How does the emphasis on tolerance affect our stories?
As I see it, the push for tolerance has spawned an overly sensitive culture that now finds offense in . . . pretty much everything. And it’s affecting the publishing industry. I recently learned that publishers have begun to hire “sensitivity readers” to check out potential manuscripts to see if there’s any “offensive” content.
Of course, that begs the question: offensive to whom?
What one person assumes or ignores or believes in, another person finds offensive.
The latest Veronica Roth novel, Carve The Mark, is an example of a book receiving negative reviews because of its perceived offense. One such review is entitled “Why You Shouldn’t Read CARVE THE MARK.” In short,
Carve the Mark has been called out for being racist and problematic by various readers who are much more informed than I am and feel directly affected, offended or hurt by what is written in Carve the Mark. While I’m white and I’m obviously not in the position to declare what’s racist and what isn’t, I’m a strong believer in calling out problematic representation and racism and I believe that we should all be reading more diverse books.
As it happens, none of the made up races were directly identified with any actual races, but early readers deduced that the group of people with evil intent was similar to people in North Africa. In contrast, the heroic group is “coded” as white.
One early reader listed these coded racist elements in Carve The Mark:
· The Shotet language is described as harsh, with sudden stops and closed vowels, unlike the beautiful, open vowel sounds of the Thuve
· The Shotet carve marks into their arms when they kill someone, meaning that both men and women have many scars, and this practice is seen as barbaric by the loving and peaceful Thuve
· The female main character, Cyra, describes her mother’s kinky hair as curly enough to trap fingers, while her curls are looser and allow fingers to flow through. The Thuve have straight hair.
· The Shotet have no home planet, rather they travel around the universe in pursuit of the current, a unifying life force that allows people to have gifts (all of which seem to manifest in violent ways in the Shotet, and it is even stated by a doctor that the reason Cyra’s gift causes her pain is because of her people’s tendency to violence)
· The Shotet ruling family is one that embraces violence, so much so that the matriarch is famous for having killed her brothers and sisters, contrasted against the scene of Thuve familial love that opens the story. This is further reinforced by the cruel treatment Cyra receives from her brother
· The Shotet kidnap Akos and his brother, who are Thuve, and force them into a life of what can most easily be described as brutal slavery.
If racism isn’t a great enough charge, Carve The Mark has also been criticized because one of the characters has received “the gift of chronic pain.” That apparently is an example of an already rich and famous author exploiting those with a disability.
Then there’s the issue of cutting which some thought was being thrown into a dangerous light because the race of violent people “marked” themselves as “a means to record a number of kills” (Review). While criticizing this use of cutting as antithetical to the African society which the fictitious people supposedly mirror, the same review then criticizes the cutting aspect as selling “something many will construe as self-harm as glorious and noble.” (Ibid).
In other words, the same reviewer found fault in the fictitious practice because it put a certain African culture that also used cutting in a bad light while simultaneously selling cutting as something glorious and noble.
Understand, I have not read Carve The Mark, so I might find the book problematic too. But I have to wonder if perhaps our society hasn’t become too caught up in what we find offensive. The odd thing is the “we” comes with limitations. What we’re offended about has to fall into the acceptable categories. For example, I’m mildly offended for my Hispanic neighbors because Hispanics are woefully underrepresented in the media. Nobody else seems to even notice.
But more underrepresented are evangelical Christians. There have been and are some TV programs that feature openly Catholic characters (e.g., Father Dowling Mysteries from some time ago and Blue Bloods more recently.) But characters that hold an evangelical perspective, who pray, read their Bible, go to church, believe in Christ as their Savior . . . these characters have been set aside. Once a surprising number of shows had at least the external trappings of the life of a Christian, but no more.
All that to say, Christianity may have become too controversial for the media in general and publishing in particular. Would sensitivity readers ever allow a Christian worldview to permeate a story without flagging it as offensive?
Which brings up the issue: what are Christians to write? What are Christians to read? If general fiction is to be whitewashed of anything that could possibly be considered offensive, what kind of stories will that leave us?
Who will be the victims and who the heroes of our stories going forward. Will white men be cast in the role of villain from now on? (See Avatar.) Or will we be so worried about offending someone that we simply do away with conflict all together and write only about coming of age and learning to look within ourselves to become better people?
Or are science fiction and fantasy able to transcend the problem and continue to tell good stories—as long as we do our homework and make our worlds so other that no one can assume we are coding people groups to fit races on earth. (Or that we aren’t encouraging cutting, or denigrating people groups who once cut, or exploiting people with disabilities or . . .)