Race, politics, gender, religion, money, sexual orientation… are they taboo subjects to avoid? If you’re like me, conflict avoidance is your modus operandi; smile brightly and move on.
Some people claim society has become too politically correct, that we can’t worry about offending every person. People need to get thicker skin and "suck it up, buttercup." But without a modicum of sensitivity, you unnecessarily offend people, which sets up an "us versus them" situation that is damaging to everyone.
In today’s volatile climate at home, abroad, and especially online, you can’t escape controversy. At some point, you may need to write about a controversial topic—so how can you do it with sensitivity?
Educate yourself first
If you’re writing about a controversial topic, it’s best to have a solid understanding before putting pen to paper. If you’re relying on rumors, social media, and biased news sources to inform your thinking, expect to get a lambasting.
Put yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand the other side. Because every story has two sides. If you go on a rant without knowing both sides, you’ll be roasted instead of encouraging people to engage with your content.
Try to understand the counter-point
It's easy to assume that the people who have the opposite point to you are just plain wrong, but you will have more luck connecting with them, and maybe even persuading them, if you try to understand the factors that have led to their opinions.
Recognise that people with disabled children will approach the topic of education with a different perspective. Think about the fact that people who work in the fossil fuel industry are going to have very different stakes in the environmental debate. If you want to have a constructive conversation, think about the realities and fears that drive your opposition and speak to those.
Use the words that the community uses
A common-sense approach is to use inclusive words that the community itself uses. Here are some helpful links:
- Disability Language Style Guide, by the National Center on Disability and Journalism,
- GLAAD Media Reference Guide - Terms To Avoid, for recommended language used within the LGBTQ community,
- Guidelines for Non-Sexist Use of Language, by the American Philosophical Association.
Don’t sacrifice clarity
If you’re trying to tiptoe around a topic, you can make the situation worse. If you’re writing about physically or mentally disabled persons, don’t refer to them as "differently abled" because we’re all actually differently abled. Your readers won’t understand who you’re discussing. Be specific where you can.
Watch out for unintentional bias or prejudice
Have you ever heard this puzzler:
A father and son are in a horrific car accident. The father dies instantly, but the boy is rushed to the hospital. The surgeon enters the operating room and says, "I can’t operate on this boy." The attendants ask, "Why not?" The surgeon responds, "Because he is my son."
It’s such an old one, but in case you’ve never come across it, the surgeon is the boy’s mother. Yes, women can be surgeons.
In your writing, always referring to society as a whole as "mankind" or doctors as "he" is unintentionally sexist. The following example comes from an online research paper (unknown author):
- Enterprising men and creative women have recently shown interest in Software as a Service startups.
- Police chiefs need more free time to spend with their wives and children.
In the first sentence, two different descriptors represent men and women, suggesting a bias. In the second sentence, you could replace "Police chiefs" with doctors, dentists, architects, or any other male-dominant profession, and it would still be sexist.
The English language lacks a universal, gender-neutral singular pronoun, which makes it hard to avoid sounding sexist. Here are a few ways around:
Rewrite your sentence in plural.
- Original: A scientist should control his experiment for variables.
- Better: Scientists should control their experiments for variables.
Stay away from gendered titles.
- Original: The chairman and the policeman discussed the stewardess’s actions.
- Better: The chairperson and the police officer discussed the flight attendant’s actions.
Swap out gendered pronouns with "a" or "the."
- Original: The housekeeper must wash her uniform every evening after work.
- Better: The housekeeper must wash the uniform every evening after work.
Stick to relevant differences only
Does it matter that the person you’re discussing is of a certain race or sexual orientation? If their race or ethnicity, age, religion, disabled status, etc., isn’t relevant to your work, don’t mention it.
Writing with sensitivity doesn’t mean you should ignore differences; it does, however, mean avoid labeling. You should always refer to people as individuals whenever possible rather than a stereotype or pejorative expression. Here is an example:
- Original: The transgendered teenagers sat at a different table from the normal teens.
- Better: The transgendered and non-transgendered teenagers sat at different tables.
When writing about controversial topics, especially if you want someone to consider your point of view, attacking or aggressive language only puts them on the defensive. And when you put someone’s back up immediately, you’ll never have the chance for meaningful dialogue that can change minds.
As a writer, you want to be heard. To avoid being ignored (or worse), approach your subject with sensitivity and common sense. And if you’re worried, have others read your work, especially someone with a different opinion to your own.
Finally, if you’re writing a response to someone else’s post, be kind. Writers need to stick together, not tear each other down. Focus on the topic, and never make it personal.
Have you written about a controversy lately? Let us know in the comments below how you handled it and what you would do differently.