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Can I use names from other cultures?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Moonalight, Jun 13, 2020.

  1. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    It isn't. I'd also point out that the comment followed a statement directly towards the topic at hand, so taking the follow up to be a sweeping generalization across all offenses is problematic.

    How can you not be taking a stance on anything I've just said.... when my point is, "at some point, if it offends you, don't read it." The statement isn't necessarily dismissive because differing viewpoints, both the positive and the negative, can all be valid simultaneously. Using a cultural name can be both celebratory and appropriating. Sometimes things just aren't all that clear cut, and having one viewpoint isn't the same as stifling another.
     
  2. nck

    nck Scribe

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    I honestly don't know how anyone is meant to read "If you worry about offending people over every little thing you'd best give up writing right now" as anything as a generalization across all offenses.

    If you don't see the difference between saying "If it offends you don't read it" as a blanket general stance on this issue, and on weighing in on whether offense in a particular case is warranted or not, I really don't know what else to say.
     
  3. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    *sigh*

    Little things are not all things.
     
  4. nck

    nck Scribe

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    "Every little thing" is actually often colloquially used to mean "all," but even if that's not what was intended, the rest of my point regarding what "if you're offended, don't read it" amounts to it still stands.
     
  5. TheKillerBs

    TheKillerBs Inkling

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    Another thing to keep in mind is that sometimes names mean different things to different people. A Latino will see a character named Pele completely differently than a Polynesian. Even within the same broad culture, a Christian or Jew will see a reference to scripture in the name Naomi, while an anime fan might instead see a Japanese flavour to the name.
     
    Miles Lacey likes this.
  6. Maunus

    Maunus Dreamer

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    Fear of offending is a very good reason to self-censor. Probably the only good reason to do so, I would say. One of the very foundations of society, I would say. Offending people is not always to be avoided, but it is best that it be done deliberately and with intention and with a good understanding of the likely consequences. Offending one's readers is a bad idea if one has the intention of having them read more of one's work.
     
  7. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    Totally agree with you about Marie Kondo, Devor. Ick. You've seen my desk. Leave me my toys and junk.

    You can't make everyone happy all the time, but there is one thing you can do that I haven't seen enough of in this discussion: you can respect them. I've been reading a lot about being concerned about being offensive, but essentially that's a "me" concern. Let's change the dialogue to "us" and "them" concerns. Mostly "them." In conversations about risking offense, most of the focus is on how we are perceived by our readers as a whole. It's not about how our words and worlds affect the people we are trying to represent. To respect. And that's a high wire to cross, but it's doable. It just takes doing a truly ungodly amount of homework, dedication and a degree of reverence for the cultures you are representing, and love for the worlds and people we create.
     
    Maunus likes this.
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    We've wandered rather far from the OP, and most of what's recent isn't helpful to the original question, so let me try to refocus.

    >Could it offend people if I named people and places using words from their culture?
    The easy answer is yes. In fact, it might very well offend someone, and the bigger your audience the more likely that becomes. They might get offended for any number of reasons, including personal ones.

    The question also assumes there are clear lines here. I'm an American. Is there even such a thing as an American name? Most European names have their roots in more than one soil. Given the complexity of the history of names, one cannot expect unequivocal guidance here.

    But I'll offer one anyway. <g>

    It isn't about the name, it's about how the name gets treated. If the rest of the story shows a pattern of cultural indifference, or appropriation, or of general ham-handedness, then the choice of name is going to be viewed as part of that pattern. A name alone isn't likely to do this.

    So, I submit to the OP that the pertinent question is, can I write about another culture without giving offense? I'll further submit that the answer is: no, if you mean to include every possible reader anywhere at any time; and the answer is yes, if you do your research, are both respectful and insightful, and if you run across a touchy topic, that you get some readers with cultural knowledge to give you feedback.
     
    A. E. Lowan likes this.
  9. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

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    This is a good point. Context is very important when deciding what names to use in different cultures. Pele is the name of a Hawaiian goddess but also the name of a famous Brazilian football player. Thus, the naming of a son Pele in a fantasy culture modelled on that of a South American culture would be perfectly acceptable but problematic if the fantasy culture was modelled on that of a traditional Hawaiian culture.

    Skip.knox makes the observation "if you do your research, are both respectful and insightful, and if you run across a touchy topic, that you get some readers with cultural knowledge to give you feedback". It's good advice.
     
  10. Son of the Roman

    Son of the Roman Scribe

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    Obviously in a lot of contexts it wouldn’t work very well, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say adapting a foreign language is offensive.
     
  11. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

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    No it is a terrible reason to self-censor. It robs people the ability to decide what offends them, because the author has already decided that this is offensive to group X. It also give control of what an author writes to group X at the same time. I removes the individual of their autonomy to decide what offends them and the author what to write and gives this power to a group. This is how stereotypes are created, this is why they are bad. Your treating an individual as an entire group.



    While I mostly agree the problem I see is in our modern times the mere usage of a name is now considered appropriation, indifference, and at worst outright racism. We are infantalizing and stereotyping entire groups of people to not offend them, I see a huge problem with this.

    I think the only valid argument to not use names from other cultures is simply, like many others have already said, context. A Norwegian setting where everyone has Arabic names breaks suspension of disbelief beyond repair in most cases and seems dumb.
     
    skip.knox and Son of the Roman like this.
  12. Maunus

    Maunus Dreamer

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    This is wrong in its entirety. Exercising judgement about what one things may be offensive to a group of potential readers, does not take away any control from anyone, nor does it remove anyone's autonomy. And stereotypes come exactly from a failure to consider whether one's own ideas are accurate, nuanced and respectful representations of other people or not. An author who wishes to be both a good author and an ethical human being will write with care and respect. Which sometimes requires selfcensorship.

    But I think it has been correctly stated above that this is a different, and not very useful discussion, for this topic. So I shall not pursue it further.

    I wholeheartedly agree with skip.knox above that what is important is *how* a name is used: as long as it is done respectfully, with knowledge and deliberation, one will not cause offense.
     
  13. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

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    But that was my point, what may be offensive to a group, not the individual but the group. Its deciding that the every individual in the group finds y offensive, which is simply not true. And the decision to self censure does rob their autonomy because each individual doesn't get to read and decide for themselves. Honestly explain how I'm wrong.

    Exactly my point again, taking a belief about a group and saying every individual is like that is the opposite of the things listed above. Think about what you wrote. "A failure to consider whether one's own ideas are accurate.....of other people or not". First your taking the idea that y is offensive to other people and not considering if this belief is accurate.....etc of each individual. That is my problem, its taking a general belief about a group and saying everyone individual is like group.

    I don't see how this is not useful. this thread is about using names from other cultures and the worry about offending someone. I simply take the stance that the risk of offending should not be a factor in such a decision, as I've stated before. I have yet to hear a good logical argument against this. And like I've said before, many times in this and other threads, there is also a difference between good writing and crap, see below.


    I think the problem here is, I have a very clear idea of good writing and I put research, avoiding stereotypes, and a lot of what other people on this thread have said into the category of good quality writing. I think writers should do a lot of what others have said but I think they should do those things to be better writers, not so they don't offend people. For example not using the Pele for example in a pacific island setting because they did their homework, and decided its odd to have their main character named after a god within the context of said story.

    Basically I think the questions should be, does the name make sense in my setting, does it work in the setting, does it work for the story, does it work with the history of the culture I am basing it off of, does it work for the culture, today, I am basing it off of? If so, why? If not, why?

    But to simply dismiss the name because you, or I, or someone thinks a group of people will get offended I find wrong for the reasons I have stated.

    I kinda think we agree in a way, but we differ on the motivations. And why I say you..i'm not attack you, nor trying to be hostile, its just an example.
    we good?
     
  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Risk of offense isn't the sole issue. There's using names clumsily, such that it breaks suspension of disbelief. There's using names in such a way that it perpetuates certain stereotypes that are harmful. Focusing solely on an offended individual narrows the discussion to the point of being less than useful, especially to a new writer.

    As for whether a choice works (be it a name or some other story element), there is the author to consider first, but not last and not exclusively. One's beta readers, one's editor(s), and the reading audience all have a role to play. I absolutely believe one must satisfy oneself first, and that the measure of a working story in the eyes of the author is always the unique prerogative of the author. Once that bar has been met, however, the author does need to consider audience. If thinking about whether the readers will enjoy my book, why ought I not also think about whether they will be offended by it?

    No one is saying that considering a community or culture means we believe every individual within that culture believes a certain way or is sure to be offended by something. That implication can be found nowhere in what has been posted. It is valid to infer that *most* would be offended or that *many* would be offended, or even that enough would be offended that I as author want to think about making an adjustment. I might be right or wrong, but it is not foolish and it certainly does no impinge on my authorial freedom.

    Lastly, focusing on individuals only misses the very concept of culture. A culture is both more and different from the sum of its people. Cultural historians can explain this in detail, for anyone interested. Cultural elements, motifs, and belief systems can be perpetuated or undermined by what artists create--books, opera, paintings, all of it. Not every author needs to become expert in every culture and time period, but that doesn't mean those who do care, those who do spend time educating themselves on cultural matters, are engaged in a fool's errand.

    To the OP I say, just write it. Get feedback. Educate yourself as you believe is needful. Rewrite. IOW, treat this as you would every other aspect of your writing. A cultural landscape is as real and significant as a physical landscape.
     
    Maunus likes this.
  15. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    Just ran across this analysis of the new Mulan on YouTube and it gives a great argument for not only why respectful representation is crucial, it makes you a better writer all around. Video is a bit long, about 35 minutes, but it's worth watching a Chinese person pick this movie apart.



    As you can see, when the details are glossed over, when we don't do our homework, we can end up making little sense.
     
    Maunus likes this.
  16. Estarriol

    Estarriol Acolyte

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    My advice is to be aware that you are drawing on cultural elements. Use what you understand to be appropriate and continue writing, and if you find what you are including to be offensive then consider of it is really needed. For example you may want to draw attention to cultural issues. Even in a fantasy context, prejudices against names of other cultures could shed light on the characters' prejudice or even the reader's own prejudice.
     
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