Today, there seems to be a risk of offending somebody no matter what you write.
Personally, I don’t subscribe to the popular idea that people are more easily offended today than in the past. I do think that often people describe things as offensive when actually they mean something else, something more subjective and therefore not absolute, but by using the word offensive they magically confer a moral correctness to their opinion.
Now, personally, I don’t begrudge anyone the right to some symantic elasticity in the service of making a point. However, the collective Group Think of the Internet makes this broad, and broadening, definition of the word “offensive” dangerous, not because it confers power to weak positions but because in doing so it weakens the position of opposition of genuinely harmful, genuinely offensive, viewpoints.
Racism is offensive. Sexism is offensive. Misuse of the apostrophe, country music, and well cooked steaks are not.
So it seems that there is, today, always the risk of being accused of being offensive by someone. In that sense, it is not worth worrying about causing subjective offence – outrage is the background radiation of the modern Internet.
However, I think a very important distinction has to be drawn between causing impersonal subjective offense and personal offense.
When it comes to using real world events in a story the most important thing to remember is that you don’t own the events. Whatever else might happen, the events that you include are not your story – they are someone elses. As such, they should be treated with respect.
Especially when dealing with events in living memory, there is a burden of responsibility on the writer not only to portray the events accurately but also not to cheapen the events themselves by using them lazily.
The event that looms largest in my living memory is 9/11. Without a doubt, much of what is happening in the world today in economic and geopolitical terms can be traced back, in whole or in part, to 9/11. I suspect that may still be true a century from now – the roots of history grow deep.
Despite this, there are only a few scenarios in which I can imagine utilising 9/11 in a story.
One is to set a timeline against a story. Everyone knows 9/11 and if you are the right sort of age you will remember it. Everyone knows where they were when they heard – but how many remember the year?
Evoking 9/11 in an overheard radio news broadcast or on the front page of a newspaper is an effective way of conjuring a time and a mood. In this context, I find it hard to imagine someone being offended.
However, turn that same historical event into your main setting and I think you have a problem. Can you imagine the plot of Titanic being replayed inside the Twin Towers?
I can’t tell you what the “Storytelling Statue of Limitations” is in years, but I can feel in my gut when it is being broken. In this context I think them are obvious uses of real world events that would be upsetting and offensive to people who were directly personally affected by those events.
As writers we pillage and plunder the world to make our stories. We must be mindful when treading on hallowed ground.