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.