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”…?