There is no shortage of armchair experts—and the “facts” they spread are not always harmless. That’s the subject of my new piece for The Salt Lake Tribune, which ran yesterday. Click the image at right to enlarge, or open it a new window by clicking here.
We call that kind of consideration manners and common decency. Were it not for the negative connotation, we might equally call it political correctness. But the negative connotation exists and, as connotations go, this one is powerful. It is not a little ironic that in some circles political correctness is treated as politically incorrect.
The negative connotation is not terribly hard to understand. For one thing, none of us likes to be corrected. The less kind the correction, the less we like it. For another, while the offense of “that person is fat” is universally understood, it’s not so easy to understand why a word with a history of acceptability in our own culture is suddenly to be avoided the moment another culture says, “We don’t like that.” Nor is it easy to understand the need to abandon a once-acceptable term when it begins to take on a new, unacceptable meaning.*
Yet attention to the effect of words on people coming from a different frame of reference tends to move society, albeit sometimes kicking and screaming, in a positive direction. Empathy, the art of identifying with what’s going on in someone else’s head, is a worthy talent to acquire and grow.
To be sure, sometimes PC speech is carried too far. Sometimes it is used to bully. Sometimes it is ambiguous, deceptive, excessively euphemistic. These are not arguments against PC speech. They are arguments against carrying it too far, against using it to bully, and against ambiguity, deception, and excessive euphemism.
The usual objections to PC speech do not hold up well. Take the fellow I know who frowned and lamented, “It’s getting to the point where you can’t disparage any group anymore.” That’s a bad thing? Or another who told me he resented having to “think so much” before opening his mouth. That, too, is a bad thing? Take my friends who, when I pointed out that a certain phrase was in fact a racial slur, apologized and pledged never again to use it. Ha, ha, just kidding. They launched into a diatribe on how “They” shouldn’t be so sensitive. Why not “We” shouldn’t be so insensitive? Or take those who reply, “lighten up,” “it was just a joke,” or “you don’t have to get so upset about it.” These knee-jerk defenses born of wounded pride are understandable, but they need to go. The more constructive reaction is to pause, think, and, where needed, apologize and make a mental note to do better.
I recall being corrected, not kindly, upon using what I theretofore did not know was a sexist term. To add to my humiliation, the colleague doing the correcting disliked me (which went both ways) and sought at every turn to sabotage my career (which did not). Trouble is, her correcting me was called for, and I have avoided the term ever since. I contented myself with finding other reasons not to like her, which abounded.
* It’s important not to fall prey to the Genetic Fallacy, that of holding to what a word once meant but no longer means. These days it’s not a good idea to refer to laymen as idiots. On the other hand, the former racial slur Samaritan has become quite the compliment.
It troubles me that much of western literature tends to bring up race only when a character is non-white.
That’s race in the sense of geographically correlated appearance traits, not in the socially harmful and biologically irrelevant sense.
Most of the time, western authors treat white as the default. Yet I can think of no reason, other than lazy writing, that there should be one.
I wondered what would happen if, assuming it was important for readers to know any character’s race, the author identified every character’s. And, if it wasn’t important, identified none at all.
It can be done. I have read contemporary authors who pull it off. Kudos to them.
I’m trying to do it with my current project. Know what? It takes a lot of work not to let it get ridiculous or, worse, patronizing. I’m not above putting in the work. We are finally coming around to not calling an individual from a mixed gender group “he.” If we can avoid default sexism, maybe we can take a stab at avoiding default racism.
Sure sign of an amateur writer: thinking that good writing requires lots of big words.
Exhibit A: When I was in college, the local newspaper retained a friend of mine to review concerts. He was chasing a masters in music, so that much made sense. But he wasn’t a writer, as evidenced by his remark to me: “I need a thesaurus so I can load my review with lots of impressive words.”
Exhibit B: Years later, as I set out to write an account of an acquaintance’s encounter, the acquaintance said, “Be sure to put in all those big, fancy words you know.”
Both times, I shared a gem of advice from Harry Walker, my 10th grade Honors English teacher at Reno [Nevada] High School. For weeks, Walker had been passing out vocabulary words for us to learn. But upon giving us our first writing assignment, he said, “If any of you use so much as one vocabulary word, you will receive an automatic F.” Write to communicate, he said, not to impress. The first three rules of my pretentiously titled Cuno’s Tips for Stronger Writing come directly from Walker’s advice:
I can see why people would think they need big words and lots of them. Just look at the classics. Dickens, Conrad, Melville, Hawthorne and the lot were not known for getting promptly to the point. But it was not good writing that required them to drone on; it was economics. Authors of their day were paid by the word. That alone provided plenty of motivation for, say, Victor Hugo to burn up some 3,000 words introducing a priest whose sole act was to give away candlesticks. Hugo burned up thousands more introducing other characters who, after committing a single, brief act, disappeared for good. As a result, you know more about every minor character than you need to know, and you won’t miss a thing if you read the abridged version.
Another motivator for droning on is that literary works were often serialized before appearing in book form. The more words, the more chapters; the more chapters, the more issues over which periodical publishers could spread them; and, the more issues, the more readers periodicals could attract and hold. Publications could get away with that sort of thing when they didn’t have to compete with radio, TV, film, and Netflix.
It’s shame, for it has made plowing through great literature as much a chore as a discovery. I don’t blame anyone who gives up on, skims through parts of, or turns to an abridged version of the classics.
Nowadays, magazines pay for articles with a lump sum, and book publishers pay a lump-sum advance plus royalties. It’s a better system. It frees authors to hook you within a few pages. And competition for readers all but demands they do.
SOMETIMES MY MARKETING BLOG overlaps with this one. I just posted a rant in the former about South Dakota’s woeful new anti-meth slogan. Check it out by clicking here.
At the outset of my career, my boss told me not to feel bad when clients return a draft bathed in red. It’s part of the process, he explained. Besides, clients know their topic better than I.
Even in matters of style, a writer might just learn something from a client. Like the time a mechanic suggested to me that “Cut Gas Costs” might make for a more accessible headline than “Reduce Fuel Consumption.”
Still, dumb requested changes can annoy. Like the client who made me change a correct use of in behalf — yes, there really is a correct use — to on behalf. Oh well. The client was ultimately in charge, the client’s name and not mine would go on the page with the error, and few readers would even notice the misuse.
That was my third-favorite dumb rewrite request. My second-favorite came in the form of, “Make it longer.” I would be happy to, I said, meaning it, but I would need to understand what was missing. “Just make it longer.” Fine, but what needed to be added? “Just make it longer.” How? Insert ellipses? Throw in redundancies? Increase font size and leading? Change every but to however, every so to therefore, and every 10,000 to ten thousand? “No; just make it longer.” The conversation ended with the client’s hanging up in frustration. I was frustrated, too. Then he found my earlier draft — the one he hadn’t read but had told me to cut down, because it was too long. “This is perfect,” he said.
My all-time favorite dumb rewrite request came in the form of, “The CEO doesn’t like what you wrote. We need you to revise it.” I would be happy to revise it, I said, once again meaning it. Which parts did the CEO not like and why? The contact person didn’t know, and set off to ask the CEO. About an hour later, he called back. The CEO had misplaced my draft; would I mind resending it? I did. A day later, I learned that the CEO loved the “new draft.” For once, I had the presence of mind not to blow it. Much as I wanted to say, “Tell that moron that’s not a rewrite, it’s the original,” I said, simply, “Glad I could help.”
CREATIVE WRITING teachers who tell you that similes make for good writing should add a disclaimer:
Don’t go overboard. You don’t need three per page. And for heaven’s sake don’t reach too hard for them.
Here are some too-hard-reached-for gems that I jotted down from what otherwise might have been a decent novel. Never mind the title or author. I’m not out to shame or embarrass, but to illustrate.
“Panic gripped him like a cold iron glove.” Not having encountered many cold iron gloves a-gripping, I’m having a bit of difficulty empathizing with the grippee. And I have so many questions. Was it a giant or one-size-fits-all cold iron glove? Did it grip his entire body? His arm? His chest? His ... never mind.
“The need to warn and protect her surged within his chest, but the heavy quilt, the vise across his face, and the fear in his heart pinned him like Christ to the cross.” Where to begin? First, if any Christians happened to be engrossed in the narrative, this simile would be sure to jar them right out of it. In fact, I’m not a Christian and it jarred me out of it. (I need hardly add, I hope, that jarring your reader out of your narrative is ill-advised.) Second, pinned implies couldn’t move at all, as in a wrestler pinned to a mat. Crucifixion victims were nailed by the wrists and ankles so that they could writhe, adding to their torture. Speaking of which and third, torture, not restraint, was the point of crucifixion. This is a wholly inapt simile. Not that the others are any less so.
“The answer came immediately, soft but solid like an elephant appearing beneath a magician's wand.” I shall be brief: Huh?
“She had found that there was something about the way flesh bounced under silk that attracted men's eyes like a fishing lure.” If the author was trying to be sensual, he would have done better to leave it at flesh and silk and omit the fishing lure. I cannot speak for you, but for me the mental picture of a fishhook anywhere near a human eye is an arousal-killer. Also, gliding might work better than bouncing.
The book brims with equally awful similes, but I’ll stop here. You’re welcome.
Earlier this year, I picked up new glasses. I was due for a slightly stronger prescription, and I was tired of seeing the world through scratches.
But within two days, I had begun seeing double at certain distances. Convinced that something was wrong with the prescription, I returned to the ophthalmologist. In an uncharacteristic show of foresight, I brought along my old glasses. Guess what. I saw double through them, too. Which meant that the new prescription wasn’t the problem.
If you think the odds were slim that I’d start seeing double for an unrelated reason at exactly the same time I happened to pick up new glasses, you’re right. But here’s the thing about odds. Even when you calculate them at a million-to-one against, you’re not declaring an impossibility. You’re declaring a likelihood—about once for every one million tries.
A lot of people will have eye problems. A lot of people will buy glasses. Sooner or later and probably more often than one might think, those circles will overlap. Sooner or later albeit less frequently, they will overlap with your circle of acquaintances. And it can make the perfectly ordinary look extraordinary.
Never mistake the statistically unlikely for the miraculous.
I’m fine, thank you very much. A new lens did the trick.
... where I share thoughts about writing. I don’t consider myself a writing authority, but that doesn’t keep me from presuming to blog like one. Oh, and I reserve the right to digress when I feel like it.