We Shouldn’t Censor History

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Source: National Post

By Barbara Kay

This text is a classic work of art that shouldn’t be altered.

A newly-released version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain will substitute the word “slave” for “nigger.” The Full Comment weekly forum deals with the issue, with two of us (Kay, Gurney) in full-throated revulsion against the idea and one (McParland) arguing for its innocence.

This is by no means the first time such a revisionist approach to the American classic has come up. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been the leading target of left-wing censors since the 1950s. Some publishers have in the past substituted the word “slave,” others the word “servant” or “hand.”

When we start tampering with literature, or with any art form of the past, for reasons of political correctness, we are on dangerous ground. In her 2004 book, The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn, Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education under president George H.W. Bush, illustrates the absurdities that result when educators put the sensitivities of readers above literary merit.

In her research on the politics of education, Ravitch found “an elaborate, well-established protocol of beneficent censorship, quietly endorsed and broadly implemented by textbook publishers, testing agencies… and the federal government.” Educational materials are heavily screened to protect children from anything controversial or “offensive.”

Here are some of the words and themes that “bias review” panels have banned from textbooks and reading lists in the U.S.:

  • A story in which peanuts are described as “a healthy snack,” because some students have an allergy to them;
  • A passage using the words “African slave” was excised, because the “correct” usage is “enslaved African”;
  • A passage about patchwork quilting by women in a historical narrative of the western frontier was rejected because it stereotyped women as “soft” and “submissive”;
  • An inspiring true story of a heroic blind man who hiked to the top of Mount McKinley was rejected on two grounds: it told readers of the special dangers the blind hiker was vulnerable to, and therefore suggested that blind people are “worse off” than sighted people, and also because it contained “regional bias”: i.e. it favoured students who lived in regions where mountain climbing was familiar;
  • Aesop’s fable, “The Fox and the Crow” was eliminated because of “gender bias” – the crow is female, also vain and foolish;
  • A charming story about a friendly dolphin was rejected for “regional bias” as well, privileging kids who live by the sea;
  • A passage about owls was rejected “because a Native American member of the bias committee said that owls are taboo for the Navajos”;
  • A short biography of Gutzon Borglum, who designed the monument of the presidents at Mount Rushmore, was dropped because Mount Rushmore is offensive to Lakota Indians, for whom Mount Rushmore is a sacred place;
  • A descriptive story about growing up in ancient Egypt was dropped because it referred to the way people actually lived: some in palaces, some as farmers. The bias and sensitive reviewers decided it had an “elitist” tone.

And for my personal favourite, this: One bias and sensitivity committee voted out a story about a rotting stump in the forest that housed insects, birds, plants and animals. On the surface it was environmentally beautiful, because it emphasized the ways in which nature provides for her wards in organic, environmentally friendly ways. However, the story’s writer made a fatal error: He or she referred to the rotting stump as an “apartment house” for the forest creatures it sheltered. In the view of the committee, the analogy demeaned apartment dwellers, and therefore would upset inner-city children, who might think of themselves as insects in a rotting tree stump: “Youngsters who have grown up in a housing project may be distracted by similarities to their own living conditions. An emotional response may be triggered.”

It’s tempting to laugh at such absurdity, but there is nothing funny about censorship or the astonishing irrationality that governs the censoring sensibility. We must not give in to the impulse to sanitize even the supposedly unsayable, if it is part of the historical record.

Twain was not a racist. He opposed racism. And that is why the book must remain as it is. As America’s premier literary critic Lionel Trilling said about Huck’s use of the word “nigger”: “This is the only word for a Negro that a boy like Huck would know in his place and time – that is, an ignorant boy in the South before the Civil War.” The use of offensive words, Trilling said, “is a fact that forms part of our national history, and a national history is not made up of pleasant and creditable things only… it is something to be confronted and dealt with, not evaded or forgotten.”


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