This is about accuracy in discourse, and therefore applicable to writers, but it won’t seem so at first. Stick with me a few paragraphs and you’ll see.
The last week of August, there was a primary in Florida. In the aftermath, Ron DeSantis said the voters would “monkey this up” if they voted for his black opponent, and was slammed for making a racist comment.
I remember the Monkees, back in the Precambrian. Their theme song contained the words
Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees.
People say we monkey around.
I knew they were a fake band, but I never realized they were racists.
Knee-jerk liberals (that’s me, by the way) can look pretty silly when we overreach. Even people I respect were calling the monkey reference a racist dog whistle, and maybe it is. But let’s apply a little logic, in the form of Occam’s Razor.
What is the simplest and most likely explanation for the statement? There is no old saying “monkey this up” but there is an old saying “monkey around” and it is a simple extension to make that “monkey around and screw this up”. Millions of people have said that over the years, with no racial intent. My guess is that DeSantis was thinking “f—- this up”, and cleaned it up for television.
But I could be wrong. I don’t know the man and what I do know doesn’t impress me. “Monkey this up” may in fact be racist code, with built in plausible denial. If so, it worked beautifully. By assuming the worst, the liberal press has given the man massive publicity, and come off looking like fools.
As writers, on the other hand, we are in the business of not being misunderstood. See, I told you I would bring this around to writing.
Recently, I was revising an old novel. A young man and woman were about to move into a physical relationship, which was not not a love match. She was more excited than he was, because she lived in a small village, and he was the first male of her own age she had seen in a long time. He was planning to travel on in the spring, alone. He would tell her that in another line or two. This is what I wrote, years ago:
When he loosened the strings of her robe, she did not protest.
When I wrote that, the image in the mind of a reader would have exactly matched what I meant to say. There would have been no thought that he was forcing himself on her, or that she was reluctant in any way. In point of fact, if you had read a few sentences before and after, she was steaming.
That was then. Now, in the age of #Me Too, the phrase did not protest might be read differently than I intended when I wrote it. So I changed the line to read:
When he began to loosen the strings of her robe, she moved to hurry the process.
That is a pretty subtle change. To my mind, the two lines mean exactly the same thing, but they might not mean the same thing to a modern reader.
Readers read what we say, not what we meant to say. Communication isn’t entirely in our hands — readers do misread from time to time — but we have to do our best not to monkey things up. And no, that was not a racist dog whistle. That’s just me kicking the liberal press one more time for falling into a trap.
(Some) politicians (may) be in the business of doublespeak. They may bask in the comfort of plausible denial. Writers are not in that business. Our job is to say what we really mean, so skillfully that the reader is not confused about our intentions.
That is actually a fairly hard job.