[The competition in last week's post remains open. I put up that post thinking I would get about three replies max, but it seems to have got a bit of a momentum, so I will keep it open until Friday and then announce the winner.]
A while ago, I put up a post dismissing the notion that 'racially essentialist depictions of orcs are racist'. In my view, that was a category error, fostered really by misunderstandings about the expressionist nature of fantasy. As I put it at the time:
Orcs don't have genes. They are mythical, fairy tale beings, with a different essence altogether. They're not a 'race', or a 'species'. They're spirits, demons, monsters. This isn't racism. It is quite literally the stuff of which fantasies, myths and legends are made. Why would you want them to be otherwise?
I later revised my position a little as a result of the comments on that earlier post, and accepted the premise that certain naturalistic depictions of orcs are undesirable. The way I now see it is that:
Orcs work really well as a representative of the worst human tendencies... - aggression, cruelty, resentment, and so on. Watering that down by trying to make them sympathetic ironically seems to have the result of making it feel 'wrong' to stereotype them as evil, leading to weird discomfort with what is a core element of traditional D&D (killing evil humanoids and/or taking their stuff).
[Ultimately] if one is to use orcs at all, it is better to do so expressionistically rather than naturalistically. In other words, orcs (like all monsters in general, really) are best thought of as representations or evocations of mood and emotion rather than natural species with genes and psychologies and histories of their own. They're like fairy tale goblins, devils or evil spirits - and not like Klingons.
In other words, it is a really bad idea to treat orcs (or other evil humanoids for that matter) as a kind of 'noble savage' or similar, because then one instantly generates obvious insensitivities and understandably gets into hot water accordingly. It is, paradoxically, the introduction of nuance that is the problem. Unreconstructedly evil orcs aren't a cause for concern. Orcs who might not be evil, or who just have a 'different perspective', seem as though they are natural beings with inner lives, and the way we think about and depict them therefore begins to seem as though it bears some relation to how we think about the real world and real people. Clearly, this is a minefield best avoided.
I increasingly think that the word 'orc' makes more sense as a category or concept, rather than a 'race' or species or whatever; an orc, that is to say, is not a member of a particular group with defined characteristics, but a way of classifying the Enemy - the human-hating, destructive, violent, demonic things which everywhere threaten the human world. It doesn't matter what they look like or do - maybe they have flamingo heads and live on floating cities from which they raid human settlements; maybe they are like bipedal snapping turtles who live to taste human flesh and bone; maybe they are boar-headed thugs who dwell in the forest; maybe they are beetle-people. These are all orcs, provided they have the characteristics of orcishness - hatred of humanity, hatred of goodness, and extreme violence. What matters in other words is what they represent: something roughly our size, and of our intelligence, which exists purely to prey upon us, and therefore is to be resisted and destroyed wherever it is found.
There is a way to tie this thought into an ongoing project of mine, the single-class paladin campaign, in which the PCs, rather than being representative of rogueishness, instead represent its opposite. Paladins protect. The protect people from all kinds of dangers, evils, and cruelties. But maybe their chief enemies - the things they fight against most often, and with the most vehemence - are the many different, possibly infinitely different, varieties of orc, and what they represent: almost the anti-paladin in the terms which I have described what a paladin is. A paladin protects; orcs predate. A paladin puts his honour above his life; orcs traduce and subvert honour wherever they can. A paladin always stays true to his word; an orc holds that truth is a fiction. And so on. When one thinks of orcs in these terms, as literally the embodiment of evil, a great deal of problems are resolved, and fresh creative opportunities appear.