A few years ago there was talk of a remake of the 1955 film The Dam Busters, which was based on the true story of Operation Chastise during World War Two, thus far the talk seems to have come to nothing. So what has this got to do with racial slurs? Quick history lesson – shortly before the start of Chastise the pet dog of the officer who lead the attack was killed. A black Labrador, this animals’ name was Ni**er and in remembrance of his dead pet, the officer decided that the ni**er would also be the code word used to indicate that a dam had been breached. The 1955 film was true to this historical detail. When it was suggested that the film be remake there was in short an immediate argument about whether this detail should be changed. Cue the usual screams of indignation from the usual suspects in these kinds of arguments.
So how is this relevant?
Well as I may have previously mentioned my current work in progress is a time travel piece. Now I’m not going to spoiler my own work but assuming travel backwards is involved, then change in attitudes have to be addressed. Stand today in a park with a dog leash shouting ni**er and you’ll probably get arrested or beaten up, back in 1943 or 1955 using the word was fine. Go back only few decades and homosexuality was outright illegal in most places, while the word ‘gay’ had on a day to day basis a very different meaning from its modern use. Last but by no means least the old favorite of sexism one that continues to dog us. Depending on time and place attitudes and prejudices have varied and it is worth noting I don’t mean that the 21st century is the high point of human civilization; some more primitive cultures would see us as closed minded on some topics.
For the writer this presents a bit of challenge. Having a say a young black woman walk down a street dressed in trousers in Elizabethan England without comment let alone slur is immediately asking for a pretty serious suspension of disbelieve* but equally having a section of your book that reads like a Klu Klux Klan newsletter is probably going to turn readers off. Time travel doesn’t even have to be involved. One of the reasons I sometimes struggle with some sword and sorcery type fantasy is the sheer lack of prejudice found in some of it, again breaking the immersion. Prejudice in whatever flavor, is one of the less pleasant things that makes up humans, a world without it immediately runs into serious problems with believably. Equally very believable prejudices and hatreds can add great depth, providing motivations for both individuals and peoples as a whole.
Fiction is of course of its time and for its time, meaning that sometimes the most egregious prejudices are the unthinking ones. If you read old science fiction, what you will often come across is the sole female character who’s role within the story is to have thing explain to her and thereby the audience; it often dates the material even more than things like spaceships with cigarette dispensers. However this kind of sexism/racism/homophobia offers a way to show different attitudes without having to choke your work and possibly turn off your readers with abusive language. As with so many things there isn’t really one right answer and it is something that a writer is going to have to make a judgement call on.
* Yes I know Doctor Who did it.