Censorship isn’t the answer — my thoughts

This post has nothing to do with the Peace Corps, but rather is a set of musings on censored literature.

Some of you may be aware of the new censored version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn which has just been published — in it, “slave” replaces the 200+ appearances of the word “nigger,” and the word “injun” is replaced with “Indian.” This edition has been published by NewSouth Books with Professor Alan Gribben (Auburn U. @ Montgomery) behind the word changes. According to a New York Times write-up, Gribben “proposed the idea to the publisher because he believes the pervasive use of that word makes it harder for students to read or absorb the book. In an introduction to the new edition, he wrote, ‘even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative.'”

But shouldn’t students in college and graduate school be able to separate Twain’s use of this “racial appellative” with its use today? Given its extensive usage in Huck Finn, clearly Twain used the n-word for a certain purpose: perhaps illumination of character, perhaps to give the reader a vivid picture of the time and place. Readers should know what they’re getting into when they pick up a classic piece of literature — not every author or literary era was as prudish or politically correct as today’s (American) society. Look at Shakespeare or the 18th century — sex, bodily fluids, coarse language, and even racism are rampant in those works. Yes, I wouldn’t be comfortable using the n-word in daily speech or writing. But if I read Huck Finn in an English class I would expect to use the word if necessary, and I would expect my professor to address the word’s usage and its connotations then and now.

In The New York Times“Room for Debate,” various authors and professors discuss the censored edition of Huck Finn:

Jill Nelson argues that “There are vast differences between calling a character ‘nigger’ and calling them ‘slave.’ They are not interchangeable. Writers choose their words thoughtfully. Our words create, color, layer and texture and contextalize the stories we tell.” Exactly — if Twain had used “slave” instead, the story and characters would represent totally different morals, textures, and ideas.

Gish Jen makes another good point: “We all wish our literature were less riddled with racism, not to say anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, and other less than noble manifestations of the human spirit. In the end, though, it is up to the reader to bring context to the page. The reader’s failure is not remedied by changes to the text; it is remedied by education and its happy result, perspective.” Change all the offensive texts in the world? How about we rather use the texts to try and change the views of the people?

This from Mark Bauerlein: “Political correctness is bad tutelage, validating thin skins and selective inquiries. The more students read sanitized materials in high school, the more they enter college inclined to dispel things they don’t want to hear.” And this from David Matthews: “These books — and others like them — should not be retrofitted to make modern readers comfortable. Modern readers are already too comfortable. Lazy, even. If the word ‘nigger’ keeps one from reading Huck Finn, then one lacks the critical skills to appreciate all the book has to offer.” Books should challenge us to read between the lines, should challenge us to ask questions about language usage, should challenge us to re-frame our views of history and today in the context of what we read.

Timothy Jay represents a similar view: “Cleaning up literature is never a solution. We should inform children and prepare them to make their own decisions about information. Uncomfortable topics like sexuality, racism, harassment and prejudice need to be confronted rather than tucked away.” Michiko Kakutani, in another NYT response, further supports my point: “To censor or redact books on school reading lists is a form of denial: shutting the door on harsh historical realities — whitewashing them or pretending they do not exist.” (Clever use of “whitewashing” in a discussion of Twain.)

Is it better to avoid than to educate? I don’t think so. Think about sex-ed, for example. By not educating people about birth control and STDs, there is no chance that unplanned pregnancies and STD transmission will not happen. If we tell people their options, they can make an informed decision about protecting themselves and those they love. The same with literature: if we expunge offensive words, what are we doing but telling people it’s okay to avoid or deny the existence of difficult information? Those are the conversations we should be having, both on a personal level and an international one.

Stephen Colbert put his own satiric spin on it (watch the clip here). Colbert asks, why stop at censoring those two words? He says, “Who knows what other words it contains…that someday might be offensive? Like the title Huck Finn. That could eventually refer to the deeply offensive pastime of seeing who can throw a Finnish person the farthest.” HA.

I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this.

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