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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Offensive, or not Offensive? That is the Question

Lately I've been thinking alot about the use of offensive words in my fiction. It all came up because I got back the copy edited manuscript of SHE'S SO DEAD TO US and the copy editor flagged my use of the word "moron" because Webster's cites it as potentially offensive. I use this word ALL THE TIME in my writing, and had no idea why it might be offensive. I mean, other than the fact that it's an insult. But if I can't have my characters insult one another, then honestly? They're not going to be very realistic.

So I looked it up, and here's what I found on dictionary.com:

mo⋅ron

[mawr-on, mohr-] Show IPA
–noun
1.a person who is notably stupid or lacking in good judgment.
2.Psychology. a person of borderline intelligence in a former classification of mental retardation, having an intelligence quotient of 50 to 69.

I never knew that "moron" had an actual meaning in psychology. And when I posted a poll on twitter, only one person of the twenty that replied said they found the word offensive. But still, I didn't want to take the chance, so I went back and changed the references in the manuscript, just in case. But as I was doing it, I felt ishy about it. The whole thing brought up a bigger question:
Is it more important to me to have my characters speak in a realistic manner, using words I hear used on the street every day, or is it more important to me that I not offend a single reader?
It's an age old question. And I don't really know what the answer is. I do know that it's impossible to write a work of fiction that won't offend a single person, because everyone has a different idea of what's offensive.
I once got an angry letter from a mother about I WAS A NON-BLONDE CHEERLEADER because there was teenage drinking in the book. Annisa, my main character, attended a party where there was drinking, but she, herself, didn't drink and didn't need to drink to have fun. I thought I was showing that people don't NEED to give in to peer pressure to have a good time. That you can get through high school without drinking (like I did) and survive and have friends and participate. I thought I showed Annisa making a mature decision that was right for her--that I showed her dealing with the situation in a way that I'd want my own child to deal with it. I thought my message was a good one. But the very fact that I included a party with alcohol in the story really angered this mom.
So would I go back and change the plot of IWANBC because this person found that offensive? Never. Because I still think the scene showed something positive. The reality is, there is drinking at high school parties. But the reality also is, you don't HAVE to drink.
In the end, I decided that changing the word "moron" wouldn't change the tone, plot, or message of my book, so I just changed it. But I'm sure this is an issue that will come up again and again in my writing. I'm just going to have to deal with each instance as it comes.

11 Comments:

Blogger Trish Doller said...

I didn't know moron had an actual psychological definition, either, and I suspect the fear is the same as calling someone a "retard". Only retard and retardation are still in active use, while moron fell out of common usage a long time ago. I don't think it's the same, nor do I believe moron is as offensive as it once might have been.

I guess I agree that if the word can be changed without compromising the integrity of your story, then why not. I use "moron" in my manuscript, but considering that mine is a novel for older teens and is also riddled with profanity, moron is the least of my red flag worries.

November 25, 2009 at 12:51 PM  
Blogger Ashley said...

I don't particularly find "moron" that offensive, and I find myself saying "that's retarded" a lot. But the reason why I catch myself saying them is because I know that they are offensive to a lot of people. In the past, even 50 years ago or less, people with disabilities were treated horribly, and before that there was a big campaign to keep them away from everyone else in institutions (or asylums as they were originally called), and there was all kinds of terrible language used, including "moron" and "retard" that were very derogatory. So as much as they seem to be common terms now that probably don't effect a lot of people (including myself, really) they have some pretty dark origins and I think that's why it's important to be aware of our usage of certain words.

November 25, 2009 at 1:37 PM  
Blogger Malbebe said...

I agree with everyone else. I don't find the word moron to be offensive. Although words can be abused and used the wrong way. I also didn't know that there was a psychological definition of the word moron.

Another thing I agree on is your message to readers that it is ok to go to a party or through high school without having to drink. I think authors should put real life situations in books and give a positive message out there to readers. I wouldn't like it if an author made drinking look good or any other bad thing.

I hate having to keep my mouth shut with my feelings against drinking, pot and other bad things teens do. Only one time I voiced my opinion about how I wish teens didn't drink and stuff and got chewed out by this girl who happens to make mistakes like this. Soon all the people who do bad stuff liked formed a hate of me. It was awful but now we all get along. I just really hate seeing people I know make mistakes that they will regret later on in life, and I guess I felt obligated to try and get people to stop. My parents tell me that those who don't drink and stuff are going to be more respected. Even though your characters do drink and stuff I have no problem with them drinking because this does go on in real life.

And also excuse my little rambling. :)

November 25, 2009 at 3:52 PM  
Blogger MattieElizabeth said...

I personally do not know of anyone who finds the word "moron" offensive. But in my opinion, you have to pick your battles. There is always another side to the story and chances are, you are going to offend someone no matter what you write. It's just the way things are.

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