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Political Correctness and Characters

It is getting harder to be a brave author. In the past, excepting times of war, bravery was almost always expressed as emotional exposure - to allow the characters freedom to behave in ways that are embarrassing but none the less true to the human experience. Who is ghostly watching over the author's shoulder? Invisible censors have always had the power to take away the freedom of characters to behave in truly memorable, if uncomfortable, ways.

Today in America another layer of self censorship has been spread over the field of literature. Political correctness has replaced emotional exposure as the bugaboo of creativity. Layer after layer has been laid down over the years, perhaps decades, and for the most part has gone unchallenged.

The first victims that caught my attention were the jokes, ethnic jokes. I particularly remember when Polish jokes were banished from polite conversation. Not a bad thing, that.

Next on the chopping block was language that described entire classes of individuals, people who were in some manner impaired either physically or mentally. Again, it was a good move.

I don't remember which came next, derogatory ethnic or religious references. A great improvement, actually. It came so fast after that, it seemed as if each month brought a new protected category. What had been common sensibility rapidly became a hammer of conformity. What if some fragment of speech were to slip out of one's mouth in an unguarded moment in a meeting with people who might be offended? What then?

People are losing their jobs and promotions today if they cross the line from allowed speech to that which is forbidden, even if it is in the privacy of their homes.

We daily rub elbows with a range of humanity that was unthinkable a generation ago and change is as necessary as it is inevitable. The problem is literature.

What if a character in a story speaks a forbidden phrase that, at the time of the story setting had not yet been declared insensitive, and offends readers in the present time? What are we writing today that will be viewed as inappropriate tomorrow? Ah. The tangled web we have created.

Characters in stories can be a dirty and diverse lot, un-schooled in today's politically correct speech. They live their lives today and yesterday, and sometimes tomorrow. Who knows what they will say next - often the author doesn't know until they speak. Will they shout the words of the 1930's into the street, or tell jokes from the 50's? Curse in the coarse way of the criminal class during the Great Depression, pepper their words with ethnic colors common before the second World War?

Who will write these stories, who will be brave enough or foolish enough to toss political correctness into the wind and allow the characters to pull the curtain open? Will the authors of tomorrow remember how to do that, and will anyone be allowed to read those stories?

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