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Where’s the line in offending?

More often, even a technical writer like me runs into a problem: something I’m going to say offends someone. As creative people and even iOS developers, we can add our content in ways that may have objections from a part of the audience, sometimes by mentioning a name.

First of all, there are very few people in the world who won’t offend someone. Some people have hidden sins either by hiding those sins or having history whitewash the less attractive parts about them. Somebody is going to offense at the slightest thing you say.

SO how do I navigate this? I have a. set of questions I ask myself about each situation. Depending on the answer I’ll act accordingly. Here are the questions in no particular order:

  • Who am I offending?
  • Is the person I’m talking about in power or under the thumb of power?
  • Is it based on history that some groups know and others don’t?
  • Is it history that advances those under the thumb of power or the powerful by narrating the past?
  • Is my intended audience offended, or is it people outside my audience?
  • Does the content’s importance outweigh the creator?
  • Is content divorced from the original creator?
  • Is the creator dead or alive?
  • Does the creator impress me in some way outside of their offense?
  • Does mentioning the offense or offensive person seem like I am defending or promoting the offense/offender?
  • Is it worth using this information for the trouble it will cause?

How I answer those questions lets me evaluate what to do. Some of these overlap.

Any example I give is going to get me in trouble, so just based on the last question I’m not going to give any contemporary examples. but I will elaborate a bit more on some of these. I’ll tend to honor the oppressed in most situations over the people in power. I say tend here because I might be in a position where I am part of the position of power and to support the oppressed will be bad for my health. In some of those situations I just avoid the topic altogether — there is no winners there.

In some situations, I might use the person’s content, but as I refer to them, I’ll remind people of the history behind that person. If I mention Isaac Asimov, I’ll mention he sexually harassed almost every woman he worked with. That I mentioned him here at all goes to the question about death. I will speak ill of the dead and remind people of both their greatness and sins. He won’t profit from the sale of a book now, whereas an author alive today might by just mentioning his or her name.

Sometimes the content can be found elsewhere without the problems of an author. Asimov once wrote a story that he plagiarized from the Talmud[Menachot 29b]. Asimov changed Moses to Shakespeare, but the story of a time-traveling teacher failing a course about his own work in a future teacher’s classroom is otherwise identical. I’ll use the earlier story when I talk about how interpretation over time changes the meaning of a classical work.

Sometimes the content will be either important enough or moved away from a problematic person enough that the content itself stands on its own. If a song has so many covers that no one remembers the original artist was a horrible person, then that song can be quotable. Yes, someone will point out the original author was a real creep, but the flood of other people copying and putting their mark on a creative work erases much of the original author.

One of the good things about this blog being so unpopular is I can get away with pieces like this without getting into too much trouble — at least for now. But if you read this sometime in the future do think about those questions and see how is best for you to answer them.

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