I do not think that word means what you think it means.

Start here:

When Writers Fail To Understand How Words Work

and then go here:

Because writing a book for fun and profit is totally just like what happened at Bataan

and then here:

Patalim

and finally end up here:

Your Broken Project is Not a War Crime

I’ve had a post about this — not this situation specifically, but others like it — brewing for a long time. I’ve used the word “deathmarch” before, in flippant context. After reading these essays, though, I’m going to stop doing so, for the reasons that Bill (whump) outlines in his post. It trivializes other peoples’ pain, it erases and disregards history, and most of all, trying to defend the use of such a word in such a context makes you look like a jackass.

The argument I have always seen against dropping the use of such words always boils down to “But I’m a word nerd, and I think I should be able to use any word I want. Not using that word cuts a hole in my lexicon, and demonizes it, besides. Also, I like that word.”

That’s not word-nerdery. That’s laziness. That’s favoring metaphor over precision, generality over specificity. A real word-nerd would keep searching until they came up with a more correct, more fitting descriptor. If the situation you’re involved in actually resembles a death-march? Then by all means, go ahead and use that word. If not? Head back to the well and drop the bucket. Surely you can come up with something better than that.

The other thing I don’t get is how people can say something like that, and when called on it (with politeness, gentleness and sincerity, I might add), to issue a half-assed “Sorry you found it offensive” and then keep using the term. This is not someone else being too sensitive. This is you being too insensitive, especially after someone stuck their neck out to point out your mistake — to educate you.

Case in point: When a kid with Downs hears someone use the r-word in casual conversation and says “I know that when you use that word you’re talking about me,” with hurt in his voice, what kind of person says “Hey, I’m sorry you were offended. But r–ed is just such a satisfying word to use!” Full disclosure: I actually used that defense once, on that same word. And then my friend told me how her brother — yes, that kid — felt. And then I stopped using it, because I was ashamed of myself for privileging my own word-nerdery over someone else’s feelings. I found a different word. It wasn’t hard, it was beneficial: looking for better words makes me a better writer.

If there’s one good thing that came out of the horrible A:TLA Racebending debacle, it’s that it led me to discover that I’m an absolute sucker for specificity, in both visual detail and in language. I don’t want generalities. I want specifics. I want to be a more rigorous writer, one who more closely examines my word-choices, my settings, my historical details — and if I make a mistake, and get called on it, (which I will, of course) I hope to God I can listen and learn and grow from it, rather than alienating — and further hurting — someone who took time and courage out of their day to be polite to me and educate me when I was off-base.

That education is a gift — a token of esteem towards you, the writer, for the hurting party feels you’ve got the capacity to learn, despite the fact that you just hurt them — and it comes free of charge to you, but not to them. Speaking up takes bravery, costs energy, and frequently earns an unwanted backlash.

So thank you, miir, littlebutfierce, whump, ephemere, ktempest and megwrites. I’m sorry that all of you had to write what you did, but thank you for taking the effort and time to do so.

6 Comments

  1. Ooooooohhh boy. Have I seen this debate before.

    Alright, here goes: if I fully understand what Elizabeth Bear said in her original context, I’ll agree that using “deathmarch” was hyperbolic and probably not necessary. And I’ll agree that specificity is always better and should be something to strive towards in one’s writing.

    However – and I really, really hope this comes across as clear as I can make it – I’ll bet anything you’re willing to name that no one was PHYSICALLY killed or injured by Bear’s statement. Actual people were actually hurt and killed by actual deathmarches. Given that, which one has really caused more damage and pain?

    Until we evolve into a telepathic species, words (and pictures) are the best tools we have for communication, however meager and imperfect they can often be. If we can’t use them, then we’re in trouble.

  2. And also, I hate to say it, but you undermined your whole argument about specificity when you said “the r-word.” Which r-word would that be, specifically?

  3. Rich,

    Of course no one was physically killed or injured by Bear’s statement. No one’s ever physically injured by slurs or slanders, save for the stress they cause. Does that make them sting any less? Words are the best tools we have, indeed — but a hammer can be used to smash fingers as well as it can be used to build a house. I’m just advocating using the right tool for the right job, or rather, a more precise tool for the job. You can drive nails with a monkeywrench just fine, but is it really the best use of your skill as a craftsman to do so?

    For me, it’s less about “never using that word again,” and more about giving proper consideration to the weight of the words we use. As I said in the entry, if the situation is appropriate to use a word as culturally loaded as “deathmarch,” then go ahead and use it. But a convention dealer’s room? No. “An endless slog through the Fire Swamp with ROUSes clamped on my ankles” is hyperbolic, nerdy, and devoid of cultural baggage. And it’s funnier.

    Also: There’s been an international campaign to get rid of the r-word for a while now; http://www.r-word.org/ I was hoping things were clear from the context in which I used the contraction, but I can go back and clarify it if you think it really needs clarifying.

  4. Never using a certain word again is fine as long as it’s an individual choice. The tenor of some of the LJ comments you linked to seemed to suggest that this should be a decision made on behalf of everyone, and that’s where I have a problem.

    I knew you meant the word “retard” – I just couldn’t understand why you were unwilling to use it in THIS context. You weren’t calling anyone that; you were citing an example from your past and contrasting it with how you act today. No one with half a brain could accuse you of insensitivity if they read it right. I think you should clarify it, but it’s your call.

  5. I find, after our previous conversations, that I try to be much more careful and much more specific in my language. Overall, I’m glad I do so – it’s not to say “I’m so awesome!” but to say, “I find making the effort to try my best to make other people feel comfortable talking with me to be a happy thing.”

  6. Yes, this exactly. I’m gearing up for the next time I say something ignorant or insensitive, so that I don’t add “hypocritical” to that list of adjectives.

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