Editorial philosophizing

I had a very interesting discussion in the office recently about differences in editorial philosophy. Here are both viewpoints:

OPINION A:  In my experience, both academic and professional, I find that US writing tends to be very politically correct. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and rewrite anything that could be potentially offensive. Unless the term or phrase is absolutely required, in which case it should be used with an appropriate disclaimer. While most writers and editors like to think that we know our audience, the truth is that once the words are on the page they can be read by anyone, anywhere. This is especially true in the age of the internet (as anyone on Facebook has likely discovered). I feel that it’s wise to take an extremely conservative view when it comes to editorial political correctness. Oftentimes that turn-of-phrase really isn’t all the necessary, and if you can maintain the meaning and weight of the sentence by structuring it in such a way as to not offend, then that’s your job as a good editor.  It is my job to ensure that my work is read widely and frequently. If half my audience dismisses it out of hand because they find it off-putting, then my message isn’t getting out there. It’s my responsibility as a communicator to make my words work for me, and not against me.

OPINION B:  In the UK, political correctness is considered secondary to the intrinsic value of the text. Strong language has a place, and the watering-down of a phrase to ensure that it doesn’t offend can weaken the overall message. One of the great side-effects of experiencing difference cultures is personal growth, which is not always pleasant. Sometimes you have to expose yourself to that which is distasteful in order to understand and change it. A writer or editor should not be a censor. It is up to each individual reader to react and adapt to the text they are reading; it cannot be the job of an editor to predict any and all reactions. An editor can only work with the text they are given, and if someone is offended by that text, then that is their responsibility. I have communicated my message; how you receive it is your choice. Perhaps this is the result of a colonizing culture, one that has not had to pander to a greater power or struggled for recognition.

So….. what do you think? The phrase that prompted this discussion was “going native”, as in “the first explorer to land on the island went native and was never heard from again”.  Now I can see the value of both opinions from above. Going native, as an expression, is incredibly strong language and contains nuances of opinion that will be lost if you change it. But, I also think that the phrase is used to refer to the fear felt by European colonists that they would become assimilated by a culture they didn’t value as highly as their own. Personally, I think it is a derogatory and offensive term, and I would remove it. My British colleagues felt differently, and ultimately we had to accept an impasse.

A Guernsey Cow

Image via Wikipedia

In other news from my workday, I learned that the milk of the Guernsey cow is especially rich in beta-carotine, which results in the famously golden-orange color of butter on the Isle of Guernsey. (They usually use it as a means of mocking their less-than-golden-orange-buttery-neighbors on the island of Jersey.)



Posted on 01/11/2010, in editing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I don’t work in publishing, but I would think that the right choice in a case like this would be informed by the culture of the publication or publisher. For example, I’d expect an edgier tone in a book review from The Onion’s AV Club than I would from the New York Times.

    Personally, I like the phrase “going native,” and I don’t personally see it as derogatory. It’s kind of like “going off the grid,” which indicates an active, purposeful rejection of societal norms. Given the culture in which I grew up, I think I tend to latch onto individualistic notions such as this.

    Interesting topic. I wish we had more discussions like this at my work. 🙂

  2. For me, it would depend on who might be offended and why. There are many turns of phrase and epithet that are based on specific racial and ethnic references and could well cause offence, however inadvertently.

    But “going native”? It would be a long stretch to take personal offence at the use of such a phrase. As to whether or not it betrays a proto-colonialist arrogance on the part of the user, that’s a matter of judgement, not a measure of potential offence to anyone. And suppose the author wants to be controversial?

    • I supposed I should have clarified that I work at a travel publisher, which takes pride in cultural sensitivity and awareness. I’m working a guide that exposes people to what is foreign, and I need to do it in such a way that the tourist will not be an ass (at least, anymore than normally)!

  3. As some your compatriots may or may not know: I was born and raised on the African continent and ‘going native’ will have absolutely no attraction for me if I should read it in a travel publication. As a matter o fact: I suspect I’ll flip the page and look for something elsewhere ver-r-r-r-ry fast.

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