The sensitivity stereotype

The sensitivity stereotype

I used the term ‘sensitivity readers’ for the first time the other day, and I immediately felt angry at myself. It’s a concept (or service) that I’ve been involved in for a few years now, and yet only recently have I learned of the now well-established title of the ‘sensitivity reader’ in the publishing world. Personally, in describing the role in this way, I think we are doing it a huge disservice and inadvertently playing into the ‘snowflake’ narrative.

I’ve spent a lot of time working with Mind’s media advisory service - a service originally set up by former journalist/current author, Jenni Regan, to provide guidance to script researchers of TV shows and films in relation to portrayals of mental health problems. This has involved using my own experiences and knowledge, working with experts in clinical and legal positions and engaging others with lived experience. 

Rather than consider that what we were doing as ‘sensitivity’ checks, I always felt it was bigger than that – and more about accuracy and realism.

The irony really makes me laugh. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the people who talk of trigger warnings and sensitivity readers as playing to the demands of ‘woke culture’ or ‘snowflakes’ to be those very same people who complain about programme makers dropping the ‘f’ bomb

I spoke to author Clare Mackintosh about her book research. Clare was a police officer for twelve years, but legislation and practice change (and there are many specialisms within the police) so she frequently speaks to subject experts when researching her books. Clare told me: “It's important to me that I write authentically and don't mis-represent a particular role. Usually, I'll just share a small section of the text with my subject expert, to check I haven't misunderstood the information, but when I wrote After the End, three people read the entire book before it went to copy-edits: a barrister, a Persian teacher, and a neonatal intensive care nurse. I know that, among the readers of this particular book, there would be those who had relevant lived experience, and I owed it to them to write this book well.”

It’s interesting that Clare describes her expert readers as ‘subject experts’ – because surely that’s what we should also be calling those who read with expertise in, for example, mental health, race or disability – whether that expertise be lived or professional. Both types of experience are just as valuable.

An article in the Spectator from July of this year talks about sensitivity readers in the context of cancel culture and describes them as ‘moral gatekeepers.’ But it really isn’t about that.

The author of the piece, who is an author in both the journalistic and literary sense, poses the question: ‘Are novels meant to be a perfect reflection of reality, or do they communicate to the reader the thoughts and beliefs of the writer or the society he lives in — including the sick, twisted, uncomfortable thoughts?’

As I stated in my previous piece for the Bookseller on mental health stigma, I agree that we can and should communicate those sick, twisted and uncomfortable thoughts – but it’s all about context. We shouldn’t shy away from portraying stigma and discrimination – we should absolutely explore the impact on society. And I agree that we can explore experiences outside of our own in fiction. But how can we communicate these stories powerfully if we don’t really understand the problem or the context in the first place? Surely understanding and empathy makes us better writers, not just sensitive ones afraid of being cancelled?

And in terms of the ‘moral gatekeeper’ idea – that really isn’t how this role works. With Mind, we would point out the inaccuracies (including stereotypes) but we wouldn’t force anybody to change them. More often than not though, because the script researchers wanted to portray accurate, responsible, realistic and powerful storylines, they would work hard to remedy such problems.

In some ways the irony really makes me laugh. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the people who talk of trigger warnings and sensitivity readers as playing to the demands of ‘woke culture’ or ‘snowflakes’ to be those very same people who complain about programme makers dropping the ‘f’ bomb. And I doubt they’ve complained about Netflix or Sky or whatever leading a programme with a warning about ‘profanities.’ Why is it considered acceptable to complain about so-called bad language, but not to warn somebody who might have experienced a significantly traumatic life event that this topic will be explored and they might wish not to engage with it? Surely the latter is more important, rather than just some over-sensitive (provocation fully intended) dislike of the word ‘fuck’?

So perhaps it’s time to change the language. I have both sought help from and provided guidance in this context but I don’t think it’s about sensitivity – it’s about realism and accuracy. Perhaps, instead of calling us ‘sensitivity readers’ we should call the role ‘getting it fucking right’. The same people might still complain about it, but for a very different reason. Because society can sometimes be far more ‘over-sensitive’ to minor issues and niggles than individuals who have every right to call out damaging stereotypes that perpetuate hatred, discrimination and risk to life.

Lucy is a writer, blogger and commentator on mental health and addiction stigma. Her first novel, The Twenty Seven Club, explores the media’s impact on our understanding of mental illness and why we should always put people before labels through humour and nostalgia. You can find her on Twitter at @lucyenichol.