One of the most important reasons to study history is to learn about the specific instances of the past that were morally deplorable or ignorant in the hopes that such instances will not be repeated. It is one of the reasons why war is such a oft-studied event. It is why events like the Holocaust and the American Civil Rights Movement are covered in every state’s curriculum. Literature, in many ways, is a natural extension of history. Poetry, short stories, novellas, etc. paint a portrait of the themes, settings and values of a different era. In fact, classics are frequently considered “classics” not because of a fluid or easy-to-understand writing style, but because of a clear conveyance of a life and time that no longer exists. Assigned works are often read with the (main?) intent of analyzing how life during the time the work takes place differs and compares to current life.
Naturally, in light of these statements, it is clear that I believe censorship is quite possibly the most stifling, offensive, willfully ignorant, and lazy idea ever to come into fields of education and parenting. It is stifling to the artists whose works undergo such “editing.” It is offensive because it most often is used to pretend that events, words, and people never existed or occurred, which naturally insults (or should insult) the people affected by said-events, words, and people. It is willfully ignorant because the concept of censorship is based upon one of two guises: (1) “if we pretend it did not happen, then it really did not happen and it will not happen again” (2) “the person who will be exposed to the work in uncensored form is too immature or too ignorant to understand the correct way to interpret the uncensored form.” It is lazy because many censor works–especially from children–to avoid awkward or uncomfortable conversations.
What has provoked this rant on censorship is the “new” version of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn published by NewSouth Books. And what exactly makes a book originally published in the 1880s “new”? The replacement of the word “nigger” with “slave.” Now I do not want to concentrate on the words that were replaced, or what they mean historically, etc.–that is a topic for a different blog post; however, I do want to concentrate on the censoring-aspect of this feat. According to the publisher and its clients, the new version was commissioned because the book is traditionally assigned to high-school students, and the word “nigger” was deemed offensive and politically incorrect and the schools did not want to have to discuss this sensitive topic with the class when reading the book.
Here is my issue #1: the word that was replaced does not appear once or twice. It appears over 200 times in a book that’s only about 250 pages long. If you can replace easily a word that occurs that frequently in a work and preserve–in your mind–the themes, plot-points, motifs, etc. that you wanted to cover originally with the book, then you could just as easily just find another book. If you don’t want to assign that particular work of Twain because it contains an offensive word, fine. Cover another Twain novel–he wrote more than one after all. If you don’t want the word to take away from the themes of “exploring the unknown,” or “coming into one’s own,” or “obtaining freedom,” fine; these are common themes in literature, and other options do exist.
Here is my issue #2: the word is being removed because it is offensive and because schools did not want to discuss such a sensitive topic with the kids. Removing this word from one particular novel neither erases its existence nor greatly prevents it from appearing in the student’s life. Especially considering the history, hurt, and damage associated to the word, what better setting to have a student see it than the classroom? Having the word come up in a neutral zone where intellectual discussions can take place and where the negativeness of the word can be taught is much healthier than avoiding it in this one instance (because let’s face it, the kids either already know the word–and maybe even use it–or they’re going to hear it very soon somewhere else). By avoiding the word we are denying our children a potentially fantastic and healthy learning opportunity.