One of the podcasts I listen to is The Sofanauts, a weekly discussion about science fiction news and issues. The latest episode (no. 8) brought up an interesting topic I'd like to address here.
During a discussion of how much authors censor themselves to avoid "offending" readers, one of the participants, Jeremy Tolbert, stated that he would not write a story about characters of a different ethnicity, because he might "get it wrong and offend everybody".
I would like to argue that when people get offended, it is their own choice to have this reaction. Some people are tolerant and can accept a wide variety of opinions, situations and behaviours without having to feel a strong reaction, even if they disagree. Other people are so sensitive they can be "offended" by the very existence of people, opinions and behaviours that differ from themselves and their way of life.
Therefore, authors trying to avoid offending anyone are doomed to failure. Someone, somewhere, will find anything offensive. In fact, I've heard it said that "If you don't offend someone every day, you're not doing your job". I think this may have been said in the context of journalism.
But the main question I wish to address here is that of writing only about what you know. The argument that people could be offended if an author wrote about a character of a different ethnicity and "got it wrong" seems to me to be flawed in two ways.
First, it contains an assumption that ethnicity is something that can be "got right or wrong". This implies that all members of a particular ethnic group have something in common. I believe that all ethnic groups contain the whole spectrum of human personality types, skills, social situations and so on. To think that an author could somehow misrepresent what it is to belong to a certain ethnic group is preserving the perceived distinctions between ethnic groups.
Second, it contains an assumption that authors can only "get right" stories written from their own personal experience. If we take this assumption to its logical extreme, then authors shouldn't write about characters of the opposite sex, or those older than them, or those with different life experiences. In fact, to reduce the argument to the absurd, the only remaining writing that could "get it right" would be autobiography.
Authors use their imaginations. SF authors go further than most in imagining things they have not experienced. This is one of the great achievements of human consciousness, the ability to abstract and extrapolate beyond our current knowledge. For authors to restrict their imaginations would be a great shame.
This whole issue reminded me of a story I heard about Prof. Kenneth Dover, author of Greek Homosexuality. According to this story, when he taught a university course on this subject, some gay students put a sign on the notice board saying: "Don't attend Prof. Dover's course on Greek Homosexuality. He is not a homosexual". Prof. Dover responded by putting up another notice saying: "Don't attend Prof. Dover's course on Greek Homosexuality. He is not an ancient Greek".
The point of this story (whether or not it is true) is that people can, in fact, understand things beyond their personal experience. Scholars do this all the time, since the objects of scholarship tend not to be "my personal experience". Authors do this, to great effect, in their writing. Long may this continue to be the case!