Friday, April 1, 2016

Political Correctness: How Do You Handle It in Your Writing?

     “Bend to the reed’s tune – sing a new song.”

The Siritoch were made to endure and the Epanishai to strive. 
When two such peoples are driven together, 
which one has the most to lose? 

     I've now been through Children of the Music twice, correcting the scanning errors and making a list of all the names so I can consider whether I should change any of them.  For those of you who might have forgotten, Children of the Music is the 30-year-old story that I'm working over for publication. I'm considering putting the passages quoted above on the back cover.  The first line will be the epigraph of the book.   

     I'm liking this book better and better, but I need an opinion on one aspect of it (well, really on two aspects).  The gentle, pastoral Siritoch, who have no word in their tongue for murder, have dwelled alone in the Land between the Mountains and the Sea for longer than memory, and now they are being invaded by a different people -- a fierce tribe of horsemen and cattle-drovers who are themselves fleeing an even more barbaric foe and who don't take kindly to finding that the land they have been seeking is occupied by sheepherders.  And they have no aversion to murder and pillaging.

     Both sides see their adversary as demonic beings.  And so I have a chapter in which the wise women of each tribe reject this, saying, "For they are men."  Now, when I was growing up, way back in the dark ages of the 1940s and 1950s, before gender equality became such a big deal, I was taught that terms like "men" or "mankind" or "he" could legitimately be used as collective nouns or pronouns subsuming both sexes.  That made perfectly good sense to me.  It's just a convention, after all -- one I still had no trouble with when I wrote this story in the late 1970s.

      Let me give you some examples in the story -- first the Epanishai:
“Rashemia, I didn’t intend for this morning to go as it did.”
“Nor I.”
“Even you – even you failed.”
“Do you think I am not human? After all these years you could think that?”
Her bitter candor vaguely surprised him.  “Did you really believe the holy wood would mean something to them?”
“I hoped.  They are men, Daborno.”
“But they frightened you.  Dare I say that? You were human enough to be frightened – even you.  Perhaps they are not men.”
“They are men!”  Rashemia struck her fist into her palm, hunching her shoulders.  “And, yes – 1 was afraid! Their music is inexplicable! It comes up as if – from deep water – or out of the wind.  It says things in some language older – older than the trees.  By Aftran, I yearn – I yearn to understand it!”

And now from the Siritoch's perspective:
“There is no being prepared – can’t you see that?”  Himrith had gathered herself up, clenching her hands in the wool.  “Oh, Narlach ... Parnom ... fleeing can’t save Thran! The only course is to wait and hold to the things we know – and – and – perhaps when they come back, we – and they – will understand!  For they are men, my son – I could see human trouble in their eyes.  If they are men, they are not evil!  No more evil than those winds and clouds and the grass that flourishes and fades.  For there is a third choice – I have only just seen it!  We have a third choice: to stay and not to die! And if we put enough faith in the Music, we need not fear these men, for all their giant horses and their knives and their loud voices.” 

Now I could substitute "humans" or "people" for "men."  Try reading it with those substitutes.  I just think the impact is lost.  "Humans" and "people" are both weak words with a feminine rhythm. (Are we going to have to get rid of the terms "feminine and masculine rhymes"?  Just wondering.)  "For they are humans."  "For they are people."  Just lacks the punch of "For they are men!"

So what's your opinion?
Are you so offended by this use of the word "men" 
that the story will be ruined for you is I leave it as is?
Would you enjoy it more if I used "people" or "humans"?
Tell me!

 And one other thing along the same line.  The Siritoch refer to the Epanishai as "aliens."  I don't know why I used that term instead of "strangers" or "outlanders" or some such.  I wasn't into science fiction in those days, so I wasn't thinking of the connotation of somebody from another planet.  This one I really may change because I've come not to like the term "aliens" -- it's come to connote humans ("men") from a country not your own, and I prefer to reserve it for extraterrestrials or else to eliminate it entirely.  I wrote about that once before here: You Say Alien and I Say Extraterrestrial.

     (Sorry -- still no artwork for this story!  I'm working on the cover, but it's a long way from being finished.)


  1. The words are being spoken by Wise Women Lorinda - as such, they would naturally refer to the others as Men.
    In my experience, there will always be someone who feels offended for the smallest, most unimportant reason, compared to the grand scheme of life, but I take the view that that's THEIR problem, not mine!

    1. I knew I could count on you to comment, Chris! I like your attitude! I'll probably keep the wording as is, but I would still like a few more opinions, just for the sake of being curious about how other people feel on this subject.

  2. Apologies, I said I would come over here a couple of days ago to comment on this and have only just made it now - in fairness to me though, my internet isn't working at home since a big storm we had Sunday night, so my internet usage is limited to breaks at work, or my phone which doesn't have good internet signal (I'm not sure you needed to know all that!)

    My comments are similar really to the comment made here by Chris, and the person who commented about it on facebook - firstly, if it is the spoken word or a character, then political correctness is almost irrelevant, it's how that character speaks, which may or may not be how the author speaks, but that doesn't matter. However, to me, reading "men" in that passage, like your facebook commenter, makes me think of the gendered male, completely, even having read the explanation from you beforehand where I knew that it was being used to mean humans. That's partly I think because you have used the word "human" as well within the passage, so then saying "men" seems to be differentiating it from humans as a whole. I'm not sure what the answer is, I agree with you that substituting "people" in those instances doesn't have the same impact. I do find "humans" to have impact, but then you're using that word too much in both paragraphs if you change the men to humans as you already use the human word a few times. you almost need a new word, like "mortals" (but not actually mortals because that's not quite right!), or another way of saying it "they are like us" (but again, not actually that!). So for me, it's not an issue of political correctness, it's an issue of clarity.

    1. Thanks for coming over and commenting, Vanessa! I think you've hit it pretty close. I think in the day when I wrote it, people would have known I meant "human," but in this day and age, everybody has become so sensitive to gender words that it's less successful. I may change it to "human," but you're right that I'll have to be careful not to overuse the word. And of course mortals won't work because there is no question here that neither people is immortal.