I am researching for a new eBook and discovered that Charles Dickens took some criticism for his portrayal of Fagin, in Oliver Twist. He was questioned on the choice of a Jewish character for such an evil money-lord and he explained that this choice simply reflected what he knew, the society around him.
Later, he was challenged again over the persistent use of the phrase ‘the Jew’ to reference Fagin. Dickens wrote about social issues in his books, often covering poverty, work-houses and debt. Perhaps he was simply reflecting the times in which he lived. Yet, the book was altered. After ‘the Jew’ was used in the first 38 chapters, over 257 times – Dickens changed his own perception and later editions of the book had no such phrase in the last 15 chapters.
More recently, a journalist wrote an article about a similar experience she had. In an interview she had used a word as a humorous comment. Unwittingly she upset a lot of people in the gay community who objected strongly. She explained it had been an inconsiderate slip, apologised and openly wrote about the issue.
Incidents like these show us that attitudes change and most people when challenged sufficiently are willing to alter.
In my old job, I was a manager and the ‘hot topic’ just before I left was Harassment/Bullying.
I finally understood that it’s not about your intent but how it makes others feel. If they feel upset or threatened You are wrong and should apologise, discuss the matter and learn to alter your own thinking.
If you are sure you have no bias towards any culture – try one of the Unconscious Bias tests (available on-line & set by universities including Harvard) – you will be surprised, maybe even shocked. I was.
The results show how little or no exposure to other cultures & ways of living limits our understanding of them and sets up bias without our ‘consent’ as our brain sifts through huge amounts of data daily. This happens mainly on auto-pilot settings. If your only exposure is to fragments or negative images – you absorb those.
Writers can reflect their own lifetimes, those of the past or invent futures. We should use our tales to expose hatred or simple lazy assumptions through our characters. Examples of past & futuristic bias are perfectly demonstrated in A Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.
Equally as readers, we should aim to find a different viewpoint.
So dear Reader, I challenge you!
Find a blog, a poem, a book or an article that is about something you are not familiar with: another religion, culture, somewhere in the world you know nothing of – and read, and learn.