Sense and Sensitivity

Blame Sarah. She suggested I fisk this

As everyone*knows I am a sensitive soul. A virtual princess of sensitivity among the hairy simian kind – yes, I can pee through seven mattresses, that’s how know I’m a sensitive bleedin’ princess, you gormless pile of rancid cormorant fewmets. Look there has to be some measurable test of sensitivity or you’d have every moron and faintin’ blooming vi’let claiming their poor widdle sensitivities offended 24/7. And if you fixed every one of those sensitivities, reducing everything to bland pablum… they’d invent new things. Because being offended is better than being ignored…

No, we need a hard and fast standard of sensitivity! And being able to pee through seven mattress and not get a wink of sleep as a result is the proven test. It has historical President… precedent, and the hallmark of royalty. That’s where the term ‘disdain’ comes from. It should be written ‘dis stain’. Don’t you believe me? My sensitive-ititties are rubbed raw by your disbelief, and can only be soothed by that universal panacea, money. $250. Or I’ll howl and growl and squeal for a boycott…

Ah, money. Amazing how a little (relatively) of this unguent can soothe the most sensitive troubled breast. Sadly, like all forms of danegeld it is addictive to its recipients. You can be sure the Dane (or the monkey) will be back in short order, demanding more, and bringing 30 of his mates along, all wanting their $250.

I’m not going to write about censorship, and the devastating effect that can have on writing, quality and originality. I’m not even going to bring up the fact that in the end, we are all a minority of one. What offends one, may well delight his identical twin brother. I’m going to write about something else about this that probably doesn’t occur to the most well-meaning of sensitivity seekers: just who benefits?

The problem, in a way, comes down to perspective, and is not dissimilar to the issue of migration and the way we tend to see that. The best way I can explain that is to paraphrase a New Zealand Prime Minister, who talking of the flow from his country to the larger Australia was that it was a good thing, because it increased the IQ of both countries. (that flow has been reversed, lately. I leave you to draw your own conclusions). Now why this is apropos is because when we talk of migrants, we inevitably think of the issues of migrants themselves (their welfare, their well-being etc) and of the country receiving them.

It’s a rarity for anyone to comment on the effect of migration on the country of origin. When Bob Mugabe started going off the wall in his desire to cling to power, and his actions effectively destroyed the economic infrastructure of his country, migrants in their millions flooded out. Not all those who left sneaked across the border to South Africa, or were landless peasants. Many were also those who could go, legally, and could do well, elsewhere. I became very good friends with a young pharmacist from Zimbabwe. He was a bright Ndebele man, who spoke flawless English (it was his home language) who didn’t want to leave – but could and could do well. Zimbabwe’s loss was South Africa’s gain. When things recovered, he’d married, settled and did not go back. He sent some money to his family – which helped them, but not Zimbabwe as much as he would have. On the other hand there were plenty of poor, uneducated migrants who undercut local labor, and were a net gain for the rich and a loss for poor of South Africa – and put bluntly because they also sent money back, a gain for Zimbabwe, but a loss for South Africa.

It’s always complicated. And there are several sides and points of view. And inevitably there is a strong economic component.

It’s a similar situation with ‘sensitivity’. We’re talking about authors (and publishers, who transfer the cost and blame to authors – every crash in publishing is author-error) and whatever the currently fashionable group-of-offendee de jour is. What we’re not seeing considered… is the benefit to the minor group, and of course the effect on the readership. And we need the economic effects of this weighed sensibly instead of sensitively.

The first question should always be: who are the customers for this book? Who will pay to read it? Will said sensitivity make a positive… or negative difference? And yes, negative is possible. Your STEAK BARBEQUE BIBLE is insensitive to vegans, vegetarians, Hindus, global warming fanatics, atheists, fundamentalist Christians – and that’s just the title. By the time you’ve finished being sensitive to that lot… your target audience has nothing to read. And the offendees were never going to be customers in any substantial numbers anyway.

Let’s be real: most of the vocal angry perpetually ‘triggered’ and ‘micro-aggressed’ are impossible not to ‘offend’: ergo the bribe, to get them to go away – which means the next ten will arrive the next shakedown, before the words are cold. Secondly: in real demographic terms most of the perpetually offended make up a tiny proportion of the population, and in many cases an even smaller proportion of target readership. My wilderness survival novel is of no likely interest to urban Wiccan vegans. If I mention them in an insensitive way, most of the target audience wouldn’t give a shit. In fact they might like the book more. That’s reality, not PC.

It’s a different kettle of tea of course, if the target are pearl clutchers who never found a fashionable offendee-de-jour they didn’t want to signal their virtue by adoring. Paying danegeld is a requisite for that audience. It still won’t stop them turning on you and casting you out, to the shrieked traditional ululations of ‘Racist, sexist, …ist, …ist”. It’s a question of timing there. If you’re writing for that audience, knowing when fold ‘em is a survival essential.

But once again we come back to both sides of the equation – a migrant is loss to their own country as well as a gain to the other country – or vice versa. Because there is no doubt that for many a small group or minority, a sympathetic (not necessarily sensitive or accurate – but I think you will find ‘sensitive’ always means sympathetic not accurate) portrayal in a novel that has entrée to a wider world… is very good for them, doing far, far more for their image, than their image does for the author. In short… the ‘sensitivity’ readers who want their little group portrayed favorably (it’s seldom about accuracy – they may remove un-favorable inaccuracies but I bet never say a word about the favorable inaccuracies) should be paying the author – not the other way around. If an author does it for free – and most of us do, despite most authors being poor… it is gratitude and help that common sense would commend, not shakedowns. And, in point of fact, that really is the case for even merely moderately popular authors like myself. I’ve never had the slightest difficulty in getting volunteer readers in a field of expertise or in a group where I needed to make sure I got it right. They are delighted to have their interest or group portrayed to a wider audience, and want it done right.

I am grateful to them, and from what I can gather, they are grateful to me.

Everyone who is important ** anyway.

**Importance is a question of relativity, rather like the speed of light.

51 Comments

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51 responses to “Sense and Sensitivity

  1. Someone, somewhere on the book of faces, suggested that what publishing really needed was “insensitivity readers” who could complain about the lack of swearing, drinking, masculinity etc. Such readers would also point out, in as blistering prose as possible, errors made where those unfamiliar with weapons and the like wrote about their glock assault rifles shooting magazine clips of .50BMG

  2. Today I was browsing Audible and I ran across Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City”, which I recall reading and enjoying many years ago. That book, while now considered a classic, would not pass the sensitivity censors today.

    It’s too honest and, frankly, too funny. The fact that the author, I believe, was “laughing with” rather than “laughing at” the absurdities experienced by the characters wouldn’t make any difference. Too much of the stories (let’s just start with the entire character of D’orothea, who would definately have to go) would be cut out or sanitized, leaving… what?

    Not a Hell of a lot. And this is a book written by a San Francisco newspaper columnist! In 1978 it was the cutting edge of Liberal Diversity.

  3. Getting your facts straight about cultures/religions/… foreign to you — heck yes.

    Creating make-work gatekeeper jobs for the perpetually offended — heck no

  4. And woe betide when the sensitivity readers get into places of true power. I’m going to have to restrict the sales regions of my next Cat Among Dragons novels because of laws designed to shelter the sensitivities of certain groups.

    I like the idea of insensitivity readers, though. I wonder if any of Larry Correia’s Reader Team Alpha might be available? Or perhaps Col. Kratman and Oh-John-Ringo-No might be persuaded to do it as a side job?

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      When I made my pitch over at ATH, Ox suggested that my sensitivity reading might be better described as insensitivity reading.

    • adventuresfantastic

      “I’m going to have to restrict the sales regions of my next Cat Among Dragons novels because of laws designed to shelter the sensitivities of certain groups.”

      I’ve not read this series yet, but you’ve piqued my curiosity.

  5. BobtheRegisterredFool

    I’m not confident in selling my skills as a copy editor, but as I said at ATH, I’m available for sensitivity reading or editing. My skills are not worse than the competition, and I won’t give you grief over the book you are writing not being the one I would want to write. There are many other sensitivity editors and readers who would probably screw up your process more, so if you must have a sensitivity reader, find one like me. Except maybe with better business and communication skills, but those impact my extremely cheap rates. I am a sensitivity reader sensitive to the fact that tastes differ, and that being a harridan about stuff is a good way to ruin the creative process for the author.

    • I am a damn good copy editor… but I find your sensitivity insensitive!

      Seriously, if you want your book in orbit, let me notice where you were “sensitive” to some special interest, and it shall be done.

      And dear publishers: this is my middle finger. The loud 1% are not my audience… and they’re not yours either.

  6. Connie Willis wrote a story (I forgot the name) about a teacher who wanted to teach Shakespeare, which had to go through all of the sensitivity censors and complaint groups before it could be taught. The play that finally got picked was Hamlet, and the amount she could teach was “Who’s there?”

    It was supposed to be satire…

    • This is insensitive to Knock-Knock jokes!!

      • Once upon a time (2007, I think) I was returning from LibertyCon with Mad Mike and his then-young kids. At one point they started telling knock-knock jokes. I could deal with most of them, but then the more annoying one (banana.. banana.. banana.. orange) came along. As the next was attempted my response was not “Who’s there?” but “Tetraethyl lead.” We nearly left the road, Mad Mike was laughing so hard – and the kids wondered what was so funny. Seemed to work, the knock-knock jokes stopped.

        • Draven

          Riding any distance with Mad Mike must have been an experience.

        • I didn’t understand this yesterday. Today I did. I suspect that I’m the last generation with a sliver of a chance of understanding this.

          (Incidentally, I’m very intrigued by the studies that link the banning of leaded gasoline to a 20-years-delayed reduction in crime. The bans were uneven enough that the causation argument is compelling.)

    • The kids shocked me by not liking Huckleberry Finn. Then I asked about the Royal Nonesuch. The who? They’d never heard of them. Ah. Their version was sanitized for sensitivity purposes.

      Okay, so even in the antediluvian days when I went to school, the antics of the Royal Nonesuch was censored – but the teacher would make it a point to say “I’m leaving this part out because it wouldn’t do to read in class.” Which, of course, had us rushing to the library to find out the good stuff. That was probably the intended effect.

      Another notable censored bit of literature was a little poem in The Yearling due to the use of a certain word. Ironically, no one took offense at the word in Huckleberry Finn. But once again it was “It wouldn’t do to read this in class,” and here we go to the library.

    • Satire of the American Left has been impossible for some time now. No matter how far fetched your scenario, they will catch up to you in under a year.

      That’s because as the fluid circles the drain, it accelerates. Highest speed is reached when it goes down the black hole to the sewer. There to vanish forever, one hopes.

      Hilarious that Connie Willis is a puppy kicker.

  7. As I opined upon my own ghostly soap box: http://phantomsoapbox.blogspot.ca/2017/02/sff-sjws-and-circular-firing-squad.html
    This is a protection racket. If the publishers include in the front-piece the information “Sensitivity editing provided by SJWs R Us”, then the Perpetually Aggrieved are supposed to know they’ve been paid off.

    Buying off the mob is an old tradition in NYC, only the names have changed.

    Sadly for the mob, some of us find their screeching to be the Acme of Quality. As I said previously, if upon publication I don’t get at least one special snowflake meltdown over the robot girlfriends, I will be disappointed.

  8. Sensitivity training makes me thing of two things:

    1. Viet Cong Re-Education Camps.
    2. The local man who complained he couldn’t please his wife. He said if the stood on the porch and p*ssed in the yard she yelled at him, and if he stood in the yard and p*ssed on the porch, she still yelled at him.

  9. Your STEAK BARBEQUE BIBLE is insensitive to vegans, vegetarians, Hindus, global warming fanatics, atheists, fundamentalist Christians – and that’s just the title.

    It is?. Gee, I didn’t know. Of course, we fundamentalist Christians are big on covered dish suppers. There’s even a comic strip “Church of the Covered Dish.” And in these parts The Shooter’s Bible tends to be popular.

    This goes well into over-reaction to possible offense. The classic SF was the Kirk-Uhura kiss that had NBC going nuts – and which generated very little criticism. That’s “sensitivity” in a nutshell.

    That said, I have on occasion decided to take my business elsewhere, and not always because I’m p*ssed. Sometime it’s a matter of not wanting my money to be associated with something. So I don’t spend my money on it. End of problem. If I like a business, I might say why they’re no longer getting my money, but the rest of the time I leave them to the free market. If enough people feel the same way, they’ll lose customers. If not, well, that’s them and their customer’s business.

    • I have actually met people who took offence at anything but ‘the Bible’ being referred to as a ‘bible’. I pointed out that it was sincere flattery and in fact advancing the idea that a bible was a source of knowledge and truth. I also pointed out that the instruction therein was to use Christ as the foundation of what you built, not to make the ways of the world your model.

      • adventuresfantastic

        Good points.

      • It just struck me funny, knowing how much churches in the Bible Belt love to eat. I can see a preacher at a 4th of July Barbecue saying “If you have your copy of The Barbecue Bible, please turn to page . . .” Having heard from someone in church that a Bar Mitzah was a Roman Catholic rite, there’s no telling what you can run into.

        What fits in with your post is that while you find some to take offense at anything, most don’t. I came up with Roman Baptist as a future denomination to tweak both, and probably wouldn’t be successful. Oh, it’s possible to really tweak various groups if you try, but the thing is, most don’t.

      • Robin Munn

        I’m with Kevin Cheek on this one. I have no doubt that besides the people you met who were offended by calling something a “bible” when it wasn’t the Bible, you could find others if you looked hard. But speaking purely for myself as a devout Christian, my own reaction to that was, “Huh? Why would I be offended?” I mean, if I ordered a copy of The Linux Bible*, I’d expect to get a complete, pretty much authoritative guide to everything about Linux. That’s… kind of what the word means, and nobody that I know would be offended by it. Like Pauline Kael, I know that they’re out there, but I don’t know any of them — and I’m also pretty sure that they’re a relatively small number.

        * Real title, by the way. And published by O’Reilly, which means that even though I’ve never read it, I’m pretty sure that it would be good. There are precisely two publishers whose name on the book cover means that I know it’s likely to be good. Baen for SF/F, and O’Reilly for computer books. (I hear from other people that Castalia House is also a good mark of quality, but I haven’t read enough Castalia-published books to form a personal opinion yet).

    • Zsuzsa

      “The classic SF was the Kirk-Uhura kiss that had NBC going nuts – and which generated very little criticism.”

      From what I’ve heard, the kiss wasn’t really that big a deal at the time and has since been more mythologized by those who want to claim the social justice mantle for Star Trek.

      • That’s right: It wasn’t a big deal. The suits at NBC thought it would be a big deal. They thought it would offend sensibilities, especially in the South. They were being sensitive. And how much of “sensitivity” is much ado about nothing?

        • TRX

          The Suits in the upper ranks got most of their social imprinting growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. Back when even the suggestion of an interracial relationship would have probably cost them their jobs, if not blackballed from their profession.

          Also, when that episode broadcast, “miscegenation” was still a crime in a dozen states. There were probably people in Paramount’s boardrooms who sweated over the Spock character, who was technically the product of bestiality, since his father wasn’t even human… and that sort of thing was against the law in about half the states then; 42 states now, and a felony in many of them.

          You’re talking about half a century ago; things were different then.

          Fifty years from now, should things go poorly, your children may laugh at our primitive attitudes toward, say, incest, pedophilia, rape, or abuse of animals.

          • I was there then. Not in NBC, but watching Star Trek as first-run episodes. In the South. And remember the last days of Segregation.

            The suits were a classic case of thinking they understood huge segments of the population when they actually knew diddly squat about them. We saw the same thing in “analysis” of why Red States didn’t vote for Hillary. The bulk of them are wrong for the simple reason that they don’t actually know people who live in Red States.

          • Robin Munn

            … [Spock] was technically the product of bestiality, since his father wasn’t even human…

            I’ve never understood this one. That seems to be a very different definition of “bestiality” than I’ve ever understood. I always understood that the objection was that animals aren’t sapient, not that they were a different species. To say that Spock’s parents, or Beren and Lúthien, were committing bestiality makes LESS than zero sense to me.

            • The public take I remember, circa 1960s, was that Spock came from a mixed marriage. It wasn’t considered radical, maybe because not many thought “Hey, these are two different species.”

              Now, keep something in mind. Into the 1980s some mixed marriages weren’t well received in the US, and that was by both races. With others, no one batted an eye. And while there were always SOBs who took it out on the children, most saw it as “Children can’t help what their parents do.”

              In any event, sentience ruled in the public mind, at least in the US. There was another episode of ST, involving a cloud creature in love with the inventor of the warp drive, and keeping him alive well after his expiration date. That technically ended up resolved by polygamy, as pointed out by Bones as the end of the episode. Not aware of anyone up in arms about that one, either.

      • Terry Sanders

        Doubly so, because even the ones who could be offended largely weren’t- -because it was *coerced.*

  10. Let them.

    On the one hand this is clearly bullying, clearly paying for protection, clearly advancing the cause at the cost of art, and clearly more about power over other’s thoughts than anything else.

    But the effect it has? It creates lies. Humans that don’t act like humans. Stories that don’t work right. It breaks books. Currently, this already happens a lot, to a lot of authors, but not to every author published by every major publisher. Sensitivity readers will worm their way in and go over every book and reduce them all to mush. Or alternatively will be paid off to look the other way (as in you still have the same ‘offensive’ content but you’ve paid the Danegeld so you can get away with it). That won’t really work though as the normalization of sensitivity readers will cause young authoritarian prudes to look at that as a desirable job. The way to get the job? Show how badly the ones doing the job are doing the job by shouting out what they ‘missed’.

    They will eat their own. Unless they are so strident that no one can find fault (even though the young ones will still find fault).

    An example of a story being damaged by this kind of thinking:

    Superman VS Batman (A movie I liked quite a bit, oh, and spoilers ahead).

    In the comics they showed Doomsday was a major league bad guy by the proper expedient; he kicked the crap out of the entire Justice League before facing Superman. In the movie? Wonder Woman held her own for a while and never really lost, then Superman had to die to win and could never really hold his own. It didn’t look, or feel like the only option. It wasn’t desperate enough to do (if Wonder Woman could hold her own, why couldn’t they both have teamed up to beat Doomsday?). Worst of all, it made the hero of the piece look weak. Again. He was wearing a fake Superman Costume. He’d just lost to Batman. Got upstaged by Wonder Woman. Couldn’t beat the bad guy without dying. That choice materially hurt the story. This is storytelling 101 on how not to craft an ending.

    And while I saw lots of criticism of that movie, lots of nitpickiness, not a lot of critics DARED to point out the obvious problem with the ending. For sensitivity reasons I guess. A female character can’t be saved by the male character at the end of a movie for any reason. But if, instead, it had been Aquaman instead of Wonder Woman? The storytelling would have been intact because Aquaman could have gotten the absolute crap kicked out of him and no one would have said anything. Not even me (I love Aquaman), because I assume he’d look cool and heroic while fighting someone so far out of his power class. Aquaman would look like a hero for daring, Superman would look like a hero for saving him, and Superman’s sacrifice would have elicited more reaction than an ‘oh’.

    That’s what happens when you listen to people who put characters who they think represents them over story.

    Which is why I’ve come to the conclusion that those who don’t do that can only benefit by other authors doing it. If they’d rather tell bad stories than offend anyone? Let them. And watch their sales sink over the years.

    And when those Sensitivity readers turn their focus on Independent writers? Let them attack. Fight back. And watch your sales rise.

    Let them.

  11. I wonder, are there any selectivity readers, or are those the slush editor/readers?

  12. Perhaps “are there ‘entertaining’ readers”, these being folks who try to suppress stuff that is enjoyable to read. Readers may find interesting my review of The Fifth Season in the next issue of Tightbeam.

  13. Josh Griffing

    Dave, you missed a twenty-carat gem of fiskability, right there near the bottom of the WaPo article:

    “Still, some sensitivity readers feel they are in part contributing to the problem. Clayton said she’s unsettled by the idea that she’s being paid for her expertise, but also is helping white authors write black characters for books from which they reap profit and praise. / ‘It feels like I’m supplying the seeds and the gems and the jewels from our culture, and it creates cultural thievery,’ Clayton said. ‘Why am I going to give you all of those little things that make my culture so interesting so you can go and use it and you don’t understand it?'”

    Holy cow (sacred, one each; consult the Book of Ungulants, Brother Maynard, in your Barbecue Bible)!

    PLEASE do a fisk of this!

    • That comment by Clayton is the thing that shows me it IS about censorship, or at least about controlling who gets published. Instead of praising those who are trying to get it right, there are accusations of thievery. Huh?

      Show me one culture today that sprung fully formed from Zeus’s brow. Go on, I dare you. Culture is like art. It’s derivative.

      Unfortunately I don’t think it’s enough to say that well, if my target audience isn’t offended, then I’m good and I don’t have to worry about it because the free market will win or the 1st Amendment protects me.

      What happens to the free market or the 1st Amendment when the publication/submission guidelines require the blessings of a sensitivity panel or a the user agreement allows a platform like Amazon to reject your book unless it’s been scrubbed or approved by the “right” people? And that’s the form this censorship WILL take.

      Intent doesn’t seem to matter either. For example Native American tribes bless US Army helicopters and have no issue with the naming of said helicopters (i.e. Chinook, Apache, etc). Well it doesn’t matter that said tribes see it as a tribute. Someone will take offense on their behalf because they of the perpetually offended just know better. And it also doesn’t matter if the majority of people in a group aren’t offended. All they have to do is find one who will be held up to speak for all.