I’ve been seeing a rather scary trend in the different writing groups and communities to which I belong. Do not get me wrong, I am pro-social justice. Everyone deserves an equal share of that mythical pie of equal rights, but what I do not condone is the actions of the movement’s self proclaimed “warriors”. The issues are thus: representation, cultural appropriation, general diversity, and proper research.
We’ll tackle the pros and cons of each, at least how I see them, in the order listed above.
We all want primary characters we can identify with. Be it through gender identity, the color of our skin, our sexual preferences (or lack thereof), cultural identity, and so on and so forth. And I think that’s great, and that we really do need more diverse figures for kids to look up to! It’s a wonderful thing!
But here’s one of the biggest problems I’m finding in the writing scene – the old adage of Write What You Know. And that is what writers do. We write the things we know about, create characters shaped by our own experiences. What we do not know, we do our best to research and learn as much as we can before putting pen to paper and fingers to keyboard.
This is a big issue, especially for those who are just learning that they enjoy writing, and want to become writers (amateur or professional, it does not matter which). When you’re new to writing, you stick to the things you know best, because who else can tell the story of how you first stubbed your toe. Who else can give the exact details of your favorite summer vacation? No one but you. And yet… social justice warriors will cry out that you should have made the main character trans*, PoC, LGBTQA* and all number of different identifiers. Especially if the main character is yourself or white. That’s just how their mentality is.
You can write the most significant masterpiece of our time, that will last through the ages for all of eternity. And they will still cry for your blood because you didn’t write in a way that gives them their own specific and narrow view of representation.
This seems to be nearly as big an issue as representation for writers these days. The general public of most countries (not the government people, but the everyday men and women of these countries) encourage others to learn about their culture. Some offer their services to writers to ensure accuracy when we wish to place our tales in their foreign settings. Writers are encouraged to learn at least a tourist travel level of other languages so that if they write about a sassy Welsh lass lost in the Sahara, she can give little tongue in cheek swears and sayings to express her annoyance or downright anger at her situation using her own language. Such a situation can open a wonderful dialogue and plot point, as she then is asked by her travel companion, perhaps an Iranian girl also lost on the trip, to teach her some of her language. And so a friendship can be made as the two girls bond over learning one another’s language as they try to find their way back to base camp or something.
But then again, social justice warriors will decry cultural appropriation because you, the writer, are neither Welsh or Iranian. And you certainly haven’t been to the Sahara. Therefore you are stealing and taking from these cultures just by putting your idea into words. This is total bunk, of course, because as stated in the previous paragraph, many people in foreign countries encourage others to learn about them. Unfortunately, many Americans do not before they go on their trips and vacations around the world (this also adds to our poor reputations as guests in these foreign lands, because we are stubborn gits who don’t want to bother learning to say “Thank you” in another language. Among other numerous reasons…).
This discourages many beginning writers, and they don’t bother to finish their stories, or don’t try to write any others.
Even Disney has been slapped with this one. Why? Because think about your setting. Say you are writing a story set deep into the Congo in a time before English Imperialism. Not a single Caucasian soul around. Of course not, it’s deep in the Congo in pre-British Empire times. The same goes for Scandinavia. You’re going to write a story in Scandinavia, set in a time before non-Caucasians made their ways northwards. Having a “Token” standing around because if you don’t have one people will cry foul doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. It’s great if the “Token” actually serves a purpose to the narrative. If the Token is there as a result of your main character having been the child of a well traveled explorer and such. That makes sense. Or the Token is there because THEY are the explorer and they have just discovered what to them is a “new land”. Again, THAT MAKES SENSE.
But many social justice warriors don’t see in that way. Not only must your Token be there, from the moment your Token appears in the story, they are the focus of all. Because they are the only character they care about. Once the focus of the story is taken away from the actual plot and characters relevant to it, they often and do demand that now you make your story nothing but representation. They do not care that the time period and the setting is, in fact, an all Caucasian affair. Just like the story set deep in the Congo, they do not care that it is an all African affair. You’d better have at least one of every other race, creed, and so forth present in that story as well otherwise it isn’t worth reading.
Overall, I am all for diversity of characters in a story, but only when such diversity makes sense in the narrative you are trying to sell to the reader. Having diversity for diversity’s sake, to me, is tokenism and it makes the writing cheap and tawdry.
Lastly, let’s go over proper research. And yes, the word proper is necessary in this case. As stated earlier in this post, when a writer wishes to write about things they do not know, they do their research. They learn about the Welsh and the Iranians, about the Scandinavians and the tribes of the Congo. They learn all that they can before, and during their writing. They utilize the resources of information available (library, internet, newspapers, living persons, etc.) until they feel they know enough to begin writing about their subject.
However, in the view of the social justice warriors, even learning about other cultures and people is now considered wrong. Doing so is considered “cultural appropriation”, and various forms if self identifier erasure. This sounds absolutely ridiculous, but that’s how they truly see it. And rather than actually READ writers who have gone about the proper way of writing, i.e. doing proper research into their subjects, they argue about the fact that James Patterson’s new book is racist because it doesn’t have black people, or that J.K. Rowling’s entire Harry Potter series needs to be re-written from a lesbian and black Hermione’s point of view. Instead of turning to the writers who have actually written the things they want, and have done the research to ensure accuracy, they find yet another mainstream author who really doesn’t give a crap what they think and continues to write what they wish to write.
Lastly…. that’s what it all boils down to. Writers of the world, write the things YOU want to write.
Write YOUR stories the way YOU want to. Learn the differences between constructive criticism (which can be both positive AND negative) and downright Ism-think. (Ism-think is basically the single-minded view of a movement or idea without considering the different factors involved, and offers little to nothing in the form of constructive argument.)
Do not let others pressure you into writing stories you don’t want to write for any reason. Don’t be bullied into changing your characters that you have spent hours or years developing just for the sake of “diversity” and “representation”.
That said, if you want to take on the challenge of cramming as much diversity and representation as you possibly can into a single short story or novel series – then do it! Don’t let anyone stop you from that either!
And while my personal beliefs and views do not condone hate speech and those ideals, I will defend a writer’s right to write about it until my last breath and last act. Because NO ONE has the right to dictate to a writer, or any person, what they can and cannot say or create, so long as it does not actually physically cause harm.
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.
THEN WRITE WHAT YOU WANT.
Please note that I used the term PoC earlier in this post. This is a term I personally dislike however, it is the “accepted” vernacular in the “social justice warrior” world. My personal distaste for the word stems from the segregation it represents, as it comes from the “Us vs Them” mentality of non-Caucasian versus Caucasians, and generalizes all non-Caucasians as “coloreds”, which in itself is a distasteful, tacky, and bigoted term all on it’s own. For me, personally, I don’t use self-segregating terms and prefer to just simply call people human beings or people in general because to do so, I feel, actually promotes equality.