Sensitive Topics And You
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Discussion of disturbing topics ahead; proceed with caution.


Hi, I'm UraniumEmpireUraniumEmpire, author and fun-haver. You may know me as the author of articles featuring such themes as rape, nazis, rapist nazis, bestiality, conversion therapy, survival sex work, child abuse, and suicide. You may also notice that many authors will discourage the average newbie from exploring such themes.

I'm not here to prove that you can write about such things, nor am I here to encourage you to ignore the people who raise these concerns. Frankly, if you have any doubts about your ability to respectfully portray these topics, don't write about them until you've practiced and researched the doubts away. But it is precisely because of both sentiments that I feel the need to advise potential authors on where such things can go wrong, and how to keep causality from dropping that fat load of shit onto your head.

1: What this essay is not.

This essay will not:

  • Cover the entirety of situations involving sensitive subject matter.
  • Argue for the inclusion of sensitive subject matter into works that don't absolutely need it.
  • Argue for the exclusion of sensitive subject matter from all fiction.
  • Attempt to improve your prose.
  • Offer tips on how to "spice" up your stories.

This essay will:

  • Offer advice on how not to be an idiot about sensitive subject matter.

2: The Golden Rule

Here is the #1 thing you should take away from this essay:

DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING? DON'T DO IT!

3: What is a sensitive topic?

To understand how to write sensitive topics, you must first understand what a sensitive topic is. Before we begin, I'd like to note that this essay is written from the point of view of a white Jewish-American of petty bourgeoisie background; what constitutes "sensitive" may be differ between cultures.

Simply put, a sensitive topic can be thought of as any subject associated with the intentional or unintentional infliction of emotional trauma. In a medical context, they can be thought of as "triggers"; hence, many literary communities may include a list of "trigger warnings" on works with such topics, so individuals who may be sensitive to such things can either mentally prepare themselves or skip it altogether. Even outside the context of existing trauma, such topics are so ingrained in the cultural taboo that they can evoke disgust from those lucky enough not to have been exposed to such horrors.

Sensitive topics are "sensitive" precisely because they are common triggers, both in terms of trauma and disgust. Moreover: they are incredibly easy to fuck up. Writing something incorrectly can stir unpleasant feelings in your reader in entirely the wrong way, souring your piece for them.

Let me present a case study: back in the day, Conviction was a very different story. Posted in September of 2011, the original Conviction was, quite literally, about how the Foundation did the Holocaust. At its last archived peak in February of 2014, it sat at a comfortable +75, back when that was harder to achieve.

And then, in 2017, it fell to -10 and was deleted from the website.

The original Conviction wasn't downvoted for technical flaws; the rules of grammar and storytelling hadn't meaningfully changed between 2011 and 2017. Rather, (and you can confirm this with those who were there at the time) Conviction was deleted due to the gradual consensus that it had severely mishandled the topic of the Holocaust. Perhaps the rising threat of the modern neo-nazi movement had something to do with that awareness, but the point remains that Conviction died because people didn't jive with how it handled sensitive topics.

4: Know all your enemies, and know who your enemies are.

1
The culture of the English wiki primarily hews American (ironically enough): violence is an expectation and incarceration is an all-too-familiar reality abstracted by the Powers That Be. Sex, though inappropriate for children, is an off-page reality of (most of) our adult characters' lives, and influences their decision-making to an extent. Swearing can be separated into minor swears2, major swears3, and slurs4.

If this essay is translated, I suggest replacing this sentence with a summary of your own wiki's culture.5

In my 11 years with the site, the English wiki has engaged in extensive discourse around 3 sensitive topics:

  • Child Endangerment: the deliberate or negligent infliction or allowance of harm to a child. Such things include parental abandonment, ritual abuse, and even straight-up child sacrifice.
  • Genocide: the deliberate extermination of a specific personhood on the basis of culture or genetics. In addition to straight-up killings, stories about forced assimilation, mass displacement, and the murder of language can also fall under this category.
  • Sexual Misconduct: harmful, abusive, non-consensual, or predatory behavior in the context of sex and relationships. Things like incest, sexual assault, and necrophilia are covered under this.

An honorable mention goes to mental and physical abuse. While not commonly discoursed about, abuse as a topic is just as finicky as any of the above three, and often intersects with Child Endangerment and Sexual Misconduct.

Readers will judge your piece much more harshly should you attempt to portray such topics, not just because they are sensitive but because the wiki has a storied history of such topics being handled terribly. Indeed, the difference between an upvote and a downvote often hinges entirely on how well you handled said topic.

None of this is exhaustive, of course, but it's best to think of these in terms of degrees: those three are probably gonna be your biggest challenge, while other topics such as suicide and torture, while still traumatic, will be easier to tackle.

5: The Part Where I Beg You To Do Your Research

If you want to write about these kinds of things, do your research.

There's many good ways to research such things; there are also many bad ways. I can't exactly give you an exhaustive list, but I can tell you how I approach such things.

First: If you don't have experience with the topic, it's good to read up on what it is and how it works. Wikipedia will be somewhat helpful in starting this, but it's meant to be a jump-off: you'll want to read multiple articles on the subject from multiple sources.

I'm not a serial killer, nor have I (knowingly) talked to one, so when I began SCP-4886 I started by researching what a serial killer was. Who became one? How did they decide who to kill and when? What were they like outside of the act of killing? Not only did this help me write responsibly, it likely also improved the story.

In addition to articles and books on the matter, I also read case studies. Part of that process required me to critically examine not just what was said, but who said it and where: for example, many serial killers are also serial liars, and many cops from the 70s overplayed the killers' mystique to obfuscate their own incompetence.

Second: Once you've absorbed as much as you feasibly could, it's good to crystalize your understanding on when and why such things happen.

If How To Clean A Polyester Dress was to serve as commentary on the TERF-to-fascist pipeline, I had to understand what drew one to the other. This involved examining the conditions preceding the ideological switch, as well as critical reading of their projected ideologies both before and after.

During my research, I noticed three very critical things:

  1. Much of the overt right-ward shifts were preceded by the appearance of ostensibly "radical" feminists on fringe reactionary platforms6, often as the result of rejection by mainstream feminism.
  2. Leading up to the final shift, many TERFs began engaging in conspiracism, and many of their conspiracies intersected with those of the far-right.
  3. The far-right establishment actively recruited the "dissident" TERFs into their vast propaganda networks.

Ultimately, if I knew why people passed through it, I could critique not just the pipeline, but the material conditions responsible for its existence.

Third: If you want to write respectfully, it's extremely important that you research not just how and why such things are perpetrated, but who such things affect and how the consequences play out. A lot of this requires reading victim testimony and post-incident analysis.

SCP-5952 is intended to critique the American "Troubled Teen Industry", and how it abuses children in the shadow of bureaucratic ignorance. The industry runs on obfuscation and plausible deniability; as such, one of the only ways to understand it is by learning from those who went through it.

Statements from former "students" helped me to establish not just what went on, but how such goings-on affected the real-life people who underwent them. This did more than help my writing: it helped me to write responsibly, to avoid cheapening or tacitly justifying their pain.

Four: Now that you have a good idea about the topic in question, you should see what you can read on how to actually write the topic. Fiction is an entirely different roadhouse than non-fiction, and knowing how stories work is as critical to your thesis as the previous research. For this, consider reading pieces that analyze media trends, or critical analyses of specific works of fiction.

I've consumed enough Nazisploitation media to know what I hate about Nazisploitation. Still, consuming ten bad flounders doesn't teach me how to cook flounder; I have to know how flounder is cooked before I can do that properly.

Jewish media critics have put out several pieces on the trends present not just in Holocaust media, but stories about fascism in general. I read these because I have a weird obsession with media criticism, but in retrospect they were incredibly instructive on what a work says when it portrays fascism one way or the other. This also applies to analysis of the propaganda of fascism; for is that not just another form of fiction, if one with clear political implications?

With that in mind, I not only knew how I should structure SCP-3721, but how best for it to criticize the mainstays of Nazisploitation.

6: how rite gud

A good rule of thumb is to look at your piece through the lens of cultural criticism: what is your piece trying to say about, say, the here and now, or the here and then, or the there and will be? Moreover, do so even when your intent was "cool murder monster"; think about it as if you've never seen the piece before now, and it came up in a contemporary textbook on the topic.

In general, you'll want to avoid the following:

"Watsonian Endorsement"

This refers to diegetic7 excuses for such topics that, beyond explaining why said topic happened, tacitly provide justifications for said topic as situationaly preferable.

There's many reasons a writer might end up "justifying" the topic's existence, and most of them are actually quite understandable. It could be that the writer is looking to make their setting more "consistent" by justifying the social dynamics at play; indeed, the writer might be anticipating criticism that they included gratuitous topics in their story, and wants to preemptively address this. The problem here comes when you try to reconcile your setting with your thesis.

As an example: predator-prey dynamics as racial metaphors (such as Disney's Zootopia) often make the mistake of justifying their in-universe existence as a reaction to the "inherent savagery" of the predator. However, although prey organisms in real life have a perfectly understandable reason not to trust predator organisms, they aren't, well, racist.8

See, racism isn't interspecies9; it's a very specific kind of artificial structure that exists in human society. Trying to ground it into broader predation dynamics (which include, among other things, bacteria and plants) both flattens the complexity of the issue, and implies it's a natural byproduct of how life developed.10

"Doylist Endorsement"

DISCLAIMER: I am not about to argue that reading about, say, terrible war crimes makes people want to commit terrible war crimes. The actual issue with Doylist Endorsement is less dramatic, but way more complicated.

Doylist Endorsement refers to when the topic is presented solely for the viewer's entertainment, or otherwise reads as such. If Watsonian Endorsement is a thesis undermined by the setting, Doylist Endorsement is a thesis undermined by the presentation: essentially, whatever the piece is ostensibly trying to convey, the actual depiction of the topic becomes a major draw. It is, essentially, (hopefully only) tacitly endorsing the subject as a form of entertainment.

This is a bit harder to avoid than Watsonian Endorsement, and mostly accidental: you can come into writing with every intention to show how [TOPIC] is a bad thing, but if you're not careful about it, people will read your piece as a celebration of the topic. In the worst case scenario, they may employ the piece to malicious ends in real life.

I think it helps to see your work through two lenses, if you want to avoid something like this:

  1. How would the people who perpetuate [TOPIC] read your piece?
  2. How would victims of [TOPIC] read your piece?

Boy, that sounds too dire to be true, huh? Unfortunately, this is where I give a few examples:

  • American History X: This film is the poster child for how not to make movies about nazis. While ostensibly about the perils of racism, the main character's ideology isn't adequately challenged, and his (initial) string of successes result in a movie that many nazis put on when they want to cheer themselves up.11 Speaking of nazis, actually…
  • The House of Rothschild: This little 1934 film is actually (somewhat) less antisemitic than it sounds, and intended as an explicit attack on contemporary antisemitism. That didn't stop the nazis from ripping an awkwardly-written scene from the movie for use in their antisemitic propaganda piece, The Eternal Jew.
  • Irregularity Proposal: 2001-489: This fuck-up is my own damn fault. Rockwell is not supposed to be respectable: he's a racist christofascist who beats children. Unfortunately, due to a combination of basing his early life off Phyllis Schlafly, leaving his more egregious actions to the other articles in the series, and haphazardly hewing towards the overall themes of complacency w/ the UIU's incompetence, the tale can be read almost as a critique of Leslie's efforts to stop Rockwell in the first place.

Mediocrity

While you always want to avoid wasting the reader's time, introducing sensitive topics can easily shorten the time the reader affords you. Unfortunately, this one isn't so clear-cut as the above, and it's so entirely removed from the essay that I don't think I could elaborate much more than this:

Your reader should be able to read your piece and come to the conclusion that the thing that is bad is actually a bad thing. At the same time, you shouldn't play it too strong, or you'll risk retraumatizing some of your readers. Above all else, however, you shouldn't bullshit: be clear in your work's thesis. Don't cower and whisper, don't jump and scream, just stand and speak clearly.

7: The Takeaway

Above all else, sensitive topics are exactly that: sensitive.

They aren't something you can bury under good prose: look at 231, highly-rated and still drawing intense criticism from authors for its alleged botching of such topics. Think of how dire a shadow such a botch will cast on your piece, that even the "best" of your writing can be brought down by carelessness. Ponder just how many pieces haven't survived such a shadow, how many are buried because they couldn't get past the weight.

And consider if you still want to take such topics on.

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