Monday, January 17, 2011

An Anthropologist-Writer's View on Writers and Social Ethics


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?



  1. Fiction and non fiction are two different things. In a non fic piece, we need to be correct. Fiction is made up... if we all started writing not to offend, upset, anyone ever, we'd end up not writing much. Life would be rather boring. So - when is it OK to write about another culture, and when is it not? When we are all the same colour maybe? Or when we speak largely the same lingo? See what I mean? Where is the line, and who says its there?
    I agree... if a writer does do so, they tend to get shot down if they have no personal experience of the culture in question, irrespective of the veracity of their work. Happened to a Booker winner, didnt it?

  2. I am worrying about this very thing as I plan my next work. I am writing an alternate history: Sort of an "if side A won instead of side B, and all the bad things that might have happened (with LOTS of fantastic imagination, of course)if that had been the case. Since I live in a place where the culture is split (plenty of Side A folks and Side B folks alike), I'm afraid of offending...It's tricky. Do I change the world so it is unrecognizable as the "real" one, or just play it out "like I know it"? And do I have enough knowledge of the "Side A" culture, when I am on "Side B"? I am reading lots and lots about the history, to be sure...

  3. This is something I think about a lot - particularly because my second novel is from the point of view of a black ZImbabwean. I tried to do a good job, but I know there will be people who think I shouldn't have done it at all - I suppose I just need to accept that.

    Andrea x

  4. Vanessa,

    Those lines can be very difficult to see, no doubt, but I will say from an anthropological perspective that they are very real lines and that you can learn to see them with practice. It's part of what anthropologists do. :)

    I applaud your confidence and forthrightness. There's a lot to be said for an author's being able and willing to say, "You know what, it's my story, and I'm gonna write it how I want." I wouldn't want writers to be be afraid to speak their minds or express themselves.

    The line, as I draw it for myself, is that it's okay to express myself -- but not okay to express someone else.

    I would offer a couple of ideas for further thought or comment, though:

    First, while the fiction / nonfiction divide you make is very logical from one cultural perspective, I will tell that it breaks down anthropologically. There are cultures who value truth in their fiction as much as they do in their nonfiction. There are, in fact, cultures where nonfiction carries facts but only fiction carries meaning. This is even true of many cultural groups within the US and the UK.

    Second, and this is a straight-up question, do you think there's a difference between writing what you want without thinking about other people and basically keeping it for yourself, versus writing that way and then publishing it?

  5. Roberta,

    I always encourage authors to be real and to be brave. I advocate doing so responsibly and with your eyes open, but just what that means is definitely an individual thing to figure out.

    Sounds like you have your hands full with that situation, and I wish you luck deciding how you want to approach it. If there's ever anything I can do to help you sort through things or be a sounding board, let me know. These aren't easy things to wrestle with when they matter to you.

  6. Andrea,

    Yeah, thats a toughie, but I think a writer has to have the right to look at the situation, say, "I know this is a little weird, but I know I have something to say, and I am convicted that it's important for me to say it."

    Of course, it's like when I'd get busted in middle school for arguing with a teacher or a principal. My parents always said, "Look, if you believe it's the right thing and you need to stand up for something, then do it. We will be proud of you. Of course, you will probably get in trouble, and you have to take your lumps with it. But we'll be proud of you."

    That sounds like a very challenging project, and I wish you luck with it. It should be very rewarding, too, to follow through on something you feel strongly about.

  7. Thank you Nevets. I've been contemplating social ethics for about a week now, and have set out several times to make a post about it. I'm a bit ashamed to admit it, but I've been concientiously affected by all the news items lately, and a few things that have come up in my personal life. Self expression is not my strength; I envy your ability to articulate yourself.

    But reading this tonight did give me the incentive I needed to just put my thoughts out there. B/c in my heart, I know you are right.

    I have seen men that write from a woman's perspective more deeply than any female could; or a cop writing from a villians, or any number of persons writing what they have researched that they are passionate about. Passion can be as strong a motivating factor as experience. Stepping outside that specific circumstance and relating to the whole, not the introspective, is what makes a concept appealing to a wide range of readers. In my opinion, at least.

    I like your response to Vanessa (and the others, of course) specifically. Certain facts are important in any genre, fiction or non-fiction, but specific personal experience does not have to be the deciding factor of a publication's authenticity. (Unless you are an anthropologist . .)

    This was a timely and excellent post, and I thank you for the discussion.


  8. It's a difficult question, Nevets. As writers we can try anything we like (that's a big part of the fun of being a writer), but we also have a responsibility to our readers and ourselves.

    The further we move in our fiction, the more risk we take, and there is more to go wrong. This isn't just about ethnicity, of course: I might find it easier, after due diligence, to write from a black male Zimbabwean POV than a female from my own culture. There are many kinds of differences.

    A similar question arises in historical fiction which uses real characters. The demands of the story will almost certainly require distortion, sometimes outright falsification, of actions and character traits. Is that OK? It sometimes feels a little uncomfortable.

  9. Donna,

    I'm so glad that the conversation has helped spur on some thoughts you've been wrestling with! For my money, that's the highest compliment a writer can get. It's what I hope for in my stories, and it's what I hope for in my blog.

    Personal experience can be important, but empathy and sympathy and understanding can all be important, too. When you approach your writing with care, thought, and respect, it shows, and that also goes a long way.

    I wish you luck with the expressions you're trying to let let out!

  10. Tim,

    It's definitely not only about ethnicity. In fact, it's not only about the representation of others. Social ethics also impacts the way we portray certain events, the language we employ, and the messages we communicate.

    Your point about historical fiction is well-taken, and is one of the reasons why I continually drop most of my historical fiction projects.

    I support freedom, but I also believe in encouraging (though not necessarily requiring) responsibility. I can't see not thinking that way once I've published something. It's no long just mine at that point.

  11. Second point..." do you think there's a difference between writing what you want without thinking about other people and basically keeping it for yourself, versus writing that way and then publishing it?"

    Please define 'thinking about other people'. The fiction writers I know are always thinking about other people, in the sense that they are moved by people's situations, plights, puzzles and conundrums, and explore them through fiction. Its making sense of the world, isn't it?
    I'd say what is the point of seeking to understand something and then being parsimonious with the results?
    Surely one reason we read fiction is, as well as entertaining us, fiction inspires us to think, to question, to challenge prejudices, it is a basis for debate. If the fiction we read contained no contentious matter, how stultifying would that be?

    So no - I would not struggle to create something I cared about by working at it for months, then just stick it in a drawer.

  12. Something's amiss here. That was the second of two posts... the first dealt with your first question (and was prefaced with a thank you!)

    Ill wait to see if it appears, and try to recall what clever things I said...

  13. Vanessa - Thank you so much for coming back to respond. I love the dialogue and exchange! I'll wait a while before I respond any further to let other readers chime in.

    I did get both comments in my e-mail notification, so if the first one doesn't show up I can paste it up word-for-word.

    Thanks again for the conversation. I love it! :)

  14. Not sure what happened to Vanessa's first response this morning, so here it is, pasted from the e-mail notification I received.

    //Vanessa Gebbie//

    Interesting points, Nevets, and as always, a quick few lines scrawled on a blog, however well-meaningly, cannot carry much weight. But I will try.

    "First, while the fiction / nonfiction divide you make is very logical from one cultural perspective, I will tell that it breaks down anthropologically. There are cultures who value truth in their fiction as much as they do in their nonfiction. There are, in fact, cultures where nonfiction carries facts but only fiction carries meaning. This is even true of many cultural groups within the US and the UK."

    Are you saying that because there are many many cultures with very different values and ways of interpreting fiction in my potential audience and some might be offended if I tackle some issues in my work, that I should not do so? Lets examine that one - there are still sectors of society, doesn't matter which 'culture' - who deem homosexuality to be wrong, abhorrent, against religious rulings, and so on. Are you saying writers should not write gay themes on the basis that a few people will be offended?

    Course you aren't. By extension - what themes and topics are not acceptable?

    You may say 'thats not what Im arguing - I'm arguing for awareness, for empathy." And I'd say Yup. Exactly. Thats what good fiction is and does. Takes an emotional truth, no matter what barriers are put in front of it, and explores it, with humility.

  15. Thanks for posting on my behalf, Nevets!

  16. Vanessa, thanks again for taking the time to respond. Personally, I learn the most from conversations like this.

    "First, while the fiction / nonfiction divide you make is very logical from one cultural perspective, I will tell that it breaks down anthropologically..." --> Are you saying that because there are many many cultures with very different values and ways of interpreting fiction in my potential audience and some might be offended if I tackle some issues in my work, that I should not do so?

    Not at all.

    At its simplest, with this particular point I responding to our original comment, in which you seemed to just that facts and being correct and appropriate were important in non-fiction, but not as much in fiction. My inference (perhaps incorrect) was that you were suggesting this is part of the non-fiction=truth and fiction=imagination divide many of us embrace.

    My point was simply this: that is a cultural construct and does not not necessarily hold up. In the context of some of your readers, it is very possible that it is more important to them that stories are accurate and appropriate than that non-fictions pieces are. It's hard to get your head around that sometimes, but it's very true. The take-away from that is that we have to be careful as writers saying, "It's just a story; they need to get over it." For many people stories are not just stories.

    But beyond that, no, I'm definitely not saying we should avoid offending people. I would never advocate that. Most of what I write will offend some people, maybe even many people.

    What I'm suggesting is simply that writers approach offending people thoughtfully and with awareness. A social ethics framework may influence how you write critically of someone, but it shouldn't dissaude you from writing critically as a rule.

    Often times, though, writers don't approach their words thoughtfully enough and can end up causing offense they never intended -- sometimes even offending a group of people they were trying to ally themselves with.

  17. Vanessa,

    As for your second response, again, I'm not saying that writers should stay away from contentious issues. I'm only trying to encourage writers to approach contentious issues deliberately and with careful consideration.

    " do you think there's a difference between writing what you want without thinking about other people and basically keeping it for yourself, versus writing that way and then publishing it?"

    What I was really getting at here was this: for a lot of writers, it often comes down to, "It's my story, and I can write it however I'd like to."

    And, of course, that's true. I support that.

    For me, though, there's a difference between something I write just for myself and a few select people and something I write to put out in the world. If it's just for me and a few targeted folks, I can be as careless as I want. If it's something I'm putting out in the world at-large, then I think it's a public act and I personally feel compelled to think of it no differently in that regard than I would to other public speech or behavior.

  18. Here's my opinion, and my opinion only:

    I don't think we have a choice. We live in a multi-cultural world and to ban all races from our fiction except what we know would be as unethical.

    I think that we should write our fiction world the way we (as writers) know it. I think it's important. I'm one of those people who doesn't think the N-word should be taken out of books. I think it's important to remember history like it is so that we don't forget it. And hopefully not repeat it.

    I want to add people from the Middle East in my books. I don't think they are all terrorists. I have many friends from all over the world and chose to place them in my books.

    I think if people choose to write books that place other races in a bad light, they are racist and will be chastised for it but people like that still exist and to deny the fact doesn't solve the problem.

    I could go on and on and on... but shouldn't.

    I love the topic. Thanks for addressing it.


  19. Clarissa,

    Thank you so much for bringing up this angle. So important. Seriously. As important as it as I think for authors to treat other cultures or other races with respect, I do know other authors who seem to run in the other direction. As if deliberately avoiding the inclusion of any diversity whatsoever in their writing is somehow better. Encouraging writers to only write people exactly like them is not only ridiculous limiting of the creative process but also just as offensive and ignorant as writers' carelessly perpetrating harmful stereotypes.

    Also, just want to go on the record one more time saying I don't support censorship or whitewashing, and when I talk about restraint or taking care I'm talking about a self-exercise in responsibility and not something I want to become a requirement or an expectation of authors.

    Thanks again, Clarissa! Feel free to comment with whatever passion you'd like and at whatever length you'd like on my blog. I love it! :-D

  20. Hi Nevets, thanks for the clarifications - I think we are sort of in the same hymn book, if not on exactly the same hymn sheet.
    I dont ever see something I'm writing as akin to a public utterance/speech - it is always intensely personal at the moment of first draft writing. I think the thoughtfulness comes in at a later stage, when the potential reader becomes a reality as opposed to a distant maybe. Without slightly more concrete examples of what things you think might offend, or go against the tenets of the cultures you are talking about - its difficult to swap meaningful anecdote. But for example, having worked for years with the image of a specific machine in my head, for my novel, in the end I removed the thing from my setting, because these machines weren't ever used there. I know that I had a perfect right to invent one, and to place it there - and maybe to add a pretty little explanatory para to that effect - but as I had more respect for the actual place and its history than that, I took it out.
    It had done its job anyway, as a guide for structure.

  21. Vanessa, I don't want to give any actual examples from published works, because I don't know what the authors' mindsets were and I wouldn't want to create the impression I were casting aspersions.

    I'll come up with a couple of examples from make-believe and describe them later. Thanks for the idea!

  22. It's interesting that you bring this up today because I have a friend who's being severely criticized for including a character in a novel who is differently-abled and/or has a different sexual orientation from his/her own.

    This is not a POV character and the book shows empathy and fosters diversity and understanding. But the writer is not a member of the community and some people feel she has no right to create a character from that community.

    If we were to follow their rules, gays couldn't write about straights, women couldn't write about men, and an autistic people could only write about autistic characters.

    That seems petty and counter-productive. It seems to me that if a character is created with respect, fiction should be about whatever our muses want it to be.

  23. Sorry to butt in - but Anne - your post makes me so sad. And it is so wrong that your friend is given this so called 'feedback' on her work. Where is it - on a course, or in a private writing group? Where does imagination come into this? Empathy? The awful thing is, that if this type of rubbish is fired at newer writers, before they've grown the thick skin necessary to at least pretend they are confident (!) it may well stop them writing something marvellous.

    Of course, if the criticism is not that, and the character, whether gay, straight, disabled, not, male, female, young, old - does not ring true, then there is another issue. And one that learning the craft of characterisation will help.

  24. Anne,

    That's horrible. I understand the psychology of it. Some communities and socio-cultural groups feel so marginalized that their members feel driven to take ownership of the group as a whole, and when someone from the outside portrays them, it violates those ownership rights.

    Your comments and Vanessa's are, of course, spot on. The simple portrayal of someone unlike you, in a respectful way, should never be grounds for objection. If, as Vanessa says, the characterization is poor or, as I've suggested, unintentionally offensive, then a conversation is appropriate.

    But to suggest that a group is off-limits is very sad.

    I hope your friend gets through it okay, Anne. That's a rough time.

  25. Vanessa and Nevets--this is a published novel by a successful literary writer--a gorgeously written, much praised piece of work. The criticism is in a published review calling for boycotting the author's work because the author doesn't belong to the prescribed demographic. It doesn't matter how successful you are in your career--nasty personal attacks still hurt.

  26. Anne,

    So true, and so painfully misguided. There's a lot of arbitrariness in the literature world. I think of RJ Ellory's being told he couldn't write books from an American POV because he's British. Tomorrow, you'll read from a writer who faced another strangely arbitrary blockage in getting published.

    It's good point that it doesn't stop after publication, and it never gets better or easier to take.

  27. Its an important lesson - . But a 'review' calling for a boycott of the work of a writer because of an objection to some characters? That is crackers - and hopefully says more about the reviewer than the work itself. And if it has been 'much praised' by other reviews, then it just show this one up in all its glory.

    BUt I wanted to add to the debate - I am am member myself of a group who seems to hold great fascination for fiction writers - adopted people. Sometimes, the characters created are great - but more often than not, they are stereotypes, damaged, warped people, the adoptive families terrible and abusive (makes for better stories dunnit...) .. and so on and so forth.

    I could get hurt when I read these things. I never do. It's not 'about me' is it? I just feel, if they'd bothered to ask someone, do a little research, then the writing would have been better, truer.


    Nevets, the world of writing is peppered with loud-voiced people, who actually know little, but are living vicariously through other (better) writers. One skill to learn very early on, is how to spot them...!

  28. @vanessa:

    I've kinda struggled with this since I read it at my lunch break: Second point..." do you think there's a difference between writing what you want without thinking about other people and basically keeping it for yourself, versus writing that way and then publishing it?"

    I guess I really am ensconced in this dilemma. Anyway, my thoughts are:

    Just b/c a writer writes something doesn't mean it is something that should be published. I'm not one for journaling; but sometimes I explore concepts in the manner of writing them out as they relate to me. I know sometimes I need to write what my opinion, and when I write it, it feels - justified. I am relieved of the burden.

    Many times I put that writing in a file, and look at it another day. Nope, not a personal journal. But, the concepts sometimes stike me differently a day or two late than they did in the passion of the moment I wrote the words.

    They are still valid, and still express my honest responses. But, I don't always consider them publishable. While I'm not shy, I'm a deeply private person; and once the passion has expended itself, I'm not sure what I write was for anyone but me. I save it, and sometime savor it, and othertimes publish it.

    I have comments on my own blog sometimes that sent me off on deep contemplation. An offhand posting that affected someone deeply enough to post their thoughts, and those in turn stimulated my consciousness, and perhaps I've written pages of response. All, eventually, for my own benifit.

    I'm not upset that no one will ever know my deepest contemplations. I aspire to be a published author; but not all my writings are for the public. As a writer, I process my emotions best by writing them out. Usually, I can share those thoughts; but other time, I'm talking to the hand. Self expression is key to inner peace - writers write it out. Word vomit doesn't distress us.

    Bad reviews do. So, sometimes we (meaning I) write for ourselves, and put it on a shelf. Someday it may be useable on a related project, or it may grow teeth in the original intended genre. Or maybe it just sits there and grows a beard with age and knowledge we can look back upon. A writer's own insights to him/herself.

    Have you never written something you knew was only comprehensible to yourself?

    Anyway, I've learned a lot in the discussion between yourself, Anne and Nevets. Thank you all for posting your thoughts.


  29. Vanessa,

    Let me try and give a few examples of what I'm thinking about. Here are a few things I might be willing to do, given their importance to something I was writing:

    1) Portray, in a critical light, aspects of the Mexican drug culture to which I was exposed during my time in Mexico working on my thesis.

    2) Include a well-rounded, respectfully crafted character from a cultural background with which I am familiar (e.g., Panjabi, Thai, Japanese, rural American, etc...).

    3) Portray a character from another cultural context imperfectly, because of the filter of the POV, so that it shows something about the perception and therefore character of the POV.

    4) Touch on a behavior, lifestyle, or practice I have only observed from the outside.

    In contrast, here are some things I do not think I would be willing to do, because -- for me, personally -- they would violate my sense of social ethics:

    1) Include things I learned about the Mexican drug culture when it is not an important part of the story and would only serve to reinforce American stereotypes of Mexican people and cultures.

    2) Deal with a sensitive, important issue for another culture from the POV of someone from that culture, as if I were speaking for them and trying to explain something to other white Americans. For instance, I might write a Panjabi main character and talk about the tension he feels, torn between religions and politics and friendships and business opportunities. But I would not write a Panjabi character and try to represent Indian Panjabis' relationship with Pakistani Panjabis in a way that pretends to give others the inside scoop. Likewise, I might write about a Japanese girl and her struggle for identity, but not about about her role in the complex Japanese sexual culture in a way that suggests I'm speaking for Japan to America.

    3) Allow myself to recklessly portray a stereotype or to use language that I know some find incendiary, just because I want to use it, even if it's not necessary for the story. I know authors who get so defensive that, even if it's not the best way to say what they mean, they will go out of their way to use certain language because they just want to thumb their noses at people "telling them what to say." Too, I take pains to avoid stereotypical behavior when it's not necessary. I will not, for instance, introduce an African American character eating watermelon and fried chicken. Yes, I know many African Americans who eat those foods, but it's a stupid, absurd stereotype and its inclusion is offensive to some and reinforcing for others, and just not necessary for any story I want to tell.

    4) Write about a behavior, lifestyle, or practice I only know from the outside, as if I know it from the inside, unless I were darn sure I understood something about it and that my portrayal would not cause offense. Sometimes, even when we try to write something about a group of people who have our sympathy we end up offending them.

  30. Thanks Nevets, I am researching - reading everything I can about the history of the culture so I can hear the story 'from both sides' so to speak! Thanks for your offer to help...I am far from beginning this thing, but will definitely keep you in mind when I have questions with how to proceed!

  31. Nevets, I agree with your list above. That isn't to say I haven't fallen foul of some of the beliefs, no one's perfect (!) but we form beliefs by trial and error... and hopefully, we learn as we go.

  32. @Roberta - Good luck with your research! I hope you enjoy it!

    @Vanessa - Oh goodness, if I ever claim to be perfectly up to snuff by my own ethical standards, you can out me a liar. Stumbling is definitely part of living.

  33. As writers we have an obligation to the truth. How we go about getting to the truth is an exercise in tact. There will always be flack, but if we stand by our convictions despite the flack, we'll be better off for it.

  34. @Jeffrey - That's an excellent way of looking at it. It's very important that we stick to our convictions and be swayed neither by the market nor the feelings of others on points that we believe in. But it's also important to pursue our convictions with tract and integrity.


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