Walking Dead and Charged Language in Writing

Posted by fodigg (6146 posts) - - Show Bio

Hate-filled speech in writing

During last night's episode of The Walking Dead TV show (season 2, episode 5 "Chupacabra"), the character of Merle made a pseudo-return to the show via fevered hallucination (I'll say no more to avoid spoilers) and in that appearance the character used a racial slur to describe the rest of the group that his brother Daryl is traveling with. This term was almost certainly aimed at the one black member of the group, T-Dog. One of my twitter buddies who also watches the show immediately commented on this:

I think we all remember that he was racist. Was that really necessary? #walkingdead

This is an important topic. Should writers use charged terms--hate-speech terms--in their fiction?

This brought me back to a "creative writing" course I took in university. The teacher was a published novelist which was exciting because most of the published authors on the school's staff were of nonfiction biographies and text books. The competition to get into his one class slot every semester was fierce and we all felt lucky to be there. Every week we'd pass around a short story written by a member of the class, read it, and come back the next week to critique it. It was during one of these critiques that this topic came up.

The student for that week --a white student, we were all white in that class and that was far from unusual at that university--had written a story involving a couple of skin heads who got into an altercation and threw out the same term as seen in the episode of walking dead. To say that our instructor was angry would be an understatement. He was livid. He was frothing. This was a man who usually shows less excitement and emotion than Lovie Smith on valium and he was hopping mad. The argument he made was this: by using hate-filled speech you are spreading hate-filled speech, that this is true even if you are portraying the speaker in a negative light, and to never, ever do this. Furthermore, that if you cannot get your point across without hate-filled speech, then you are not much of a writer and should quit now.

At the time, the student couldn't do much more than apologize profusely and do his best to sink into his chair and hide under the table. Later, when I asked him about it, he offered some explanation of intent. He wanted to portray a scene that was believable and "real" in tone. His story called for a gang of attackers targeting the protagonist and he wanted to portray a realistic gang, not a culturally diverse and politically correct "TV gang." He didn't want the cast of the music video for "Beat It." He wanted a believable portrayal of racism, not a polite, artistic clash in the style of the Sharks vs. the Jets.

If it wasn't clear already, I tend to side with my professor on this issue. As someone who has not personally faced sexism, racism, or other forms of bigotry, I feel that bandying about hate-filled terms would be ill-considered, improper, and--appropriateness aside--potentially alienating to segments of my audience. However, I can understand what my fellow student was going for, and I am uncomfortable with the blanket "never" that my professor put down. Even if my teacher meant specifically only for authors in a position of privilege concerning the language in question--in this case a room full of white students from the Midwest attending a private university when the issue is race--I do wonder if there are times when it can be appropriate. As usual when I have these kinds of questions, I looked for examples.

Examples: SNOW CRASH v. THIRTEEN

Two very excellent science fiction novels are Neal Stephenson's classic Snow Crash (1992) and Richard K. Morgan's Thirteen (2007). Both are dystopian-future stories set in a crapsack world where extreme cultural differences and corporate/government excesses have torn America apart. Both feature a black protagonist. Both are written in a hard-boiled style where sex and violence are portrayed bluntly and unsentimentally. Both are written by white authors. And both use charged, racist terms in dialogue. One major difference is that the former is considered a highly influential modern masterpiece while the latter is often seen as a bastion of bad science and unoriginality. And yet it's Morgan's work in Thirteen that I feel makes more defensible use of racially charged language. Let's look at each example. (Note: some spoilers from the first act of each book.)

SNOW CRASH

In Snow Crash, the protagonist (named "Hiro Protagonist," which is awesome) is half-black/half-Korean in ancestry but self-identifies as "military" in terms of his defining sub-culture. He's an expert hacker and one of the primary architects of the setting's version of cyberspace, having programmed its default combat system--an elaborate sword-fighting game. He starts out delivering pizzas for the mafia (yes, really) but winds up involved in a conspiracy involving an info-based weapon that can leave someone brain dead just from looking at an image. This book is a classic and many sci-fi books and movies have borrowed from it since. It was influential even in language, coining the term "avatar" in computing.

It's great. I highly recommend it. But see, there's one scene that I have never liked. Hiro (again, love that name) is on the run from his enemies when he stops off to regroup and refuel in a diner but happens to have picked the wrong side of town. A group of stereotypical redneck racists walk up to Hiro and make it clear they intend to do violence toward him (although it seems more like the narrator telling us than them showing any signs of this) and refer to him with hate-filled racist terms for both sides of his ancestry. Hiro's response is to pull out a freakin' katana and cut the man's head off, then run while his buddies are still in shock.

After Hiro's escape the scene is never referenced again.

THIRTEEN

Thirteen is Morgan's homage to (some would say ripoff of) Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)(aka Blade Runner) where instead of "replicants" we have a group of super-soldiers who were cloned Jurassic Park-style from ancient and purportedly more violent strains of humanity. The most successful of these strains--strain thirteen--was used to create hyper-efficient troops whose lack of "modern empathy" (supposedly an evolutionary preferred trait that was less common if not absent in pre-agriculture times) makes them incredibly dangerous in combat. Of course this led to paranoia among the populace and they banished all "thirteens" to a partially terraformed Mars except for one, a thirteen trained by the British military named Carl Marsalis, who won a lottery to be the bounty hunter who tracks down escaped thirteens.

The question of race is dealt with constantly throughout this book. Outside of the US its title was even The Black Man--a religious reference in context--instead of Thirteen. Where this becomes most clear is when Carl is arrested by the authorities in "Jesusland," a hyper-religious future-Confederacy that is apparently chock full of racists, where Carl faces discrimination based on his ethnicity for the first time (as opposed to his status as a thirteen). The author describes how, being thrust into that environment, the first time he had hate-filled speech directed at him he found it ridiculous and old-fashioned, "like being slapped with glove" (a major theme of the book is that genetics-based discrimination is the "new" racism), but quickly began to take it personally and develop hatred toward his attackers. It also describes a scene where he reveals to another black inmate that he is, in fact, a thirteen and how that changes the way that inmate looks at him.

This segment of the book ends with Carl enacting vicious revenge on the inmates who'd been assaulting him, on the day he's released no less. The book then moves on but comparisons between discrimination based on race and based on his status as a thirteen continue to be made throughout the rest of the book.

Comparison

The reason why I find myself more accepting of the use of this language in Thirteen than in Snow Crash is because--even if it holds to some unusual theories as far as the nature/nurture dynamic--Thirteen is thematically closer to dealing specifically with those issues than Snow Crash. It is about those issues and the strange ways in which humanity divides itself into "us" and "other." Just as one would be hard-pressed to write a story about, for example, the difficulties of growing up as an out gay boy or girl in high school without using any homophobic slurs in dialogue, when dealing directly with issues of racism it can be hard not utilize that language. The scene in Snow Crash by comparison seems to exist simply to throw another fight scene in, and that's it. Sure, it shows us that racism still exists but it does so with flat, stock characters that are introduced only to spout their hate-filled speech and then get beheaded. They're not actually developed, they're not actually a part of the plot, and the whole thing isn't really related to the core theme of the book. Because of this, it doesn't feel like the author is actually engaging the subject in any meaningful way. It's like it was added for "style" purposes rather than substance, and that's what bothers me about it.

WALKING DEAD and hate-filled speech

So where does Walking Dead fall into this dynamic of using it for style or using it for substance? The story isn't necessarily about race and racism, which initially makes me feel that it falls into the Snow Crash area, but anyone who tries to tell you it's just about zombies doesn't really get what's going on either. The story is about division among the survivors, and the racism of Merle is one way in which the group of survivors are divided. It's one of the ways the humans are shown to be "worse" than the zombie horde, who are united across all cultural divides in their lust for brains. That type of comparison is a central theme of the comic book and of the show. Does that make the use of this language justifiable? Necessary even? Or can you include that subplot without also including offensive speech?

I would argue that yes, you can. Or, at least, you can keep it to a strict minimum. The earliest introduction of Merle might have called for it, but even then we had him clashing directly--in a physical altercation--with T-Dog so I'm not sure the use of any specific racist term would be necessary to show that he's got a problem with T-Dog. Yes, it does serve to paint Merle as villainous and perhaps not deserving of our sympathies, but it's a touch heavy-handed. I don't think that enough is gained from using this term, especially in the most recent appearance, to justify its presence in the dialogue. The subplot of racism could have been introduced and been just as effective without. I honestly don't recall if the comic book ever used such terminology, but can't think of a time when I feel it would've been necessary there either.

What does everyone else think? Is the Walking Dead TV show justified in using explicit hate-speech terms? Are they necessary for the story they're trying to tell and the tone they're trying to set? Or do you agree with me that it perhaps shuffles a bit across the line of good taste? Let me know!

#1 Posted by EdBlank (525 posts) - - Show Bio

Excellent analysis. I am black and I felt a twinge of uncomfortableness when I heard it last night. I will probably lose interest in this show altogether becuase of it. Here's why I would quit watching: they are daring me to tune out by harping on that special word. They are telling me that if I want to be a part of it then I just have to deal with it and of course their product is so excellent that I'll just have to take it. Frankly it's not that clever anyway.

#2 Posted by KPF14 (1 posts) - - Show Bio

I didn't watch the show--so I don't know what was said. But I do think this is an important topic for any writer. I can also see both sides. Personally, when I write, I try to avoid jarring words. But still, I understand when you try to write as a character you don't want to skimp on the language if it makes the character real. I wonder where the line gets drawn on what language can happen and what cannot.

I do believe that there is a difference between reading the word and hearing the word. If you come across that language in a book, it can be shocking, but I think you experience it differently than when you hear it on a show. There are other ways to express the racism. But it's AMC. Maybe they want to be controversial and shocking.

Basically, what I really wanted to comment on was this line: "by using hate-filled speech you are spreading hate-filled speech." In the movie Mean Girls a main message is for girls to not call one another nasty names. When they do, then they're saying it's okay for others, especially men, to call them those names. To me this is ironic, as one of the most popular and over-quoted lines of the movie is, "Boo, you whore." It became an extremely popular phrase among teens. In fact, I still hear friends using it today. So, I guess that message didn't stick. And even though everyone uses it as a joke, it still perpetuates the usage. I know this is a different situation--but I thought it was a good example of how language can be perpetuated through writing/media.

#3 Posted by Daveyo520 (2447 posts) - - Show Bio

I think in context it was fine. As you said, you are not supposed to like him. He is a racist and guess what? Racists say racial slurs. So it is just being truer to life and not afraid to pretend racists don't say such things. Pretending that that stuff doesn't exist is not a good thing.

#4 Posted by ruckus24 (137 posts) - - Show Bio

"The argument he made was this: by using hate-filled speech you are spreading hate-filled speech, that this is true even if you are portraying the speaker in a negative light, and to never, ever do this. Furthermore, that if you cannot get your point across without hate-filled speech, then you are not much of a writer and should quit now."

By this reckoning, the following writers should never have set pen to paper: William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Lynda Barry, John Steinbeck, Robert A. Heinlein, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, David Mamet, Kevin Smith, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Rick Veitch, Harlan Ellison, Kurt Sutter, David Chase... the list goes on. There are many lies that we are told by people who purport to be our teachers in life, and some of the worst falsehoods I have ever encountered have been spread by "Creative Writing" teachers. Here's the thing. When you write, your first, last and only obligation is to the truth. If the character you are writing uses "trigger" words in his dialogue we'd damn well better hear them, or the character rings falsely and you've created just another hollow cypher.

Frankly, charged language is not always "hate-filled speech" either. Case in point: When Aunt Sally asks if anyone was hurt in the riverboat explosion, and Huck answers "No'm. Killed a nigger." She replies, "Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt." This isn't hate-filled speech. It's simply the way the characters speak. The force of this dialogue is in their casual acceptance of African Americans as less than human, ironically even by Huck, whose main teacher and father figure in the story is the escaped slave Jim. My point here is that the charged language forces us to confront the way we think about racial tensions that still exist. It's necessary and integral to the novel.

Unfortunately for our chosen hobby, mainstream comics have many of the same censorship issues television has. Comic books are routinely written with a certain amount of sanitisation in mind, because of the mistaken impression that the audience needs to be protected from "charged language" or "adult situations." The reality is that in a lot of cases, we've swapped good parenting and ratiocination for shallow stories rife with rampant political correctness. We're not perpetuating hate when we write about a racist who speaks like a racist. We are simply doing our jobs as writers... we're telling the truth. Is it possible to get your point across without using charged language? Of course it is. I'm merely saying that the characters must ring true, and often in order to do that you have to use a few dirty words.

As a final note here's some wise words by another person who never should have started writing:

"Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe."

–Franz Kafka

#5 Posted by The_Tree (7493 posts) - - Show Bio

I'm not black, so maybe it's different, but I really didn't mind Merle saying what he did. He's a jerk, he's supposed to make you uncomfortable, and hate him.

Online
#6 Edited by CATPANEXE (9368 posts) - - Show Bio

It's a hard line given it's sold as mature drama so in buying into it in the first place a person is inviting themselves to any number of things that might not suit there preference. I think shortly to controlled content in art and entertainment to only say, well you did watch a rated-r movie on Showtime, looked a mature rated comic, ect. In extreme example a person complaining about the content in X rated magazines and the heckler comes back with " So you admit to reading it? "

In Walking Dead's case though like many zombie apocalypse stories the story more itself is the difficulty the human's have working together due to a number of their members severe personality flaws, and the likelihood that they were somewhat tenacious and violent tended persons before the outbreak and that's why nature favored them to survive much longer than most. The basis is a reflection on human nature, with even when faced with the end and especially under the darkest clouds society tends to propose itself in manners that would otherwise be shunned and leading to the group members turning on each other. There's clearly personal issues being developed between many of the members, and laid out to such an extreme that their really can't be any doubt why their later actions are plausible and/or likely. Bad blood to be point. I makes sense in a sense. Should it go, maybe not. Should you like it when the character says it, now that's the important question? No, your supposed to be upset, that's called relation and impact. Or at the least one should feel shamed in a sense. You hear the word in real life too, and on this site for that matter, frequently among every other derogatory and inflammatory term, everything in the art should reflect this. Your meant to be taught and learn from this, not to be blinded and deafened. Point that I'm making is that people do things constantly that are wrong. The by and large reason is no one ever teaches them it is, and more, why it is, shows them what the effect is, how it effects other people, hence they never learn to take their actions seriously until it's far to late, especially in the case it hurts someone else. It helps to put a person in the other persons shoes for a bit and experience where what seem like little pinpricks lead up to bad injuries.

#7 Edited by dvorak (187 posts) - - Show Bio

It's just a shortcut to make you know that character is the dude you are supposed to hate. It's a writing crutch mostly.

There's more subtle ways to go about it, but really, it's been a part of genre writing forever, right or wrong. We all know people really talk like this though, and just as many assholes are going to survive the zombie apocalypse as those who are socially aware. It does serve a purpose in this story though, to demonstrate that even the asshole racist is still human and that we are all capable of overcoming social constructs to help a fellow man in a dire situation.

Racists overcoming racism after saying some fucked up shit and learning they have been wrong their whole life after a life changing event is a huge trope of movies and TV though, so we should all just get used to it. American History X, is a perfect example of this. That film, as awful as it may be, perfectly outlines this whole situation.

#8 Posted by cattlebattle (12796 posts) - - Show Bio

Wasn't that big of a deal, they use racial slurs in all kinds of context all over television these days, and for a character like Merle, it's pretty common as he is obviously a white supremacist....and guess what...they say that word in real life....
 
 
(I think this thread was just an excuse for fodigg  to brag about books he has read)

#9 Posted by fodigg (6146 posts) - - Show Bio

Hey all, thanks for reading! And thanks to CV for posting it up on the front page!

@EdBlank said:

Excellent analysis. I am black and I felt a twinge of uncomfortableness when I heard it last night. I will probably lose interest in this show altogether becuase of it. Here's why I would quit watching: they are daring me to tune out by harping on that special word. They are telling me that if I want to be a part of it then I just have to deal with it and of course their product is so excellent that I'll just have to take it. Frankly it's not that clever anyway.

Yeah, and this reaction is always my big concern when writing. It alienates the audience and for what? "Realism?" There are other ways to portray racism realistically, and in fact, going that route can result in a more meaningful exploration of the topic. If including bigoted terms is going to gain you no viewers (or at least, not the viewers you want to support) and lose you viewers who would otherwise be fans, well I don't see the math on including it.

@KPF14 said:

I didn't watch the show--so I don't know what was said. But I do think this is an important topic for any writer. I can also see both sides. Personally, when I write, I try to avoid jarring words. But still, I understand when you try to write as a character you don't want to skimp on the language if it makes the character real. I wonder where the line gets drawn on what language can happen and what cannot.

I do believe that there is a difference between reading the word and hearing the word. If you come across that language in a book, it can be shocking, but I think you experience it differently than when you hear it on a show. There are other ways to express the racism. But it's AMC. Maybe they want to be controversial and shocking.

Basically, what I really wanted to comment on was this line: "by using hate-filled speech you are spreading hate-filled speech." In the movie Mean Girls a main message is for girls to not call one another nasty names. When they do, then they're saying it's okay for others, especially men, to call them those names. To me this is ironic, as one of the most popular and over-quoted lines of the movie is, "Boo, you whore." It became an extremely popular phrase among teens. In fact, I still hear friends using it today. So, I guess that message didn't stick. And even though everyone uses it as a joke, it still perpetuates the usage. I know this is a different situation--but I thought it was a good example of how language can be perpetuated through writing/media.

Good points on the reading vs. hearing. That's not something I'd considered. And the example from Mean Girls is something I never would've picked up on. Seems like a 'broken aesop' or whatever where an author spends an entire book/film showing how awesome something is and then end with "but here's the downside so don't do it." At the end of Saturday Night Fever John Travolta's character becomes entirely disenfranchised with the shallowness of disco culture after winning a dancing competition simply because the judges are racist. He gives away his trophy to the couple he thinks deserved it and walks out of disco culture forever. And despite this ending, that film was more responsible for getting people into disco culture than any other.

@Daveyo520 said:

I think in context it was fine. As you said, you are not supposed to like him. He is a racist and guess what? Racists say racial slurs. So it is just being truer to life and not afraid to pretend racists don't say such things. Pretending that that stuff doesn't exist is not a good thing.

There's pretending it doesn't happen and using it casually. I'd say Walking Dead stands somewhere in the gray area between casual and addressing racism seriously, so I'm not sure it was entirely justified.

@ruckus24 said:

"The argument he made was this: by using hate-filled speech you are spreading hate-filled speech, that this is true even if you are portraying the speaker in a negative light, and to never, ever do this. Furthermore, that if you cannot get your point across without hate-filled speech, then you are not much of a writer and should quit now."

By this reckoning, the following writers should never have set pen to paper: William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Lynda Barry, John Steinbeck, Robert A. Heinlein, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, David Mamet, Kevin Smith, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Rick Veitch, Harlan Ellison, Kurt Sutter, David Chase... the list goes on. There are many lies that we are told by people who purport to be our teachers in life, and some of the worst falsehoods I have ever encountered have been spread by "Creative Writing" teachers. Here's the thing. When you write, your first, last and only obligation is to the truth. If the character you are writing uses "trigger" words in his dialogue we'd damn well better hear them, or the character rings falsely and you've created just another hollow cypher.

Well, obviously I agree that works which take on racism directly are more justified in using it and I'm also uncomfortable with a blanket "never" when it comes to art. However, I doubt any of the authors you listed ever needed to take a creative writing course. In these classes it's the instructor's job to turn out competent writers and improve them incrementally, not to foster the next great master. ANY rule in writing will have been broken by a master of the craft at one point of another. One of my favorite negative online reviews of a great book was when a guy claimed Tolkien was unreadable because he used too many adverbs.

Frankly, charged language is not always "hate-filled speech" either. Case in point: When Aunt Sally asks if anyone was hurt in the riverboat explosion, and Huck answers "No'm. Killed a nigger." She replies, "Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt." This isn't hate-filled speech. It's simply the way the characters speak. The force of this dialogue is in their casual acceptance of African Americans as less than human, ironically even by Huck, whose main teacher and father figure in the story is the escaped slave Jim. My point here is that the charged language forces us to confront the way we think about racial tensions that still exist. It's necessary and integral to the novel.

How is that example not hate-filled speech? I mean, I agree that it's integral to the novel because exposing and addressing racism is central to its theme but I don't understand your initial claim at all.

Is it possible to get your point across without using charged language? Of course it is. I'm merely saying that the characters must ring true, and often in order to do that you have to use a few dirty words.

There's "a few dirty words" and then there are words that are wrapped up in centuries of hate and segments of the population face down regularly in their daily lives. If you're talking about that in your book, okay, then you should be true to it, but if you're not, or only tangentially talking about it, I'm not sure it's worth using.

As a final note here's some wise words by another person who never should have started writing:
"Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe."
–Franz Kafka

I doubt very much Kafka was talking about being able to use racist words freely, but rather generally that the author's role is to capture strong emotions and turn that on the reader. To build up something the reader loves and then kill it on the page. Again, if you're out to show the ugliness of racism and bigotry, that's one thing, but otherwise no, it's kind of irresponsible to throw such language at the reader just cause you want your work to have a little more "sting." That's the cheap way to go about it.

@The_Tree said:

I'm not black, so maybe it's different, but I really didn't mind Merle saying what he did. He's a jerk, he's supposed to make you uncomfortable, and hate him.

Well, can't the above be accomplished without using bigoted language? You could get the same effect without.

@CATPANEXE said:

It's a hard line given it's sold as mature drama so in buying into it in the first place a person is inviting themselves to any number of things that might not suit there preference. I think shortly to controlled content in art and entertainment to only say, well you did watch a rated-r movie on Showtime, looked a mature rated comic, ect. In extreme example a person complaining about the content in X rated magazines and the heckler comes back with " So you admit to reading it? "

In Walking Dead's case though like many zombie apocalypse stories the story more itself is the difficulty the human's have working together due to a number of their members severe personality flaws, and the likelihood that they were somewhat tenacious and violent tended persons before the outbreak and that's why nature favored them to survive much longer than most. The basis is a reflection on human nature, with even when faced with the end and especially under the darkest clouds society tends to propose itself in manners that would otherwise be shunned and leading to the group members turning on each other. There's clearly personal issues being developed between many of the members, and laid out to such an extreme that their really can't be any doubt why their later actions are plausible and/or likely. Bad blood to be point. I makes sense in a sense. Should it go, maybe not. Should you like it when the character says it, now that's the important question? No, your supposed to be upset, that's called relation and impact. Or at the least one should feel shamed in a sense. You hear the word in real life too, and on this site for that matter, frequently among every other derogatory and inflammatory term, everything in the art should reflect this. Your meant to be taught and learn from this, not to be blinded and deafened. Point that I'm making is that people do things constantly that are wrong. The by and large reason is no one ever teaches them it is, and more, why it is, shows them what the effect is, how it effects other people, hence they never learn to take their actions seriously until it's far to late, especially in the case it hurts someone else. It helps to put a person in the other persons shoes for a bit and experience where what seem like little pinpricks lead up to bad injuries.

Are we not supposed to like Merle? He's defiant, he's tough, he's a proven survivor. He's also already had a crowning moment of badass when he sawed off his own hand (and then cauterized it) to save himself, and his brother is still out to find him and save him. I feel like the writers are setting Merle up as "the jerk you need" kind of like Shane and then daring you not to like him by throwing the word at people. I have no trouble believing there are a number of racist fans of the show cheering for him and getting off on his language, just as American History X is quite popular with white supremacists. I'm not advocating that you have to have an anvilicious "racist gets his" every single time you have one of these characters, but I'm not entirely convinced it's okay just because we're not supposed to like Merle.

Now, that said, you have good points about people knowing what they're signing up for with a mature drama. I could see certain situations the show has put forth as potential triggers, such as the extended subplot of the missing girl. However, I just don't see it as the same type of thing. I think if you're gonna use bigoted speech, you should be taking that bigotry on seriously. If you feel Walking Dead does this, then I can see why you wouldn't have a problem with it. I'm just not as sure that's the case. At the moment it feels like part of the scenery.

@dvorak said:

It's just a shortcut to make you know that character is the dude you are supposed to hate. It's a writing crutch mostly.

There's more subtle ways to go about it, but really, it's been a part of genre writing forever, right or wrong. We all know people really talk like this though, and just as many assholes are going to survive the zombie apocalypse as those who are socially aware. It does serve a purpose in this story though, to demonstrate that even the asshole racist is still human and that we are all capable of overcoming social constructs to help a fellow man in a dire situation.

Racists overcoming racism after saying some fucked up shit and learning they have been wrong their whole life after a life changing event is a huge trope of movies and TV though, so we should all just get used to it. American History X, is a perfect example of this. That film, as awful as it may be, perfectly outlines this whole situation.

Well, American History X--various issues with that film aside--was entirely about addressing and exploring the topic of racism. Also, I'm not sure the writers are setting Merle up to be redeemed. I do agree that using bigoted language--a character putting on his "racist hat"--is a crutch and an overused one at that.

@cattlebattle said:

Wasn't that big of a deal, they use racial slurs in all kinds of context all over television these days, and for a character like Merle, it's pretty common as he is obviously a white supremacist....and guess what...they say that word in real life....

That they do, but the dialogue in the show is selective. We can have a plot where we know Merle is a racist and assume he uses such language while the bigoted terms in the dialogue we see is limited.

(I think this thread was just an excuse for fodigg to brag about books he has read)

I do like books. The two I mention above are both fantastic. Although I think I actually like Stephenson's Diamond Age more than Snow Crash because it's more post-cyberpunk than cyberpunk and my favorite Morgan novel is definitely Market Forces. Great writers, both of them.

---

Thanks again to everyone for reading!

#10 Posted by EdBlank (525 posts) - - Show Bio

It's likely that those who defend the use of the word "nigger" in the TV show also use it freely in their homes. Sure at the end of Friday the 13th they stop Jason for a little while and the message is "killing: bad". But who watches Jason movies? Not gentle people who think killing is wrong, it's people who enjoy seeing simulated beheadings.

#11 Posted by fodigg (6146 posts) - - Show Bio

@EdBlank said:

It's likely that those who defend the use of the word "nigger" in the TV show also use it freely in their homes. Sure at the end of Friday the 13th they stop Jason for a little while and the message is "killing: bad". But who watches Jason movies? Not gentle people who think killing is wrong, it's people who enjoy seeing simulated beheadings.

I don't know if it's likely but I certainly think there's an element of that. There are probably some other motivations one could attribute to defenders:

  • Those who view any limits on art as censorship that must be fought against
  • Those who dislike anything they view as "PC-ish"
  • Those who figure "well that's how it really is, right?"
  • Those who think racism isn't a big deal anymore or is far less prevalent than it really is
  • Those who feel the topic of racism is central to the show's theme and therefore its use is appropriate

Of those arguments the last is the only one I find reasonable but I still disagree that Walking Dead qualifies as a serious take on racism.

#12 Posted by Youngindy21 (17 posts) - - Show Bio

I am black and have no problem with him using the N-word because the writers of the show are trying to show the audience how much of an A-hole Merle is. This isn't the first time Merle has said the N-word in The Walking Dead. Just like I don't get offended when The actors in the AMC show Hell on Wheels say the N-word because most likely they aren't racist and they use the word to make the show more realistic because it is set during the Reconstruction Era of the United States. Now if they were just Using it just to use it then I would have a problem. I don't use the word in real life and neither should anybody else but if they need to use in a TV show to make it more realistic then I am fine with that.

#13 Posted by ARMIV2 (8561 posts) - - Show Bio

All the slurs he used in that sentence of his made me feel uncomfortable, but that's part of his character. He's a scumbag being a scumbag.

#14 Posted by SC (13133 posts) - - Show Bio

Nice blog - I fall somewhere in the middle. I won't use the word/s, but thats more about my ego in thinking I don't need to use the word and some other words, and some other imagery, and - I like to think I can convey a story with as much effect without using somethings. That being said I don't mind when other people do. With their stories. Or with movies, books, music I watch, and listen to. I understand why they might wish to as well. I usually like to sort of appeal to any who creates stories to other to not just entertain but to educate and or make people feel better than worse. As far as their perceptions on others are. Of course the people accessing the stories will all be different and people will almost always be offended no matter what. Still thats no excuse to not care about offending people or trying to if one wishes to, wonder about how their stories can impact beyond the creative measures. Sort of like a type willful ignorance. 
 
Anyway, yes, great blog and replies! 

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#15 Posted by Gylan Thomas (2727 posts) - - Show Bio

It's fiction. As long as it's not being glamourised in anyway and a blatantly racist character isn't being presented as heroic let the writers use it. To say they can't use it would be to ignore the fact that kind of thing happens in real life. The show isn't advertised as my little pony or something. If you can't cope with the themes presented don't watch it. If the quality of the story is high enough it'll keep it's audience. Rappers and such use the word all the time and get away with it so let fiction writers portraing villains do it too. The most important thing here is to know the difference between actual hate and a work of fiction.

#16 Posted by Gylan Thomas (2727 posts) - - Show Bio

@protect_yourself It's kinda all fiction in that none of it's real or even based on a true story. It's a TV show about Zombies based on a comic book. It's not sold as an all ages show and unfortunately there are people out there in the real world who still use that kinda language. We can't ignore that because ignorin' it wont make it go away and will only shock us more when we're reminded it still exists.

#17 Posted by SC (13133 posts) - - Show Bio
@Gylan Thomas:  Great points. I think the counter view, isn't about who can get away with what, but about necessity. Or looking for alternatives. Creativity. I also agree about the ignoring it factor. Words and the subjective power they have and their importance are important. Still chances are if you can see the Walking Dead TV, you'll be able to learn and be aware of the word without the show, so its about realizing the show isn't a bubble. (not that this is me arguing or advocating it shouldn't be used)  
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#18 Posted by ruckus24 (137 posts) - - Show Bio

Okay, you've had a lot of people making a lot of good points in this thread, but judging from your responses I'm not sure whether you're genuinely interested in discussing and debating this topic, or if you simply want to re-iterate your opinion. Either way is fine by me (after all that seems to be what a blog is for) however I am going to assume the former.

@fodigg said:

However, I doubt any of the authors you listed ever needed to take a creative writing course. In these classes it's the instructor's job to turn out competent writers and improve them incrementally, not to foster the next great master.

I will postulate that no writer has ever or will ever need to take a creative writing course, no matter the relative skill level. It's possible that there are teachers out there that see their job in a creative writing class to turn out competent writers and to improve them incrementally, however I've never seen it. What I have seen, and this is taken from experiencing exactly 1/2 of a "creative writing" course and auditing seven different courses over the years from as many different colleges, is men and women who would rather force their personal political agendas down the eager throats of many bright, talented writers, rather than teach the craft of writing creatively. It seems to me that's exactly what you experienced, and I've seen this happen far too often to consider myself proven wrong. Fledgling writers are far better served by composition and rhetoric courses where they can learn the ground rules of writing well, and work-shopping with their peers where they can refine their talents.

@fodigg said:

How is that example not hate-filled speech? I mean, I agree that it's integral to the novel because exposing and addressing racism is central to its theme but I don't understand your initial claim at all.

The example I gave isn't hate-filled speech because there's no hatred expressed there. There's no hatred on the author's part, and there's no hatred expressed on the part of the characters speaking either. It's simply the way the characters given the time period and their social upbringing speak. When we read that passage are we made uncomfortable by Huck and Aunt Sally's easy devaluation of human life? Of course we are. But there's no hatred reflected here. It's indifference and that's not the same thing.

Look, I'm not advocating the right to use racist words freely. I'm advocating the right to use all words freely. I think that use of charged language should be as carefully considered as every word you set down when writing a story. You seemed to miss my entire point so to reiterate, "When you write, your first, last and only obligation is to the truth. If the character you are writing uses "trigger" words in his dialogue we'd damn well better hear them, or the character rings falsely and you've created just another hollow cypher.

#19 Posted by fodigg (6146 posts) - - Show Bio

@ruckus24 said:

Okay, you've had a lot of people making a lot of good points in this thread, but judging from your responses I'm not sure whether you're genuinely interested in discussing and debating this topic, or if you simply want to re-iterate your opinion. Either way is fine by me (after all that seems to be what a blog is for) however I am going to assume the former.

Why would you expect my perspective to change in a span of days? Why would you assume because I'm supporting my position that I'm not open to honest discussion? I don't think I've been dismissive of anyone.

I will postulate that no writer has ever or will ever need to take a creative writing course, no matter the relative skill level. It's possible that there are teachers out there that see their job in a creative writing class to turn out competent writers and to improve them incrementally, however I've never seen it. What I have seen, and this is taken from experiencing exactly 1/2 of a "creative writing" course and auditing seven different courses over the years from as many different colleges, is men and women who would rather force their personal political agendas down the eager throats of many bright, talented writers, rather than teach the craft of writing creatively. It seems to me that's exactly what you experienced, and I've seen this happen far too often to consider myself proven wrong. Fledgling writers are far better served by composition and rhetoric courses where they can learn the ground rules of writing well, and work-shopping with their peers where they can refine their talents.

I honestly don't know either way. I think different methods work better for different students. But the creative writing courses (a whopping two of them) were the only ones offered at my university that included work shopping in anything other than with a partner or in small groups. Otherwise my writing courses had lovely titles like Writing For the Professions and whatnot, where you learn to write a proper email and perform technical writing. Even those courses were pretty useless and I got most of my practical writing experience working as a tutor in the writing center and that basically involved going over countless English 001 and 002 essays and little else. It's not that I thought the creative writing courses were "great" or the instructor perfect, but it was certainly a breath of fresh air. However, if you feel that workshopping a story without any member of the group in a position of authority is more effective, I'm not necessarily against that. I do think you're generalizing a bit though, even with your experience.

The example I gave isn't hate-filled speech because there's no hatred expressed there. There's no hatred on the author's part, and there's no hatred expressed on the part of the characters speaking either. It's simply the way the characters given the time period and their social upbringing speak. When we read that passage are we made uncomfortable by Huck and Aunt Sally's easy devaluation of human life? Of course we are. But there's no hatred reflected here. It's indifference and that's not the same thing.

I think you're interpreting the term "hate speech" pretty literally here and conflating it with the general term of "hatred." Now that I see what you meant I understand your position and don't disagree.

Look, I'm not advocating the right to use racist words freely. I'm advocating the right to use all words freely. I think that use of charged language should be as carefully considered as every word you set down when writing a story. You seemed to miss my entire point so to reiterate, "When you write, your first, last and only obligation is to the truth. If the character you are writing uses "trigger" words in his dialogue we'd damn well better hear them, or the character rings falsely and you've created just another hollow cypher.

I think that's a false dichotomy. It doesn't have to be "truth" or "hollow cypher." Again, my position is not the hard line rule advocated by my ex-professor, but it's also not to ignore these considerations entirely because you're holding to some inner sense of truth. If you feel that's covered by generally being "carefully considered" in general, then again, I think we basically agree and are only arguing over differences in how we explain it.

#20 Posted by Gylan Thomas (2727 posts) - - Show Bio

@SC said:

@Gylan Thomas: Great points. I think the counter view, isn't about who can get away with what, but about necessity. Or looking for alternatives. Creativity. I also agree about the ignoring it factor. Words and the subjective power they have and their importance are important. Still chances are if you can see the Walking Dead TV, you'll be able to learn and be aware of the word without the show, so its about realizing the show isn't a bubble. (not that this is me arguing or advocating it shouldn't be used)

I don't understand the creativity angle. Is it creative or dumming down to leave out things that happen in the real world?

#21 Posted by SC (13133 posts) - - Show Bio
@Gylan Thomas said:

@SC said:

@Gylan Thomas: Great points. I think the counter view, isn't about who can get away with what, but about necessity. Or looking for alternatives. Creativity. I also agree about the ignoring it factor. Words and the subjective power they have and their importance are important. Still chances are if you can see the Walking Dead TV, you'll be able to learn and be aware of the word without the show, so its about realizing the show isn't a bubble. (not that this is me arguing or advocating it shouldn't be used)

I don't understand the creativity angle. Is it creative or dumming down to leave out things that happen in the real world?

 
Possibly, if its viewed as that simple by the people putting the story together. As in choice between leaving things out or including them. (as opposed to imagining all the variables)
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#22 Posted by RedheadedAtrocitus (6885 posts) - - Show Bio

My only issue is that despite how uncomfortable Merle Dixon's vitriolic racism is, I do not believe that its not without merit for the whole of the story. Sure, its offensive to hear, but it should be the same for anyone if if T-Dogg or others called Merle and Daryl such derogatory terms as "redneck", or "hick", or "cracker." Charged language in writing is an artistic device to convey a point and true art must never be hampered by restrictions, whether in the printed word or otherwise. I would say then the writers and producers of the show are justified in such language even if it does seem to be in bad taste. It definitely got people focused on the character of Merle, that's for sure!

#23 Posted by perry_411 (428 posts) - - Show Bio

Use all the hate speech you want. This is America.

#24 Posted by JonesDeini (3620 posts) - - Show Bio

Personally I have no problem with this as I support free speech/expression to the death. As an black man who's been called "Nigger" plenty of times growing up in the American south/midwest I know well the power to inflict pain that the term can have. Therefore if it offends other it's their right to feel so and I respect that. But personally as long as it makes sense within the context of plot/character then offensive language/behavior doesn't bother me.

#25 Edited by JonesDeini (3620 posts) - - Show Bio

@RedheadedAtrocitus said:

My only issue is that despite how uncomfortable Merle Dixon's vitriolic racism is, I do not believe that its not without merit for the whole of the story. Sure, its offensive to hear, but it should be the same for anyone if if T-Dogg or others called Merle and Daryl such derogatory terms as "redneck", or "hick", or "cracker." Charged language in writing is an artistic device to convey a point and true art must never be hampered by restrictions, whether in the printed word or otherwise. I would say then the writers and producers of the show are justified in such language even if it does seem to be in bad taste. It definitely got people focused on the character of Merle, that's for sure!

Yup artists should always be free to express themselves, as I should always be free to like or dislike it.

#26 Posted by RedheadedAtrocitus (6885 posts) - - Show Bio

@JonesDeini: Testify!

#27 Posted by Paracelsus (1652 posts) - - Show Bio

Personally I think that such language could be defended if it is there for plot's sake and not for its own gratuitous sake( pace profanity in military or police oriented fiction) or is a period drama( pace set in the segregationist or slaveowning Deep South prior to the US Civil War).

Terry

#28 Posted by LP (675 posts) - - Show Bio

@Daveyo520 said:

I think in context it was fine. As you said, you are not supposed to like him. He is a racist and guess what? Racists say racial slurs. So it is just being truer to life and not afraid to pretend racists don't say such things. Pretending that that stuff doesn't exist is not a good thing.

#29 Posted by Ganthetsward20 (687 posts) - - Show Bio

I agree with some of the other people. Given the situation of a show its not completely uncalled for. In Walking Dead the 'rules' of society are gone. You can say what you want and not make friends and be an asshole. Just know that being that way in this sort of situation can lead you to having to chop off a hand, or being disowned by your group, or being zombi bait...a lot.

#30 Posted by shrmntnk62 (251 posts) - - Show Bio

I thought it was an excellant example of what a scumbag Merle was.

#31 Posted by Osiris1428 (1349 posts) - - Show Bio

This was a great and well thought out post. Of course everyone is allowed to write how they want, but, the word "nigger", is it's use in this episode shallow, flat, and needlessly heavy handed in it's use? Yes. And no. On the one hand, Merle is someone I believe I could find in the real world. People like that, they use that word to make themselves feel better. It's a bully mentality. On the other hand, maybe it's the way it was delivered, but, felt kind of forced, liked they hoped the reaction the audience would be like "ooooh....they said...."

And by the way, in the comic, it was at the prison during an attack by a horde of zombies, Rick killed one of the inmates. Afterwards, Otis came to one of the women who were on the farm and scolded her for helping "the niggers."

#32 Posted by huser (97 posts) - - Show Bio

I'd rather it not be charged. Just as an example I thought it especially weird that on Lost, Sawyer, especially early on being a shady southern gentleman who had no problem calling people names never busted any out on the group of crazies he was stranded with. ESPECIALLY early on when each episode was a question of who he had beef with. It makes sense in character for Sawyer to probably be a lot more free with the hate speech, heck for a lot of people in a lot more shows. Because such people actually exist and I would think it would definitely come out in crisis situations far less dramatic than on Lost. It certainly wouldn't require a very special ep to have to be confronted with hate.

#33 Posted by Vampire_Batman (126 posts) - - Show Bio

I think the reason why it is unacceptable is due to the race of the speaker. There would most likely be a lot less attention given to this if it had been a non white speaker. Racism is present in real life. This is an attempt to make the show more realistic or..... Show a completely irredeemable villain (one who uses racial slurs).

#34 Posted by Whitebox (3 posts) - - Show Bio

Would it have been realistic if a group of skin heads had said "Let us rough up this gosh darn coloured fellow."?

#35 Posted by cbishop (8260 posts) - - Show Bio

Ooooh, I think I just found where all the thinkers hang out - except for Whitebox - who let him in? <winks at Whitebox> Just kidding. Whitebox boils it down to the essential question, I think: if you're not comfortable with real life language from a character that it is believable coming from, then how far do you expect to back off, before the character is a farce? I loved this blog, and the comments thus far, because this is a question that I have struggled with, through thirty-five years of collecting comics and developing my own characters, and yeah yeah yeah, thirty-five painful years of television. I am old enough to remember the hooplah over the first "damn" on network TV, as well as the shock of Batman's first "damn." Now, we've progressed to the shock over the n-word and other racial slurs, and don't blink at the random "b***h" or "s**t." It's not an easy question to answer, even for ourselves.

Personally, four-letter language has become my albatross over the years, in speech - some could justifiably call meThe F-Bomber. I'm making a concentrated effort to curb that language now, because I love my three year old nephew, and don't want to be the person he picks those words up from. However, I long, long ago dropped most foul language from my writing (did we really create a PC term for "foul language?" "Charged language?" Really?). I used to curse freely in my personal journals from my high school years, but later found that rereading them made me wince. So I decided that personally, I prefer not to use foul language in my writing. But if I do, it is most definitely for effect, and usually to convey some deep, hard to get to frustration that foul language helps me take a shortcut to - a shortcut that I know most readers can identify with.

And that seems to be the most basic consideration, when deciding on foul language in your writing: your audience. I have been frustrated by all levels of foul language usage (or non-usage) in comics. As a child, I was properly shielded from foul language by the "What the he--," dutifully cut short by the hero's crushing blow, and scathing "Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?" A few years later, I thought it was funny that they almost said a bad word, and a few years after that, I thought the companies were too cowardly to use real cuss words, when TV was already using them. In my twenties, I was disgusted by Milestone's decision to put little squiggles where the curse words should be - something they considered a compromise. That is, if it would offend you, read past the squiggles, but if you desired curses from the super powered gang bangers, then gleefully replace the squiggles with whatever foul language you feel is appropriate for fighting a snarling purple T-Rex. In retrospect, I still think it's a little weak, but it was probably the best decision for the time. At that time though, my feeling was "either just do it or don't bother," and I was already at the point where I would have rather not seen it (plus I felt it was damaging to the Milestone line as a whole, and what I interpreted therir goal to be).

Fast forward to now, and someone like Mike Millar, who I feel is an idiotic blight to comics, and one of the worst things this industry can be inflicted with: a good idea man who thinks that makes him a good writer - and whom people keep inexplicably throwing money at. He thinks he's reinterpreted "the superman archetype" with Superior. I was appalled by the first issue, and bought no more. He basically rehashed Captain Marvel as "Billy Batson with a foul mouth" (or more accurately, considering the main character had a disability, "Freddy Freeman with a foul mouth"). He seems to think that foul language is the proof that he is doing creator owned work, and/or a symbol of his freedom from the tyranny of work-for-hire restrictions. I say he is proof that editors serve a purpose, and the good ideas in his work are dulled and dumbed down by the foul language. Should Mark Millar be censored though? No. Edited, yes. And anyone with taste should have the sense not to buy his books.

Comics are finally getting their footing in all genres and age brackets, after the creator owned explosion, and the balance will eventually be found for when foul language is appropriate in a story, and when it's Mark Millar.

TV is a whole other ballgame though. I think people are more ADD about TV, and TV shows have to work faster to keep our attention. That often means taking the shortcuts that are undesirable in writing for print mediums, and even pandering to the lowest common denominator at times. "Falling asleep in front of the TV" is a common phrase, and TV has to shock us to keep us from flatlining. I think that's why Walking Dead dropped the n-word, although I don't think that excuses it. TV (and comics) have established plenty of recognizable ways to show a racist, asinine character, without dropping the n-word.

Besides, hearing it is a little different from reading it. You can't unhear the n-word when watching a TV show with a group, so it becomes the elephant in the room. Some may be offended and want to turn the show off, and some may want to just get past it and see the rest of the story. If a group has all decided, "hey, let's all read the latest issue together," and buy several copies they can read back at thir preferred reading spot, everyone has the chance to process their reaction to the n-word individually. They may choose to not bring it up conversationally, preferring to focus on other areas of the story (I had completely forgotten the n-word at the farmhouse).

#36 Posted by DoomDoomDoom (4248 posts) - - Show Bio

Awesome blog.

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