I've gotten into this conversation a few times on other blogs, but I don't think I have here, and I think it would be good to take a few moments to do that. The topic comes up routinely: should a writer be allowed to portray folks from people of other cultures/races, or should they just write what they know?
I'm here to say, first of all, that, as a lover of freedom, I'm not in favor of any shouldn't placed on writers. So the simplest answer is, yes, writers should be allowed to portray whomever they wish.
But I'm here to say, second of all, that the question not only presents a false dichotomy, but also misses an opportunity to engage writers in serious conversation about social ethics.
The false dichotomy is this: there are more than two choices here. No fiction writer that I know only ever writes only things he or she knows directly from personal experience. Most of us call on a mixture of things we know, things we think we know, and things we imagine. There would be much less enjoyment for both readers and writers if we limited ourselves more strictly than that. At the simplest, most stories include more than all female characters or all male characters. So please don't cut off conversation by posing a question that does not exist.
And I do think there is an important conversation to be had here. I'm not advocating censorship or even self-censorship, but I do believe in social ethics. Anything ethical is an individual decision, so I'm not advocating a particular position here, but I am suggesting that if you're a writer, you owe it to yourself as part of your development to think about questions like these.
The idea of social ethics are, in large part, baggage I have brought with me from anthropology. It's complex issue that defies full discussion in a single blog entry, but two main ideas that related to writing are this: (1) all communication takes place in two social contexts (in this case, that of the writer and that of the reader), each of which adds a layer of meaning onto all words and expressions; (2) any expression made in public space has an impact on unanticipated individuals.
In other words, it's all well and good for me to write whatever I want, but once I put it out there, other people are going to read it. What are my obligations to those readers? In the strictest sense, I have none.
But, as an anthropologist, I do believe that none of us are truly isolated, and that we exist in a complex web of society and culture, and I personally feel convicted to respect those relationships, no matter how intangible they may seem at times.
So what's an example of how social ethics impact my writing?
One of the biggest tenets of my own code of ethics as a writer is taken straight from my code of ethics as anthropologist. It's okay for me to talk about, analyze, and portray folks from any culture to the best of my understanding. It's not okay for me to assume a position in which I presume to speak for that culture.
In anthropology, we have two buzz words that describe how an individual perceives and describes a culture: etic, which is the descriptive outside view; and emic, which is the intimately understood inside view. It is an anthropologists's goal to move from the etic towards the emic, trying to get more and more of an intimate knowledge of the culture through what we call participant observation (learning it by living it). But when an anthropologist crosses the line and forgets that he is not actually of the other culture, he said to have "gone native." The phrase is distasteful and I'm not fond of it, but the idea is that the anthropologist has lost his credibility and runs the risk of very likely offending both the culture he left and the culture he thinks he has joined.
It's a risk writers run when they write from another culture's stand-point and assume an advocacy position. My point here isn't to criticize those authors, nor to speak out against such writing, per se. My point is that, if an authors is going to do that, I hope the other is doing so thoughtfully, aware of the social implications.
And, then, if the author decides to do it, I would hope that they don't act surprised if they get flack for it.
Again, my intention here is not to stipulate any specific ethics for my fellow writers, but instead to encourage thoughtfulness about these things. If we want to just write whatever, that's fine. But once we put it out in public, I do believe that it behooves us and others if we put it out there thoughtfully.
So what do you the rest of you readers and writers think?