Friday, September 08, 2006

Self-Censorship and the Reader/Listener's 50%

I hope no one came here looking for answers. I certainly don't have any, but I wanted to comment on something that has come up in several conversations of late, both those where I am a participant and where I am an observer. And today, I found myself doing the same thing.

I was reading The Atlantic Monthly (May 2003 and yes, I'm that behind on my reading ;)) and I ran across a fact that was new to me. I did not know (or remember) that the Talmud said all faithful (of any religion) had a place in Paradise. Now I was going to muse on the interconnection with this and the rigid rules regarding parentage to be considered an Orthodox Jew (my husband is Jewish, but according to the strict interpretations, my children are not because Judaism passes through the mother), but I decided not to. Why? Because raising religious questions as philosophical ponders can lead to those questions expanding and creating religious, as opposed to philosophical, debate. Something this blog isn't designed to address for all it might prove interesting :).

You'll just have to imagine what avenues I would have explored, because I've already decided on self-censorship.

In one of the conversations I mentioned before, a decision similar to mine--though on a word, not topic basis--was declared politically correct and therefore shunnable. Okay, ignoring the whole contradiction that exists in the concept of shunning tied to meeting acceptable social norms ;), the question here revolves around the choice to batter convention by deliberately ignoring it as opposed to compromising linguistic integrity by giving in...or does it?

Words have power. People have known that for centuries. Just think of the consequences of calling someone a Nazi, a communist, a terrorist. All of those words have a specific meaning...and a social one. The difference in the reaction of readers to describing a character as from a community that works together to support all the members and saying the character is a communist can be extreme depending on where the reader background sits. Are they equivalent? Well, the underpinning of the communist philosophy is just that: a community where every member shares the fruits of labor so the whole thrives. And how many people call (or accuse) the Israeli kibbutz system communist? And on the other end of the spectrum, if the word used is commune, it brings up images of hippies smoking things they oughtn't and lazing around all day.

Is choosing your words with a thought to the reader an act of political correctness to the detriment of your work? Is it every writer/speaker's job to redefine these terms in the hearts of their listeners so they can once again be used without emotional baggage?

To me, it comes down to self-censorship, but I don't find that a bad thing at all.

We have a rule in our family, the type of rule that requires reminders. It is "appropriate dinnertime conversation." That tag phrase is a reminder to self-censor discussions of maulings, gross things, detailed surgery, the showing of unhealed wounds, or what have you while we are attempting to consume our meal. I'm the primary reason. I have a vivid imagination and have difficulty curtailing it long enough to consume food. I became a vegetarian for 7+ years for no other reason than that I couldn't sit down to a meat meal without seeing the animal it came from, and not being raised on a farm, the food with a face concept really turned me off.

My family has agreed to censor themselves in the interest of me not starving to death. They know that while they hear just the words, my listener 50% comes in surround sound and full sensory. It's one of my strengths as a writer and my struggles as a human.

To get to the point, finally ;), their intent in talking about these things is to share interesting happenings, something they learned, something they did, etc. Their intent was never to make me too sick to eat. Just as if I were to use the term communist or commune to describe my characters' living style, my intent would not be to bring McCarthyism to the fore or a return of the flower children.

My take on this (and sure it can be called PC) is that intent doesn't matter. If I know in advance that the word I'm choosing is loaded with other meanings that will distract the reader/listener from my own purpose, assuming I'm not using the term to educate, not to self-censor, not to choose a term that won't pull the reader from my work, seems foolish.

How does this choice (word, sentence, topic, reference, whatever) advance your purpose? If it doesn't for whatever reason, I say change it. There are lots of words and oddly enough many mean the same thing (English is crazy :)). I'd never consider it PC in a derogatory way because my purpose is to communicate what I want to say. With the reader/listener 50% that's hard enough without using terms or topics that I can tell in advance will lead people off on other paths and away from what I'm trying to show them.

So, am I ultimately kowtowing to the masses? Have I lost my perspective and so will produce only bland vanilla works from now on? Or is maybe communication more important than playing the game of telephone where each person puts there own interpretation on my words until the meaning is lost in the babble? (Yes, my bias shows, but I'm still fascinated in different perspectives and you never might change my mind :).)

And just to make my point about words, though it was intended as a joke, I said I'd made the error code for something even more explicit. The response? "I thought explicit was a bad thing :P."


Jean said...

Fascinating discussion. If someone consciously chooses a word with an inflammatory interpretation and then complains because people react as the words have come to be understood, they have a problem. We have a number of words like that, and you've chosen some of the tamer ones as an illustration. For contemporary work, one would do better just to choose the right word for the time, taking the cultural meaning into consideration.

I can think of several situations that aren't as clear-cut. A historically authentic piece comes to mind. To illustrate, Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird," published in the early 60s contains language we consider unacceptable today. It's still a classic work. But what if I were writing today and tryiing to capture the reality of the same time in history? Could I be effectively authentic while respecting how the meaning of some words has evolved over the decades?

Or can one effectively weave into the story the entire purpose of changing the meaning of the words as they've commonly come to be known? Using the story to acknowledge that hippies gave communes a bad name, but we're going to make it work, because we have X to offer.

And some people use words they know will cause a commotion just to cause a commotion. If that's the case, they don't have room to complain when their meaning is misconstrued. Of course, that doesn't stop some of them.

Margaret said...

Oh! Good points all of them. My father (who may chime in that I stole his story) has this great tale about exposing his management students to the true meaning of in making a reasoned choice between candidates for a job. But if anyone said they were off to discriminate between the job applicants????

As far as stories set in other times, I think there's a difficulty there with many words because the meanings change or even the weight does. The whole religious-based swearing nowadays would hardly raise an eyebrow compared to using the F word, but in medieval times was a crime. Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain used to actually mean something :).

My boys saw "To Kill A Mockingbird" and they were surprised at some of the language. Even at under 10 years of age, they'd learned which were the cultural no-no words. Honestly, the only way you could get away with an accurate linguistic portrayal of that time would be if you were black. There are times when authenticity serves more as a barrier to communication than a bridge.

And complainers will complain on both sides. No winning :).