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Pushing Past Political Correctness: Writing Solutions for the Socially Conscious

July 14, 2014 Writing 5 Comments


By Becky Tuch

In fiction, as in life, people make choices. Sometimes a fictional character’s choices appear self-evident. It’s a given that Jane will want to leave a bad situation or that Sally will struggle to improve her lot. Such actions hardly need defending as it is obvious why someone (Sally or Jane) would yearn to do these things.

Often, though, a character makes choices that are not quite morally neat. Breaking Bad’s Walter White is an obvious example, a man who chooses again and again to pursue power and financial gain at risk to those around him. In an early episode of Girls, Hannah Horvath steals twenty dollars from a hotel housekeeper, a move that is at once hilarious and fairly uncool—Really? Stealing from someone who makes little more than minimum wage?

While watching these morally dubious choices play out can be great fun for the viewer, creating them as writers is a whole other story. In my own novel-in-progress, in which a teenage girl makes one terrible decision after another, the fear of alienating readers has stopped me cold. Among the more general writerly anxieties about the quality of my prose, the snappiness of my dialogue, etc., I worry frequently about offending those readers whose values and views tend to overlap with my own. Will I alienate feminists? Am I betraying certain kinds of leftists? Does my storyline give voice to a worldview that I, in my daily life, do not uphold?

It is an interesting conundrum to be worried about alienating the very people with whom one sympathizes. “Censorship,” writes Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in a 2013 review of The Butler, “– even, or especially, self-censorship — is to art as lynching is to justice. It aborts creative genius; it aborts the quest to find a language, …to tell the truth about one aspect of the human experience, in its fullest complexity.”

I could not agree with this statement more, and am particularly grateful for Gates’ inclusion of “self-censorship” here, as this is a place where so many of us get into trouble. We question our motives before the pen is even set to the page. We wonder how the chorus of readers will receive our views before they are even fully articulated. We envision our own ostracization and thus in turn ostracize ourselves, most painfully, from the universe of our writing.

I know I’m not alone in this. In a novel workshop I taught recently, a student looked utterly bereft after a writing prompt I assigned. When I questioned her about her work, she sighed, put down her pencil and said, “I worry about the end of my book. My character makes a decision that is not PC. I don’t want to offend my readers.”

It would be easy to offer a knee-jerk response here, to proclaim, “Fiction is no place for political correctness!” or “You mustn’t worry about the feelings of others when you write!” or “You must say what needs to be said, no matter what!”

While true, these oft-repeated declarations are hardly a comfort to a writer legitimately concerned with socio-political issues and the problem of how to do justice to these issues on the page. For such a writer, the proscription to not worry about being “PC” in her fiction is too pat, too reductive of the problem’s real complexity. It’s advice I myself have heard on numerous occasions and I can tell you, it doesn’t help.

In another instance, I recently spent time with an anthropologist friend. He just returned from Brazil, where he was working with the MST, Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra in Portuguese). The MST is a powerful and effective movement through which hundreds of families have gained access to land and which continues to fight for schools, health care, access to credit and other needs.

Still, like all social movements or any place where human beings are gathered, conflicts do exist. There are rare small-scale thefts, incidental displays of sexism, occasionally less-than-honorable leaders. My friend, who is a great supporter of the MST, struggled with the question of whether he should he even mention these small and infrequent infractions in his dissertation. Would it undermine the movement to mention such behavior? Would citing certain conflicts provide ammo for those all too quick to say I told you so, throwing up their hands in regards to social change?

Telling my friend to simply not worry about it would be ludicrous. For the politically conscious writer, issues of how various social groups are represented, how individual choices are depicted, what motivates human behavior and where lines of morality are drawn matter very much.

How, then, do we overcome the hurdle of self-censorship? How do we avoid pat advice like “Don’t worry about it!” and “You can’t be PC in your writing!” and actually offer concrete solutions to writers struggling with these problems?

One method I have found is to let one’s own psychic drama play itself out on the page. Let’s say, for example, your story is about a woman who is being abused by her husband. She is tormented and wants to leave. Given who she is and her set of circumstances, however, you the writer know that she, in fact, would never leave. You must be true to your character. Yet perhaps you are anxious about how the story might be received, what people might think you are saying about women’s empowerment, domestic violence and so on.

One solution might be to create a character who plays the role of the social critic in your story. In The Coldest Winter Ever, Sister Souljah’s bestselling novel of a young woman struggling to survive after losing everything, Souljah quite brilliantly writes in a foil to the protagonist, a woman by the name Sister Souljah. Where heroine Winter Santiaga is vain, deceptive, and obsessed with her own personal gain, the character of Sister Souljah steps in to offer a counterview, to try to lead the heroine onto a path of self-empowerment. Winter doesn’t see the light and rejects Sister Souljah’s wisdom, ultimately following her own path toward its implosive end. By introducing this foil to Winter, the author has stayed true to her protagonist, while not appearing to necessarily condone that character’s behavior.

If the problem you are experiencing is one of your character making a decision that you worry is not aligned with certain political causes, then you may want to show the social conditions that make such a choice inevitable for your character. In the case of the woman who doesn’t leave her abusive husband, why doesn’t she feel she’s able to leave? Sure, there might be some flaw in her character. But undoubtedly there are environmental circumstances that shape her decision. Have you explored this in your own story? Have you fully looked at the society in which your character operates?

One of the best examples of this is Richard Wright’s Native Son. Here, young protagonist Bigger Thomas commits two murders, both excruciatingly brutal. While Bigger is clearly making bad choices, Wright demonstrates how Bigger is both influenced and constrained by his social world. Bigger is a perpetrator but he is also a victim. In his 1952 essay L’Experience Vecue du Noir, or “The Fact of Blackness” Frantz Fanon observed, “Bigger Thomas acts. To put an end to his tension, he acts, he responds to the world’s anticipation.” In other words, Bigger’s behavior may be read as the inevitable outcome of the social world that created him.

Finally, it is worthwhile considering the ways in which your work seeks to address the complexities of a particular worldview and, in doing so, hopefully strengthen it. If feminist writers only wrote about women who heroically leave their abusive husbands or Marxist writers only wrote about workers who joined forces and overcame the ruling classes, or if any group wrote about its members as being unfailingly loyal, honest, industrious, virtuous and empowered, not only would it make for terrible reading but it would also be a betrayal of the lived experience of the people within that group. In the case of the fictional woman who does not leave her abusive husband, telling her story could be hugely important. Far from being a betrayal of the feminist cause, relating what she experiences and why she experiences it is a necessary aspect of grappling with the reality of women’s lives.

When I asked my anthropologist friend how he hoped to reconcile his dilemma in writing his dissertation, he responded thusly: “An ideology that doesn’t work with the complexity of people’s lives betrays both the people and itself.” His responsibility, he said, was to represent the truth of people’s lives within the social movement. No causes could ever benefit from rose-colored renderings.

Showing characters whose choices do not align with a perceived notion of social or political correctness is, in other words, a good thing to do. If a particular worldview cannot account for and encompass the full range of behaviors of the people within its group, then is it really such a strong worldview to begin with?

It just may be that your story, which asks questions, poses challenges, and seeks out moral and political gray zones will, if handled with care, ultimately strengthen the cause with which you are most aligned. Your character’s inability to do what’s right in some respects may reveal, in other respects, what is truly necessary.


Photo credit: arimoore / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)



Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

  1. Jo says:

    Much to ponder here. Thanks, Becky!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this thought-provoking post, especially as a reminder of our brief but powerful conversation about this in our Grub Street class. Thanks, Becky! I’ll be bookmarking this and trying to remember it as I move forward.

  3. Mary Jo Hetzel says:

    I really appreciated Becky Tuch’s recent powerful and nuanced post on pushing past political correctness toward the actual lived experience of characters in our fiction and in our own life journeys.

    I can’t remember when I first heard the term “politically correct”, but I do remember wincing at it and feeling a quick rush of anger at the person who used it, someone who always tended toward sarcasm whenever the topic of social justice arose. I remember asking myself how in god’s name had the various outcomes of the centuries-old struggle for racial, sexual and class justice become reduced to “political correctness”? Since at that time it was most often used by those who had never spent a moment of their lives fighting for any form of social justice and were in fact uncomfortably offensively-defensive even discussing the topic, I quickly grew quite wary of the term and suspicious of the unconscious and conscious motives of those using the term so freely and disparagingly, as in:
    “I am so sick of all this P.C. bullshit, I could spit.” or “You’re not going to go all P.C on me now, are you?” to “I guess it’s not P.C. of me, but aren’t we pretty much over this racism thing, I mean look who’s president…”

    For me the term is superficial in the extreme and vacant of any meaning because, of course, no one on this earth is, has been or ever will be, “politically correct” if it means understanding, honoring, and supporting with genuine empathy and action the full rights of all oppressed groups everywhere. Not even Martin Luther King could be said to be politically correct given that despite his great humanity and powerful contribution to ending racism, he was sexist and homophobic, ageist, and uncomfortable among the very poor, particularly the powerful black women of the welfare rights movement. (See Michael Dyson’s book on M.L. King, Barbara Ransby’s on Ella Baker, who worked with King, and the classic, When and where I Enter by Paula Giddings on black women in the struggle for freedom)

    We could say the same of all leaders and participants in the struggles for social justice. We all have gaping blind spots, lack of experience, familiarity and understanding in certain key areas, inabilities, weaknesses, and flaws in judgment. We embody and enact most of the same forms of injustice we’re fighting against: the arrogance of power and elitism, competitiveness and egoism, racism, sexism, classism, and cultural dominance in all its forms. The struggle for social justice is the messy, dirty, contradictory, scary, ugly, amazingly fantastic reality that is hidden beneath the farcical term, “politically correct”. It is made up of fallibly vulnerable, incredibly courageous, deeply insightful, dreadfully blind people — no one of whom will ever be politically correct.

    Of course what is politically correct in one decade is not so in the next. Not too long ago it was fine to drive a stake through a black man and roast him slowly over a fire or castrate and lynch him for nothing while virtually the entire white community from the mayor down to the sharecropper brought the beer and hot dogs and had themselves quite a party. Now that’s not politically correct, but the killing of black teens is, whether by a fellow white citizen who goes scot free or the police whose job it is to protect them. What is the white community doing about it? Nothing. Politically correct or not, women of all backgrounds are still terrorized, raped, brutalized, and killed by their male “loved ones” every day. What are men doing about it? Nothing. Not their problem; not their fight.

    Some could argue that killing black teens and brutalizing women isn’t really P.C. anymore due to the previous decades of struggles to end these injustices, but is it P.C. to actually join these struggles to end these forms of barbarism? Not really. It’s one thing to know the proper P.C. etiquette with regard to the latest outrage against humanity, it’s an entirely different thing to take one’s scared, flawed, vulnerable, half-blind, contradictory self and join other equally scared, flawed, contradictory selves to actually try to make a difference, no doubt breaking all the P.C. rules along the way, even as we pray for the wisdom and courage to do the right thing, and hope and pray it comes to some good, probably some good we’ll never see.

    So in the fiction we write, we best not worry about our characters being P.C. enough because you can bet on the fact that they won’t be, because no one is, in fact P.C.-ness does not exist; it is an illusion used to disparage those who are struggling to become their best selves in the tough, terrible situations in which they/we find ourselves. If we fail 10, 20, 100 times before we make it halfway there, we have to write that. It may not be P.C., but it’s our life struggle and the life struggle of our characters, and we can share that with each other.

    There’s more dignity in imperfectly being the best we can, than in pretending to be something we’re not, perfectly P.C.

    • Becky Tuch Becky says:

      Thanks, all for the comments, and thank you especially Mary Jo for this profound response. You make so many great points. I would now actually like to go back and trace the origins of the term “political correctness” and look at the context that brought out such a term. You’re right to point out that the phrase has so many implications and is so ideologically loaded as to become actually vacant of meaning, other than to simply disparage people working for meaningful change. Very interesting, and I so appreciate you sharing these thoughts here.

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Becky Tuch

Becky Tuch
Becky Tuch is the founding editor The Review Review, a website dedicated to helping writers navigate the world of literary magazines. The Review Review has been listed by Writer's Digest Magazine as one of 101 Best Websites for Writers. Becky has received literature fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and the Somerville Arts Council, and her fiction has won awards from Moment Magazine, Glimmer Train, Briar Cliff Review, and has been short-listed for a Pushcart Prize. Other fiction has appeared in Hobart, Graze, Folio, Quarter After Eight, and elsewhere. She has blogged for Virginia Quarterly Review, Grub Daily, and is one of the founding members of Beyond the Margins. She teaches at Grub Street in Boston. Learn more at Read Full