The Argument from Comfort Justifications for “Blanket” Censorship

By Craig Boehman – (Also Check out Craig’s blog The NeoConArtist.)

“Am I surprised, then, that Dr. Gribben has edited a version of Huck Finn that replaces the n-word with slave? Not really. Nor can I muster much righteous indignation against the idea.” -Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series.

It amazes me how flippant and lazy the justifications have been in the defense of (or the not-so-much- against) the censoring of Mark Twain.

Mark Twain

I read the above quotation while scanning the news for Twain updates this morning in the author’s blog. As it turns out, a few prominent authors are sounding quite a bit alike. The underpinning logic behind the current censorship debate is comfort – or lack thereof. It is a doctrine that is firmly rooted in the psyche of many educators, including Dr. Alan Gribben and his former student – teacher and author, Rick Riordan.

The argument itself seems sensible and touches on the problem of censorship and its denunciation. Teaching literary texts with racial slurs can be “tricky”, especially with African Americans. Most will agree with this assertion. Another example might highlight a minority group of whites sitting in a literature class in the Philippines discussing the work of a Filipino author whose protagonist hurls racial insults against American soldiers during the Spanish American War. Most uncomfortable too, understandably. Mr. Riordan reiterates the appeal to comfort in his current blog:

On the other hand, I have taught Huck Finn in the classroom – unedited, unabridged. I have taught the book with African American students. It can be done well. It can be a positive experience. But it is a tricky, tricky proposition. I know that it can make students extremely uncomfortable, even with the most careful preparation and conversation. Faced with such a challenge, many educators and curriculum gurus will probably choose the path of least resistance. Rather than teaching Huck Finn in the original, they will simply remove one of the most important texts in American literature from their classrooms. Because of this, I can understand that in some cases, in some classrooms, an edited version of the novel might be a welcome teaching tool, and an appropriate choice.

And an excerpt from Dr. Gribben’s introduction in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn expresses the argument from comfort based on experience in the classroom as well:

Through a succession of firsthand experiences, this editor [Dr. Gribben] gradually concluded that an epithet-free edition of Twain’s books is necessary today. For nearly forty years I have led college classes, bookstore forums, and library reading groups in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in California, Texas, New York, and Alabama, and I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs spoken by numerous characters, including Tom and Huck. I invariably substituted the word “slave” for Twain’s ubiquitous n-word whenever I read any passages aloud. Students and audience members seemed to prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed.

I can almost sense their subconscious disgust at this mediocre and intellectually deprived stance on keeping things comfortable as a justification for censorship. They know the responses that are likely to be slung back at them.

“Then don’t teach it at all.” – “Perhaps someone better qualified should be teaching it.” – “Let the book continued to be banned from most schools until educators, school boards, and parents can themselves come to terms with the material.” – “Better to not teach at all than to teach a white-washed history.” – “Since when is teaching anything of importance supposed to be comforting?”

Fallacies in play:

Those who argue from comfort are well aware of the dilemma they put themselves in. This is why we see them digging themselves deeper into the hole by committing other fallacies of logic by appealing to authority and popularity to try and lend more beef to their position. But these tendencies only weaken their position even further.

Dr. Gribben appeals to popularity for “further proof” for his justification of substituting the N-word was necessary:

In several towns I was taken aside after my talk by earnest middle and high school teachers who lamented the fact that they no longer felt justified in assigning either of Twain’s boy books because of the hurtful n-word. Here was further proof that this single debasing label is overwhelming every other consideration about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, whereas what these novels have to offer readers hardly depends upon that one indefensible slur.

Mr. Riordan chimes in as well on the popularity slant when it comes to ‘easing our minds’ and downplaying the act of censorship:

“And let’s remember, tinkering with a classic text is hardly a new idea, nor is it usually done with as much delicacy and careful consideration. There are dozens of abridged “young reader” versions of Huck Finn in print that hack huge portions out of the text and also clean up or dumb down the language. There are numerous graphic novel versions. These are commonly used in classrooms without generating national headlines, and take much greater liberties with Twain’s story for worse reasons.”

On authority:

The appeal to authority is essentially stating that a person presumed to be an authority on a subject claims something to be true. An great example of this fallacy would be taking Sarah Palin as an authority on her pro life abortion stance concerning rape. She once stated that she would personally “choose life” even if her own daughter were raped. Citing Palin as an authority on this would be erroneous as she has not had this tragic thing happen to her daughter, and if it had happen, it wouldn’t have been her “choice” to make regarding whether or not her daughter decided to keep the child (not if her daughter was of the legal age to make the decision for herself). It’s Palin’s opinion on that matter. Having a strong opinion on this is perfectly fine but it doesn’t lend credibility to her assertion as an authority that abortion is wrong even in the case of rape. For this we’d look to a mother who had endured this sad experience. We’d probably lend more weight to this mother’s argument on the issue of abortion regardless of whether she agrees with Palin’s own view or not. A proper authority figure has experience and/or credentials.

Doctor Gribben appeals to authority in another way that isn’t quite so apparent or committal. On one hand he may be agreeing full heartily (with presumed authorities) that censorship is indeed wrong while simultaneously tipping his hat to those that advocate censorship. To make matters worse, he does so without fully embracing either camp.

Again, from Dr. Gribben’s introduction:

“Over the years I have noted valiant and judicious defenses of the prevalence of the n-word in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as proposed by eminent writers, editors, and scholars, including those of Michael Patrick Hearn, Nat Hentoff, Randall Kennedy, and Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua. Hearn, for example, correctly notes that “Huck says it out of habit, not malice” (22).

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).”

Have any of these “eminent writers, editors, and scholars” themselves been the victims of censorship? Have any of them censored another author? While we may take note of their literary credentials and think highly of their opinions and knowledge in their fields, this in and of itself doesn’t make them authorities on censorship. What they have done is asserted – like Palin’s strong opinion on abortion – their own opinions on the subject. It makes no difference whether or not their conclusions agree or not with those who are censored (or doing the censoring). If we are to hold authorities on any matter in high regard, we must remain true to the very sense of the word, authority. Granted, Dr. Gribben is just making his case. But he is also in effect not making his case as “eloquently” as his NewSouth Books publisher proudly claim on their website. While he “noted” those who defended the use of the N-word, he makes a somewhat noncommittal mention of the African American author, Langston Hughes, at the end of the paragraph. There isn’t much of an argument here for the pros and cons of censorship. And none of the names dropped could reasonably be associated with an authority on censorship, including Hughes, whose opposition to the use of the N-word only provides insight into why Gribben may also want to do away with it for his own purposes, chief among them is for the benefit of the book’s wider appeal – to the detriment of understanding great literature and American history for this same audience.

Needless to say, there is no need for such an audience anywhere in the world. These audiences are merely created by the censors. This is what Dr. Gribben does not comprehend. He’s creating an audience that is comprised of victims, victims of his censorship, all in the name of his other cited reason for censorship, comfort. Dr. Gribben does emphasize in several places in the introduction his rejection of censorship and his advocacy of Twain uncensored and unabridged. No PhD is going to censor a book without going to great lengths to justify it. But he is advocating the censorship of Twain for his own private audience. He’s ‘Robbin Hooding’ the discomfort from the literary richness of Twain’s work and bestowing comfort back unto the poor(souls).

The bottom line is Dr. Gribben wants to have it both ways. He’s both against censorship and kinda sort of for it, too. NewSouth Books is allowing him to edit is book and censor it too. And in the process, he’s gaining the new perspective that none of those folks he mentioned in his introduction possess – the perspective and the authority of the censor. And in the meantime, expect more pundits in the teaching profession to ‘kind of’ come to his defense with arguments containing larger gaps in logic than what any of us should be comfortable with. While being against censorship for me is ‘just an opinion’, albeit a strong one and an opinion I hold with much righteous indignation, I’m quite content for one who’s not an authority on the matter.

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2 comments on “The Argument from Comfort Justifications for “Blanket” Censorship
  1. […] The Argument from Comfort Justifications for “Blanket” Censorship (censorshipinamerica.wordpress.com) […]

  2. […] The Argument from Comfort Justifications for “Blanket” Censorship (censorshipinamerica.wordpress.com) […]

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