The best defense is to avoid offense

Some people will be offended by what you write. Make your peace with this idea as soon as you can.

As with so many other aspects of life, there are people who are just itching to tell you that you did it wrong, that it makes you a bad person and you should feel ashamed.

If they attack you for your ideas, I can’t help you. If they attack you for your choice of words, there are ways to improve your odds.

As writers we are trying to communicate with the outside world. That means we have to use words that draw people in, not push them away. The trick is to figure out which words will have which effect. You aren’t going to be standing at the side of every reader to explain to them why your choice of words is justified. You won’t be able to explain your good intentions. If readers are offended, you’ve lost them.

So let’s start with the easy ones. You probably have enough good sense to avoid racial slurs. By extension, you probably recognize that it’s not good style to disparage ethnicities. There are all kinds of additional “ist” words, including sexist, classist and ageist. Basically, if you use a word that puts an entire group of people in an unflattering light, expect someone to complain.

Then there’s a class of words that some people believe you can use only if you are That Word. I’ve known people with mental health issues who had no trouble calling themselves crazy, but didn’t like other people using the word.

On top of that, words with a high approval rating in one era can become offensive over time. For evidence of that, you don’t have to look any further than the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. If it had been founded in later years, it might have been the National Association for the Advancement of Black People or the National Association for the Advancement of African Americans. If it were being founded today, the organization might have a broader mission and be called the National Association for the Advancement of People of Color. Which, to me, seems head-scratchingly close to the original.

As you dig deeper, you may hit a layer of words that you think are perfectly fine, but which offend other people. You may sit there wondering why. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some sort of guide? Fortunately, one just popped up. Hanna Thomas and Anna Hirsch have gathered some thoughts on the subject in A Progressive’s Style Guide. It gives examples of words to use or avoid, along with explanations of why.

That doesn’t mean you have to agree with Thomas and Hirsch. I sometimes don’t. As a person with gray hair and saggy parts, I agree with them that “geezer” is a term to avoid. They think “senior” is just fine, while I  don’t care for it. And for some reason, they say “elderly person” is OK but “the elderly” isn’t. I guess I don’t like any of the words that draw attention to advancing age. Maybe I’m just getting cranky in my dotage.

Even so, the guide is worth browsing. We get so used to using some words and phrases that we never stop to think how they might look on the receiving end. This guide is like having someone to stand next to you and discretely cough when you start to utter things better left unsaid.

If you take a look and decide the whole thing is ridiculous, at least you will be staking out your own boundaries on whom you are willing to offend and why, instead of writing from a position of ignorance.




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