to that word or to a character in a story. Powerful words, used appropriately, communicate powerful truths. The writing you described sounds like such a passage. A book about the Holocaust would not be as true or effective in showing what happened without depictions of the hateful and disgusting actions of the perpetrators. Words tell us a lot. A story depicting a sexual assault would not affect its readers if the disgusting language of the perpetrator was not used. Violence doesn't always sound so bad by itself - the language that often accompanies it is part of the picture. In some instances, hateful words that make us sick are necessary.I only wish that such words and stories were only used for such purposes.

2) Yes, all oppression is wrong. And yes, I find myself reacting more strongly to some words than others. That isn't to say that I don't react in some way to all words of hate and oppression. I always care but my knowledge and experience are fuller for some forms of oppression than others. Some words will strike me as evil or disgusting and some will also bring with them layers of the stories of people I love or personal experience. Empathy is real and important but is not as visceral as personal experience.

Betty said...

Yes and yes. In art, used to define character or reality, especially if in doing so, the art demonstrates how not to live.

It is natural to be more sensitive to some words, I will lecture strangers or friends for using the R word, sometimes using the N word myself to demonstrate how hurtful either can be.

Andrea S. said...

Ditto to what bookselves said: it makes sense that the "r" word would hit closer to home for you.

And, as bookselves and CL say, I think it's okay for fiction to occasionally use offensive language if there is a purpose to it--including the purpose of showing how hurtful the language is by showing the reaction of someone impacted by that language. If you're just going to have characters casually use the language without ever showing the way people can be hurt by that language, or having some way to highlight that this is still wrong to do in real life, then no.

Louna said...

I agree with what most people have said, that it is normal to react more viscerally to insults that hit close to home, and which you spend so much time working against. What is important, in my opinion, is to also acknowledge the fact that the racist words are hurtful and discriminatory.

Of course, with self-examination, pondering, reading on racist discrimination... you might start reacting to these slurs just as viscerally as to the r-word. But then would you react viscerally to insults against trans*people or to caricatural depictions of native Americans?

It is important to recognize discrimination of every kind where it occurs, but I don't think we have the energy and resources to learn about each kind in the same depth, to react to it viscerally, to fight it to the same extent. You are already doing a lot, and each of us is doing what hir can. Remember that a common silencing strategy is "yes, x is important, but you should also worry about y and z." Don't silence yourself...

Ettina said...

"1) Can the 'r word' be used acceptably in art in order to define character and to make realistic some one's language and culture?"

Of course it can. In fact, it must. If you want to accurately portray something, you must not flinch away from it. For example, Huckleberry Finn would not be the same book without the frequent use of the n word. It's essential to setting the flavour of the society Huck lives in, and the characters he meets. The r word, similarly, should be used when you're portraying characters who, realistically, would use that word. And its disablist implications should be taken seriously in that use.

"2) Do others find themselves reacting more strongly to some words than others? Why is that? Isn't all oppression wrong?"

Yeah, I react more to some words. I see no problem with that. My sense of right and wrong is not dependent on me finding 'wrong' things personally upsetting, in a way that is proportional to how wrong they are. I decide right and wrong based on logic, not emotions. (After all, I find the thought of engaging in any sexual act disgusting, but I don't think sex is wrong for those people who enjoy it.)

Anonymous said...

I do believe that its human nature to react more strongly to something that is personal. As long as you dont flat out ignore other kinds of oppression i dont see a problem.

On the art point, as an artist and a writer I do think there are times when it is absolutley nessecary to use something painful and ugly to illustrate a character or act. Without that record, without that expression we cannot learn, we cannot remember why it was terrible in the first place.

Fun Mum said...

Quick thought - the "r" word is all the more damaging because it disrespects a group that is least able to defend itself. While it would be wrong to make generalizations the abilities of those with (dis)abilities, it's not a fair fight - people with intellectual disabilities are often the least able to advodate and defend. I say this of my much loved daughter - in a battle of words, she will lose, every time.

Noisyworld said...

In fiction discriminatory language is acceptable where it's correct for the character.
In factual tomes discriminatory language is acceptable in either historical or just factual context. Any other use crosses the line.
I know what you mean about things hitting you more personally, sexist, anti-gay and anti-trans hit me hard as I've met the first myself and had a friend try to kill thenselves due to the second and third. Anti-Deaf gets to me and I tend to jump down people's throats if they use it as I have many Deaf friends (it actually scares me how I blow up at that one!)
Racist language bugs me but in the current world situation I always stand up against people using anti-Muslim language.
Good thing I don't get out much or I'd be arguing with people all day lol

Anonymous said...

Hello Dave, I have ruminated about your question for several days now - and wanted to add my thoughts.

1) Can the 'r word' be used acceptably in art in order to define character and to make realistic some one's language and culture?
Not unless the artist identifies him/herself as having that level of intellectual ability. Just like other words that have been claimed by disenfranchised groups (like the word "queer," etc.), I think those people have a legitimate claim to the word in art (not, however, in a epithet to be thrown at another person).

2) Do others find themselves reacting more strongly to some words than others? Why is that? Isn't all oppression wrong?

Yes - I think I react to those words that hit too close to home - or to a cause that I care deeply about. Yes, all oppression is wrong - and I can't be passionate about all of them . . . but I think I'm like a mother bear around her cubs when the issue is one that I deeply care about.

There - a few words from an old lady! Susan Ludwig Goharriz

Cynthia F. said...

I do think that art sometimes uses symbols to telegraph things, and it sounds like the "r-word" is being used responsibly in this case - to show wrongness, telegraph that those using it are de-humanizing others, etc.

All oppression is wrong. But some groups have been oppressed more than others. For those of us in the U.S., it's different to have been brought here as a slave than to have fled a hostile country where you had previously lived a life of privilege, education, attached families, support networks, etc. So I don't think it's odd to feel some slurs more viscerally than others, while still acknowledge that multiple systems of discrimination and oppression still exist.

Totally separate item - if you and Joe like historical fiction, have you tried Dorothy Dunnett? She's written two series that take a bit of time to warm up to but then are fantastically plotted and full of rich period detail about 1700s europe and scotland.

Anonymous said...

'Kay Dave, this is a few days late I know but my thoughts to this are that, 1. Yes, this R word can be used define character- I would say ignorant, not necessarily mean. This is mainly because some people honestly don't know the word is bad and don't have disabled folks like us around to set them straight about this. So yes, this can say a lot about character.

2. I think it's human nature to react more strongly to things affecting yourself personally then somebody. An extreme example would be a child getting struck and killed by a car. You may be shocked and disturbed by this incident if you witnessed this happening to somebody else's child, but the world would absolutely end if it was your own child or a child close to you. The effect is the same with prejudice.

Another thing I'd like to point out is that drug use isn't necessarily a sign of bad character- sure, you can mess up your body and your brain doing drugs, but isn't it your soul and your heart that counts? I'm a teen and I live in a sketchy
neighborhood where drug use and gang violence are epidemic. All it takes to get into drugs is being weak willed and in the wrong place at the wrong time, so I know quite a few drug users who aren't cruel to those around them by using such language. Just sayin'

Very thought provoking blog post, thank you for writing it. :)


David Morris said...

The first thing that came to mind was how inaccurate this use of the word is.

I live in a liberal area, and most people use the word to a surprising extent.

Slurs don't belong to the people using them, but to the society.

Melissa said...

I think it's completely normal to have one word affect you more than another. A couple of friends and I were talking about this. One friend has a sister who is gay, another friend has a Japanese sister in law, and my daughter has Down syndrome. These friends reacted strongly to the hate speech which directly affected them, but because we'd talked about hurt behind all of the words, we were all equally upset by the misuse of 'our' words.

Stephanie said...

"1) Can the 'r word' be used acceptably in art in order to define character and to make realistic some one's language and culture?"

As a writer, I would say "yes," it can be used acceptably, and not only to describe "bad" characters. In my opinion, art at its best not only reflects life, but teaches us something about life while also touching us emotionally. Prejudice must often be confronted in order to be changed. In art, part of that confrontation requires showing the prejudice and (hopefully) showing the change.

This answer is not intended to suggest that the author used the term appropriately in this particular book. The 'r' word is unfortunately common slang among youth; a writer of young adult novels is likely to use it simply because kids use it. It may never have occured to the writer in question (who I do not know and whose work I have not read) that the use of this word in this manner is hurtful.

It might be a good opportunity for a letter if the author is living.

"2) Do others find themselves reacting more strongly to some words than others? Why is that? Isn't all oppression wrong?"

I admit to the same tendency; and I also admit to the same dissatisfaction with that tendency.

Even people who advocate against oppression need to work on breaking down their own prejudices and insensitivities. We're all a work-in-progress.