The name of the game in news this week seems to be censorship.
First, there was the Mark Twain scandal with his book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (with its dubious honour of having the “n-word” repeated 218 times in the book). In the New-South edition of the classic novel, the editor Alan Gribben replaced each instance of the n-word is with “slave.” Gribben also replaced the word “I-jun” with the proper spelling “Indian.”
However, most of the controversy surrounding the edition is focused on the decision to replace the n-word.
Gribben defends his choice by invoking Langston Hughes:
Apologists quite validly encourage readers to intuit the irony behind Huck’s ignorance and to focus instead on Twain’s larger satiric goals. Nonetheless, Langston Hughes made a forceful, lasting argument for omitting this incendiary word from all literature, from however well-intentioned an author. “Ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn’t matter,” explained Hughes. African Americans, Hughes wrote, “do not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic. . . . They still do not like it” (268–269).
[the rest of Gribben's writing is here, which is part of his introduction to the new edition]
Others fired back – one of the more forceful response is from Elon James White on Salon.com:
America is afraid of its past. Whether it’s how it treated Native Americans, women or black people, it is constantly trying to reframe, color or flat-out ignore major aspects of our history. America, in its constant obsession with being seen as “awesome,” will actively try to Photoshop its own historical portrait. The fear is that to acknowledge the past is to take the blame for it. If we take the word “nigger” out of the classic “Huckleberry Finn” then our kids won’t see it and then we don’t have to talk about it.
This quote also reminded me of the Japanese history textbook revision controversies, where the Japanese history textbooks actively omitted their bloody colonialist deeds in other Asian countries – including Korea and China, among others – in their history books.
Canada produced another censorship scandal this week when the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council decided this week that the British band Dire Strait’s song “Money for Nothing” has been deemed unacceptable for radio play, unless the word “f-ggot” in the song was bleeped out. I was in my mom’s car listening to AM radio when I heard the news, and right after the news was announced, a slew of angry callers wanted to contest the ban, often arguing about people being too sensitive about words and how the decision demonstrated that political correctness had gone too far.
I’ve been thinking about these controversies for a couple of days. My initial reaction to the two news items was that I agreed more with the CBSC’s decision to bleep out the f-word from the Dire Strait song than the revision of Huck Finn. Why? To me, it made sense that an offensive word would be blurred out, but it seemed more wrong somehow to actively revise an offensive word. I’m not saying this is logical; that’s simply how I reacted first. But after reading White’s argument, I feel more persuaded to let these artifacts of the past speak for themselves, where the onus falls more on the educators (and other public personalities, perhaps) to frame such material in a responsible manner so that the consumers of that material can (vicariously) experience the injustice of the past and not forget the terrible injustices that happened back then.
Then again, I am neither African-American, nor a sexual minority. I can never claim to understand how those words feel accurately – so I am wary of Roger Ebert-like sentiments (though I do love most of his tweets, just not this one). How can we, the outsiders, decide what’s okay and what’s not, when it comes to racial and sexual slurs?
[Image: the controversial edition of Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition, from NewSouthBooks.com]