Posted by on Apr 30, 2012 in Digital | 43 Comments

In the spirit of trying to learn and be receptive rather than hidebound and ranty, I have a question for all creative types: where do you draw the line on using certain words/images/phrases that could be inflammatory?

I ask because a couple of times over the past few weeks, I’ve been brought to task by bloggers over the casual use of the word “retard” in the LUTHER short story. I admit to being annoyed that both times, those who were offended either ignored or didn’t understand that the entire point of the story was that (spoiler) in the end, the narrator comes to realize that maybe he ought to be a little more careful about how he uses that word…

…but to some people, the lesson learned is outweighed by the use of the word in the first place. Now, I could go off here and windmill my arms and bombast about how words like that get their power precisely because we whisper them, or about how language should never be off-limits in stories meant for adults, or how the whole impact of the  story is lost without that word, but the truth is…

…that last one’s not exactly true. I could easily have used another, less colloquial word than “retard” and still have had the same story, right? It wouldn’t have been a clean substitution, but I’m skillful enough to dance adroitly. I count three edits:

“Luther’s a little retard fella” could become “Luther’s a little special fella” ;

“‘course, so did the REST of us, so we threw Bill OUT for pickin’ on the RETARD” could become “…pickin’ on the SLOW kid”

and “…I might oughta re-evaluate my definition of the word ‘retard.’ ” could become…

…what? What, exactly? “Slow”? “Mentally challenged?” It has to be a word that’s a direct call-back to one used earlier in the story, nothing else has resonance–that’s just Writing 101, the call-back.  Could be “special,” but…eh, that’s not the point of that reveal, exactly. The point (obviously) is, “I thought this kid was too stupid to understand that money is useless, but I presumed too much about what he was doing, so I’m the stupid one.”  So “special,” while a sweet thought, is sentimental and not the clean landing you want as a writer.

I guess I kinda knew that all along, but this isn’t a straw-man post intended to defend my choice; it’s a genuine question as to whether or not that exact ending was worth the use of the word. I think so, but YMMV.  So I’m  moved to ask four questions:

1) Were you offended?

2) Were you not offended but  can see how others might be?

3) Is it a complete non-issue in a creative environment?

4) Finally…ask yourself those same questions but forget that the provocative word in this story was the “r” word. Suppose, for reasons that made perfect sense in context, it had been one that started with an “n”…?

43 Comments

  1. Troy Brownfield
    April 30, 2012

    1) No.

    2) Sort of. I think that it was pretty obvious that use and action in this particular story headed toward a payoff. And you also established a particular culture that surrounded the use. The characters didn’t seem the type that would use softer language like “special”; they seemed like guys that would, indeed, say “retard”.

    There’s also the added wrinkle that characters suggesting that a character was “special” might mislead the readers; a reader could be confused by intent by thinking that the character in question was “special” in a way that did not denote being mentally challenged.

    3) It SHOULD be a non-issue, especially if the usage is rooted in context. But I think that readers of all stripes have particular feelings about language and associations about words that come from their own histories. My sense of being okay with a word might not be the same as someone else’s sense, and I understand that. I’d like to think that the reader would give the writer the benefit of the doubt and ask, “Was there a reason that the writer chose the word, and was it done to further a theme or advance an understanding?”. Unfortunately, some people just react if they ARE offended, and don’t put in the thought.

    4) That’s kind of a powderkeg, isn’t it? Even Mark Twain gets retroactive brickbats for the use of the N word in “Huckleberry Finn”. Tarantino has taken major heat over its use in his work. Then again, you can understand how it appears in “Roots” or “To Kill A Mockingbird”. I think that a writer needs to ask himself/herself some questions: if I use a volatile word, is my use defensible? Is it going to be used because it’s the best selection for my theme, message, etc.? Will any resultant reaction obscure my intent? I can’t answer that for any other writer. But I myself would endeavor to avoid it in nearly every situation because I think it would result in the message possibly being lost.

    Reply
  2. Nat Gertler
    April 30, 2012

    If it does more to block your message than to enable your message, then it’s time to rethink it. I don’t think that’s anywhere near the case here. Might some people take offense? Well, it sounds like there were a couple… but in this case, if the character isn’t being offensively derisive, then it’s not working. The point is to have him being disrespectful, and raw language shows that where gentle language would not. And I’d say the same for the n- word, the f- insult, and so forth. Gentle language would block the goal… and the goal is clearly not anti-Luther, whatever the path you use to get there.

    Reply
  3. djcoffman
    April 30, 2012

    Stephen King deals with this crap a lot. And I agree with just about everything he has to say on the matter. People shouldn’t see it as MARK WAID said anything… it was the character. And the use of the word by the character may simply be to provoke anger at the character… you want the reader to feel disgusted or angered or maybe a little insulted. But they are ease dropping in on this story, just as they would if they were in a crowded restaurant or public place. You have every right to be offended when you hear something you don’t like. You don’t blame their makers.

    All writers should listen to the unique voice of their characters. Sometimes you won’t even like what they say. That’s Stephen King’s point. But he also says it makes it even richer to make something bad happen to that character possibly, and the readers like HELL YEAH!!!

    Reply
  4. Don Garvey
    April 30, 2012

    I was not offended, and I really can’t sympathize with those who were due to the context. I don’t see how Luther reenforces the use of a slur to impressionable people, nor do I see how it would encourage it. Were this an episode of Tiny Titans, I might think differently.

    I don’t think this is a complete non-issue – most people who say that or hide behind it are lazy, sensationalists, or just plain old hacks.

    There is something to be said about casually hurting someone’s feelings – for example, unnecessary use of “the n word”. Why alienate the audience? What art does that serve? Probably none.

    I suppose I am now implicitly ranking slurs, and I accept that.

    Reply
  5. Bill Cunningham
    April 30, 2012

    Here’s the rub –

    When using the words “slow” and “special” in the context you outline above, you run into the fact that you can’t rely on performance to communicate the level of sarcasm intended by the use of those words. A whole level of meaning to the story is lost to the reader.

    Italics might emphasize the word enough to indicate what you mean, but let’s face it, sometimes you need to hit the reader with the clarity required to show the character’s growth. You have to take our hero from thinking Luther is a “retard” to a state where he examines his own perspective of life after having seen the world through Luther’s eyes. That’s a long, high arc. Good drama.

    Going from thinking that Luther is just “special” or “slow” to “not so slow after all” is not nearly as high or as long an arc and loses the dramatic impact required by the story.

    Don’t take a knife to a gun fight. If a character would say the word “retard” or “nigger” – then in the context of the story and character it’s correct and dramatically necessary to use those terms.

    Reply
  6. Casey
    April 30, 2012

    A character should be able to say anything the r-word the n-word or the f-word. It doesn’t mean that the author views the word as appropriate or that they think that way. Characters should be nuanced, they should have flaws, and they should say things that offend us. I want stories that deal with the world as it exists (or with zombies). I didn’t decide Nabokov was a child molester after reading Lolita, just like I never thought Chris Claremont was Magneto. If a book had three Mark Waid stand ins talking to each other in the stilted way that people talk when they know they’re being watched I wouldn’t download it.

    Actually, I probably would download it. But, I wouldn’t enjoy it. I certainly wouldn’t but the tie in cologne.

    Reply
  7. Todd Gordon
    April 30, 2012

    Speaking as someone with some very personal experience in the use and abuse of that word, I have to say I was NOT offended. Until you asked the question, I had no thought about it offending anyone–to me it was part of the story and the narrator’s conclusion at the end vindicated its usage. Luther was never anything but a sympathetic character, so everyone who spoke disparagingly of him immediately became suspect in his assessment of Luther’s character or usefulness. I can see how some might be offended at an offhand use of the word for no other reason that “color,” but in this case it was the point of the story to re-evaluate the word. Substituting any other word takes away from the unity and punch of the story.

    So I guess I’m in category #3–it’s a non-issue (at least in this context). I think anyone who found it offensive as used in “Luther” either didn’t read carefully or has deeper issues with the word that need to be dealt with separate from a single creative venture.

    As to telling a similar story using a different word, that would depend on the portrayal of the character to whom the derogatory term is applied. However, if the point is the narrator’s re-evaluation of his prejudice, I can see it working if done well.

    Reply
  8. Jason Embury
    April 30, 2012

    The reason that the word you CHOSE works best, is precisely because as a writer, you chose it. You knew that the most emotional impact to be had by a reader, would come when they were fully invested in the characters. And to get fully invested in the characters, you needed to solidly place the reader in their shoes by having them understand the character’s social, demographic and educational place in the world that you were creating. There is nothing wrong with a politically incorrect character, if you are made to understand why that character acts that way. You established, I think, the situation with the most impact possible.

    Reply
  9. James Lynch
    April 30, 2012

    When you have to choose words great care must be taken to assure that you a an artist achieve your own goals. If the use of a word or image is essential to the tale being told then you must accept the fallout. If you can achieve your intent without risking offending others then choose that path. Accept that some folks will not accept you whatever you may decide. The rabidly liberal may foam over free speech,the politicaly correct may object to “hate speech” and the ultra-conservative may be offended by any language, concept or image that does not conform to their vision of “appropriate”. In my mind appealing to the broadest audience makes the best sense from a business perspective. The rebel in me says “opinions be damned! This is my art!” I think this is really a “Who and what are you as an artist/business person?” question

    Reply
  10. Harold C. Jennett III
    April 30, 2012

    My first knee jerk reaction was offense, but right after that I thought it was appropriate for the character and the story.

    I think the most important thing here is the intent of the story. You’re intent was quite the opposite of insulting a mentally disabled person.

    Reply
  11. Adam_54
    April 30, 2012

    1) Not personally

    2) I can understand some people taking offense to the word it’s self if they are too quick to judge and look at it’s context.

    3) I would not give it a moments worry myself though.

    4) I don’t think any words should be off limit in fiction. If the reader doesn’t approve of the characters language then they should simply read something else that fits their own sensibilities.

    I personally hate censorship and believe people have the right to decide what they wish to consume.

    I can happily watch/read some damn right nasty stuff as long as there is a point to it in the story and it is the characters voice/actions coming through and not that of the authors.

    I think Hickman’s Nightly News is a great example of this.

    If you were to take everything in that as the authors own view point/morals then the guy should be locked up 🙂

    But it’s not. It’s a piece of fiction and his fictional characters were the ones performing the atrocious acts.

    Just because one of your characters used the word “retard” does not mean it’s a word you go throwing round in everyday life and people should be able to distinguish that.

    Reply
    • Matt
      April 30, 2012

      I agree with all your points, the problem is that audiences do identify actors/writers with their work to the point of being unable to distinguish between the creator and the work. Just look at Spike lee and Tyler Perry. I think what Mark is asking is “Is provocative word choice worth derailing the message?”

      Provocative words certainly can, and probably will, derail people activated by loaded word triggers. I think writers will always want to defend justified word choice, and are right to do so.

      Just dont be surprised when you offend someone to the point they put a jihad on you…

      Reply
      • Adam_54
        April 30, 2012

        Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.

        I suppose target audience is also a huge consideration as well when deciding on this.

        Reply
  12. Matt
    April 30, 2012

    I happen to be one of those people who loves all words. They are like funny little deranged mental offspring trying so hard to get an idea to jump from one mind to another. They so often fail that it is simply hysterical…But to answer your questins directly:
    1) No, I was not offended.
    2) People get offended by anything these days, but this was easy to see coming. The ‘R’ word has a movement behind it already. You put it up and eventually someone will cry foul. It does not matter about the positive portrayal. I do not see this as genuine reaction, just a defensive reflex. I can see how an idiot could be offended by your word choice. In this case, because of the point you were making, you were screwed no matter who you chose.
    3) It has to be a non-issue creatively speaking. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Words are your sWords.
    4)I would think you were insane and just audience baiting, simply because of the history of the word.

    Language is fluid and words are being redefined by the people using them. Lets say the story is about an outgoing young man. Everyone in town says he is the gayest of them all. Turns out the story happens in the 1800s and the boy is just ‘very happy.’ That story might not make some people very glad at all.

    Reply
  13. Charles
    April 30, 2012

    It’s clearly about context. If the word is in a mouth of a character I think it’s hard to make a case that it is offensive.
    My Dad for example is going to offended by the F word. Some words are going to offend. And everybody knows that.

    Although there is case that when we’re dealing with words that are in common parlance but are wrong – and not everybody knows – it’s good idea to show somehow that they are. Retard is a good example, in the UK Spaz has similar level of offence.

    I wasn’t offended, because it was used in an appropriate context.

    Reply
  14. David
    April 30, 2012

    To be honest, I was a little taken back by the use of the “r” word (is that what we are calling it now?). But I immediately thought that it’s usage was telling me something about the character narrating more than Luther. In the end I got the point you were trying to make and I think it would have been less effective with a more polite term.

    Reply
  15. Rich Johnston
    April 30, 2012

    People get offended by many things. But often using words such as retard, nigger, fag and the like can reveal character. Kick Ass is good like that, it shows you very young, immature teenage minds who haven’t thought through the consequences of their words and actions… and then wanting to be a superhero. But it can limit your audience, and you have to be aware of that too. Some people will be offended whatever you do, you can choose to limit that offence and expand your recpetive audience, but you may also limit the impact of your story on that audience.

    Reply
  16. Rick
    April 30, 2012

    1) Nope, but it’s not a word I can personally identify with either to feel the direct impact.

    2) “You can’t please all of the people all of the time” seems to apply here. I’m sure just about everything that exists offends someone. Personally, I’m offended by the taste of milk.

    I am sure some people who the word impacts directly in some way will be offended by its use, because they take it personally. Some readers may be taken aback by the use of the word, as they are not comfortable seeing it or using it themselves, but will understand the context of the story.

    Of course, if there is no context or the author’s own voice intrudes on the narrative, then there’s the possibility of hate-mongering under the guise of “It’s just a story.” I would not consider that to be the case here.

    3) I’d like to say it’s a non-issue, because intellectually, we all know it’s fiction. We all know the author is creating a character–maybe a character we are meant to dislike because of his word choices. We understand context.

    I will say after seeing Edward Norton in American History X, not only could I not finish that movie, but I could not watch anything he starred in for a long time, which became a problem when the Incredible Hulk movie came out. I saw Hulk and got over my distaste for Edward Norton, but in that case I definitely had a hard time separating the character from the actor.

    I do think this is less of a problem for writers and artists of comics, because well, I don’t see an artist or writer playing the character.

    Obviously, any creative person wants to reach the largest audience possible. If you don’t need to use a word that may offend readers, it’s probably best not to use it. If it seems true to the story, though, I am sure most readers/viewers will understand the context.

    4) I have read books and seen movies with the use of this word. When it’s historical fiction, I don’t think much of it, because as ugly of a word it is, it is the writer’s job to accurately portray a historical period, especially when the narrative relates to racism.

    Should it be thrown around willy-nilly just because you’re writing a story that takes place 200 years ago? Definitely not. Again, there should be context.

    I think they used this word in “True Grit” and I noticed it, but didn’t really think much of it, because it wasn’t being thrown in our faces; it was the type of talk I expected of that character in that period of time.

    Reply
  17. Scott Story
    April 30, 2012

    It’s already a given that you can’t please everyone, and for anything you write there is most likely a person out who take offense to it. Personally, I think one of the roles of the writer is to challenge the reader.

    Reply
  18. Justin Peniston
    April 30, 2012

    I think Nat put it best when he said, “If it does more to block your message than to enable your message, then it’s time to rethink it.”

    Speaking for myself, when I first read the word, there was a small gut check there; not because I was offended, but because the word is becoming taboo, it’s a word that I have probably used too lightly myself (I’ve probably used them all too lightly), and it’s a word I’m trying to take out of my personal lexicon.

    This brings Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier back to me. There’s a scene where the “n-word” is used, and it’s a powerful one. Obviously, New Frontier is not about that word, it’s about that TIME, and use of the word is appropriate in the context in which he uses it, and I’ve long wondered at the lack of outcry, because that word causes such a knee-jerk reaction. But again, there was a real gut-check.

    My point is this: good fiction should give you a gut-check from time to time. Good fiction is like good comedy, in that if it doesn’t offend ANYBODY, maybe it’s not about much of anything. Maybe it’s for kids.

    I don’t like the word. In this story, I’m not supposed to. Don’t take it out of the toolbox, Mark. Just use it like Super Glue, and make sure you don’t get it all over yourself.

    Reply
  19. Carlton Donaghe
    April 30, 2012

    Mark,

    Please do not double think yourself.

    We seem to live in a culture of being offended. Unfortunately, there are so many willing to be offended by trivial offenses, it obscures our view when true offense takes place.

    Yet of all the rights we have in this country, one we do not have is the right to not be offended.

    You didn’t say it to be hateful, or mean. You didn’t use it, for example, in the same way Rush Limbaugh would have used it. You didn’t even use it as an expression of your own feelings, but as part of another’s personality.

    You showed us a character who would use that that word, and in the end, that character learned that he should not be so quick to judge.

    Don’t restrict your ability to communicate a positive message like that.

    Reply
  20. Eric
    April 30, 2012

    1) No, I felt that it fit the character.
    2) Yes – that word hasn’t regularly been used to attack me personally.
    3) If you’re producing material for your own consumption, go nuts, it’s a non-issue. But if you’re making something to share or sell, it’s an issue.
    4) Cultural consensus hasn’t really formed around the R-word as it has around the N-word. However, I don’t see the R-word becoming MORE acceptable, and if I was considering its use in a piece of art, I’d think about how it might read ten or twenty years down the road.

    Reply
  21. Karl Kesel
    April 30, 2012

    First, I think this is a story that works better the second time you read it, when you know where it’s going and can see all the breadcrumbs that lead there. Even though it’s called “Luther” it’s not about Luther at all, is it? The first time through— if you’re like me, at least— you focus on Luther. It isn’t until you re-read it that you realize the story is really about the narrator. Once you know that, the first caption speaks volumes, and everything else falls into place.

    While I understand the problem some people have with the word “retard,” it’s absolutely the best word for the narrator to use, given who he is (which is very different than who he THINKS he is).

    If you were going to change any word, I’d suggest changing the word “re-examine” in the last caption. While I can HEAR a red-neck saying that word, in print it actually makes the narrator “sound” educated. And I think that’s what makes the use of “retard” in that caption so jarring— taken on its own, it sounds like a highly educated man saying it. And that’s the last impression you walk away with from the story.

    Not that it would make everyone happy. But that’s never going to happen.

    Reply
    • Claude
      May 1, 2012

      The very first caption in the story reads “Four years of college for THIS” The narrator does have an education, he’s just not very sensitive in his use of language regarding people like Luther. That is a trait that crosses all lines of education and class.

      Reply
      • Claude
        May 1, 2012

        Although, looking at the story again (especially the part where he struggles with the “post-apocalyptic”), he probably didn’t learn as much as he could have.

        Reply
    • Karl Kesel
      May 2, 2012

      I obviously mis-remembered the last line of this story, so my insightful comment is pretty spectacularly un-insightful. Besides, Tom Brevoort has come up with, to my mind, the perfect solution. Scroll down to see for yourself.

      Reply
  22. Doug
    April 30, 2012

    ) Were you offended? No. But I will say I was surprised at first.

    2) Were you not offended but can see how others might be? Yes. Part of it comes from the impression that we should be able to go throughout our day without being offended; when we are, we end up being too empathic. The other part is trust level. I’ve read your work for a while and I trust your writing and sensibilities.

    3) Is it a complete non-issue in a creative environment? No. There is something to be said about authenticity and “knowing the room”.

    4) Finally…ask yourself those same questions but forget that the provocative word in this story was the “r” word. Suppose, for reasons that made perfect sense in context, it had been one that started with an “n”…? Again, I trust you. But if you used the “N” word, you better be going someplace with it. I’m probably more sensitive to that because I’m Black, older and remember when that word was not cool at all.

    Reply
  23. CDowd
    April 30, 2012

    I was not offended. And if I was, so what? You didn’t use the word to be gratuitous, you used it as a way to define a character’s thought process. The character grew, and learned that maybe that word wasn’t so great to use. It’s all about context.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

    Reply
  24. Stu West
    May 1, 2012

    On question 4, I suppose I would say: look at the novels of James Ellroy. They’re absolutely filled with racial invective, which helps conjure the era he’s writing about (primarily, the LA police department in the 1950s).

    I can easily understand why black readers might not want to have anything to do with those books, but that’s not the same as saying they shouldn’t have been written.

    Reply
  25. Steve Broome
    May 1, 2012

    I just don’t care, and I hate political correctness. People who want all characters in fiction to reflect their own outlook on the world are cowards and have ruined critical thinking.

    Reply
  26. Solomon Mars
    May 1, 2012

    1) no. I wasn’t.

    2) yeah, I can see how anyone could be offended by anything honestly. people are like that. some take a lot to heart while others can detach themselves from the story enough to understand they are watching characters in a story not related to the personal views of the creators.

    3) for me it’s a non issue as a creator. because even as a consumer, I can make that detachment.

    4)context is everything. but it seems a lot of people just mentally gloss over immersing themselves in a world separate from their own and thee creators. they anchor the creator to his works, and think everything stated by the characters is the personal opinion of the creators.

    Reply
  27. Steven
    May 1, 2012

    1)No

    2)Yes

    3)I don’t know if anything is a non-issue to you personally.

    4)I think the most important thing about any art is that you as the artist have to have a clear understanding of what you mean and why you do the things you do in your own art. Theoretically, someone could be offended that Matt Murdock “plays blind” even though he has senses that under his regular day to day more than compensate for his loss of sight. Then there’s the whole violent vigilante thing…

    Recently you had Black Cat and Daredevil being fairly aloof about sex. That don’t bother me, personally, but I remember not that long back there were people upset/disgusted about similar activities with Black Cat and Spider-Man, then Catwoman and Batman. I know you remember it too…anyway, sorry to babble. But my point is, sometimes you have to just say to yourself “I know what I mean, and I know some people will be offended.”

    Reply
  28. John Van Atta
    May 1, 2012

    !. no
    2. Yes, I work with people with mental and physical challenges. When they hear ‘retard’ it hurts. I don’t think think the appropriate word is ‘offend’, i think the appropriate word is ‘hurt’.
    3. it is absolutely an issue. Everyone should be able to say anything. But the corollary is that everyone has a right to respond. There is an incredible online literature produced by people with mental and physical challenges. None of it (that i have encountered) has deemed Luther worthy of mention, let alone criticism. If you’re angered by the treatment of people with special needs- don’t type something, do something.
    4. very very very good question waid- there is still a hierarchy of the shat-upon. What’s acceptable when.

    But call my friend whatever f-word you want, what I’m gonna fight for is for the love-of-his-life to get health insurance and for people with special needs to get the services they need.

    here’s the thing: don’t type something, do something. If you want to help, don’t chastise a creator for increasing neurological diversity, volunteer to help a parent with a neurologically diverse child. it’s hard work. then i’ll listen to what you have to say. until then, I’ll trust a writer that has shown an incredible history of empathy.

    Reply
  29. Hugin
    May 1, 2012

    I wasn’t offended, but I think it’s reasonable for other people to react that way. The word has some definite baggage attached, but the way the story was written I don’t think you could have changed it.

    You have to decide if the potential injury is worth telling the story. In this case, I think it was, since the book was partially about the word being wrong, but it has to be your call.

    Reply
  30. Tom Brevoort
    May 1, 2012

    Backwards. The word you’re looking for here is Backwards.

    You can substitute it in all three spots, and it still conveys the same meaning, but without the harshness or offense of retard.

    “Luther’s a little bit backwards.”; “…pickin’ on the backwards kid.”; “…I might oughta re-evaluate my definition of the word backwards.”

    That said, I didn’t take any offense at the language, and there’s always going to be somebody somewhere who doesn’t like something that you write.

    Tom B

    Reply
    • Karl Kesel
      May 2, 2012

      And this is why Tom’s the Best Editor in the Business.

      Reply
    • Matt
      May 2, 2012

      While the word ‘backwards’ may satisfy the basic need, it certainly waters it down as well. I don’t think it is a powerful enough word to express the derogatory nature of the way Luther was perceived. ‘Backwards’ sounds innocent and harmless. Anyone can be a little backwards. Retard sounds damaged, broken, and unfixable. Backwards does not do it for me, but it would have avoided the whole issue for Mark here. To make it a real challenge I think Luther should have been black and gay as well…to keep it safe we just call him a backwards, bronze-skinned, confirmed bachelor. You can’t soften the language without affecting the impact it will have it the story.

      Which brings us back to the point made by many. Somebody is always going to get upset if they don’t like what you wrote. But that is never your target audience.

      Reply
      • Karl Kesel
        May 2, 2012

        I’d argue that “backwards” perfectly shows the narrator’s BELIEF that he’s educated, while betraying that he doesn’t fully understand how demeaning and dismissive he’s being.

        That said, it’s Mark’s story, and I know he doesn’t choose words lightly. And I have no problem with the ones he did choose.

        Reply
        • Matt
          May 2, 2012

          The more I think about Tom B’s line “…I might oughta re-evaluate my definition of the word backwards” – has had me rethinking my definition of backwards. It conjours images of a podunk town, lost in time, failing to keep up with modern technology or social advances. It conjours images of inefficient processes. It does not make me think of a mentally challenged person in any way.

          The argument here is would the story have the same impact without the provocative triger and I say, ” No.”

          Calling Luther backwards and asking the reader to redefine ‘backwards’ is not even close to using the ‘R’ word.

          If ‘backwards’ is as potent as is being claimed, we probably have a new ‘B’ word. Use it while you can!

          The greatest irony I find in this whole discussion is that the story I am writing covers almost exactly the same material from another direction. It is about reincarnation, and those who reincarnate are called ‘Recarns’. They develop faster than regular kids and are smarter. But they are also ugly and fat (should I have said unnattractive and overweight? Na). The term Recarn is meant to be derogatory and I crafted a new word for my story. But Retard was the inspiration for the insult. Backwards was never on the list.

          Reply
  31. T David Jones
    May 2, 2012

    1. No

    2. Yes, because people look for a reason to be offended.

    3. The story looses its impact when you water down the characters.

    4. That situation sounds a lot like American History X to me.

    Reply
  32. K. Walsh
    May 2, 2012

    Many excellent points above, and if the following have already been stated, I apologize. But I think there are a few elements here that are treated as factors when they should not be:

    A. The idea that since the story ultimately has a positive attitude towards Luther, then the use of the negative label is somehow redeemed.

    I’m not saying the story’s intent does or doesn’t redeem the word, but that it shouldn’t be a part of the argument. You can have bigoted characters, whether they’re actively an intentionally offensive or, in the case of this story, more passive and ignorant in their offense. The point is, you’re using his dialogue or thoughts to create a particular image for a particular character. Why should the story have to redeem the label to justify the presence of such a character?

    B. The other options you vet don’t solve the perceived problem anyway. How is it less offensive to call Luther “the slow kid” rather than “retard?” However you slice it, the POV character needs to use a pejorative label. Whichever word he chooses (even “special”) is going to be an insult.

    Overall:

    1) No.

    2) Yes, but mainly because we live in a culture that’s on a hair-trigger when it comes to perceived offense. I don’t think any reasonable person would be offended.

    3) Yes. If there’s a conscious creative intent in the word choice — as opposed to simple laziness or the default vocabulary of an offensive writer rather than an offensive character — then it’s valid.

    4) The same creative arguments apply regardless of the particular word.

    Reply
  33. Alex
    May 9, 2012

    I’m really glad that you addressed this question in a blog post; might I recommend somehow linking it to Luther on Thrillbent, for the benefit of those who wouldn’t otherwise find this post? I think it’s very important to display that you’ve thought about the use of the r word.

    Personally 1) I wasn’t, but only because I was expecting it to build to a pay-off, and I was prepared to be if that didn’t come to pass.

    2) Absolutely. It really is a slur that can make neurodivergent people feel very threatened. I think it was justified in this context, but I’m neurotypical and I know neurodivergent people who would be offended even in context.

    3)It’s absolutely an issue in a creative context. Language in media is what tells society what is OK to say, joke about, etc. That’s why media representation is so important (the effect of having gay characters on TV shows reduce homophobia is scientifically documented). However, I don’t think that means offensive words should be avoided at all costs. It means that they need to be condemned or undermined in a clear manner (as was done in Luther).

    4) My answers hold for all other-ing slurs, though obviously some carry more social weight than others.

    Reply
  34. James Asmus
    May 12, 2012

    When I was doing comedy, my rule was – Only use something offensive or confrontational if it’s in service of some larger point. (Larger too, than “Oh, that character’s an asshole.”)

    In doing comics, Marvel mostly doesn’t let me do anything offensive. So it hasn’t been a big issue.

    Reply

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