On Sensitivity Readers

Okay, this is likely to be a contentious one, but here we go. There have been the concerns over sensitivity readers and “censorship” and everything making the rounds again. Naturally, this has led to people decrying a “leftist conspiracy” or arguing that something equally untoward is happening. With terms reminiscent of the puppies campaigns, we’re left to look at another weird thing going on in our industry.

Calls like this always seem to me to smack of something that is deserved on the part of the complainant. That no one out to dare to make this kind of change to their work. That there is some sort of requirement that people not get to be offended by their work. The first consideration is that the publisher shouldn’t get to make this kind of determination, and the common assertion I’ve heard is that they should listen to the readers. The truth is that this is exactly what they’re doing. When stories came out that people were offended by, they made their views known. That hurt publisher’s bottom lines, so they changed how they did business.

Most often, the decrying of sensitivity readers and the like are oriented towards a general argument that things “used to be better”. These better days were tied to things that frankly, were worse for a whole lot of people. Take Star Wars, for example. The changes to the movies and themes regularly has elicited complaints (not dealing with people who said that the movies were bad, but the ones who are genuinely claiming that there are problems with there being literally more than two women in positions of power throughout all of the original trilogy).

It becomes more worrying to those that their views be protected than anyone else’s. That their comfort and obligation to be rewarded goes over the interests of others. The anger at sensitivity readers speaks to something else. That a business ought to run their operations in a way that is in compliance with their own world views is bizarre. Never before has it been easier for people to enter the market of ideas, publishing their work and getting to compete for attention.

I’m stuck having difficulty even grappling with the underlying views that are going on here. The anger at a sensitivity reader has, in my experience, quickly ran rampant into a discussion about language police and the like, a failure to make any rhetorical argument aside from appeals to fear.

In my view, there’s something a little insidious going on here. A business gets to run their operations in whatever way they want, so long as it is matches the regulations and laws of their society. We can talk about whether that’s morally right or not, but that’s the world we currently live in. Saying that sensitivity readers are censoring the creative output of what are implied to be salt of the earth types, it immediately implies that the groups are standing on something resembling equal footing. This ignores that in our world right now, young members of the LGBT community are being threatened with violence and worse, that people of colour are statistically and systemically under represented in the media.

If you want to tell your own story, and you’re concerned that a sensitivity reader is going to limit you in some way, perhaps you should evaluate what you’re doing.

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