A Really “Un-Civil” Blog Post

January 14, 2011

What is the power of a word?

That’s been all anyone has talked about this week.  All week, people have been spewing blame and vitriol and rhetoric (there’s three words I’m sick of already), trying to blame our political conversations for the actions of one crazed, satanic, lunatic.

Speaking of vitriolic and offensive language, last week, Professor Alan Gribben announced he was preparing a new version of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” cleansed of all two-hundred plus uses of the “N-word,” a word so apparently powerful when used by a white man over a century ago, that no one should ever lay eyes upon it today.

Seems like priority number one is sanitizing our language.

To close out the week, I’ve got some of my own thoughts on the power of words, the danger of trying to be “civil,” and yes, why Huck Finn needs to remain as is.

A Less Offensive History

Yes, I think Huck Finn shouldn’t be touched, even to remove an incredibly offensive word.

Yes, “Huck Finn” is full of that offensive word.  That’s because the book is part of history.  I dare you to read two pages of history, and not be offended by the suffering and cruelty people have always shackled on others.

But what if we tried, like the Professor, to scrub history of its offenses?  Imagine if little African American children twenty years from now didn’t know the N-word had a terrible historical context.  What if it was just a word used in rap music and shared between black friends that whites were mysteriously not supposed to use?  What if we banned the offensive name of ‘Hitler’ because of all the suffering he represents?  What if little Jewish children never learned the word ‘Holocaust’ because it might hurt their feelings?

When we try to scrub history clean and try to erase any trace of suffering, we don’t have any history left.  We rob people of their history, culture, and yes, even the pride and inspiration they can feel in how their ancestors bore suffering with dignity and grace.  Trying to make history inoffensive only makes people ignorant of history, and you know what people who are ignorant of history are doomed to do, right?  I find that offensive and unethical.

Really, anyone who would say that “Huck Finn” should be revised is already ignorant of history.  “Huck Finn” is Twain’s veiled but “vitriolic” critique of the white church in his time (experiencing the spiritual revivals of the Third Awakening after the Civil War) that had forgotten about Reconstruction, and stood idly by while the African Americans they welcomed to worship lived much the same, degrading existences as they had before slavery.  They were still considered “N-words,” by many, and I think Mark Twain would tell you he was mad as hell about it.  There is no reason for that book to ever be banned or revised.

Have you read 1984?  The first thing the government did was make words “obsolete,” to limit knowledge and expression, and to rewrite history.

Big Brother Demands Civility

While some people would like to have a more civil portrayal of history, we’re all talking about having more civil discussions today.  I’m all for that.  But I don’t predict success.

Look at what we’ve accomplished this week.  Everyone has managed to blame everyone else’s “irresponsible” and “hateful” speech for the actions of one killer.  I can see it now, the word “civility” will be the irritating buzzword of the year.  And as people are prone to do, we will use it until it has no meaning.  Worse, the word will become a weapon, as anything useful does.  Anytime someone disagrees with us, we will accuse them of being “uncivil.”  We will paint our opponents as crazy (left-wing, right-wing) and their opinions as “hateful.” 

And just like some people try to censor history because it’s offensive, we will try to censor those we disagree with with the word “civility.”  It will be just another word that’s turned into a very un-civil weapon to try to control others with.  And American politics will be no less barbaric and sadistic than they have been for the last two-hundred years.

My Little Corner

That brings me to my little corner of the world.  I am so proud of the discussions we have three times a week.  The thoughtful and civil comments so many of you bring to this blog each week are truly amazing.  I truly get more out of this blog than I put into it.  I have never avoided controversial topics, and have always encouraged you to not hold back your disagreements.  For crying out loud, look at the last few entries – Islam, gay children, things people are sure to vehemently disagree about.  I don’t plan to quit either.  Seriously, what did I just say up there?  I’m advocating keeping the “N-word” in books, for crying out loud.  And yet, with rare occasion, no one here tries to bite my head off, or anyone else’s.  That’s awesome.

So let’s hear it.  Is removing the “N-word” unethical, or a step toward healing?  Is America really going to become more civilized, or are we past the point of no return?

40 responses to A Really “Un-Civil” Blog Post

  1. i say leave the ‘n’ word in the book. though i do understand if, in the classroom, a teacher decides to ask students to substitute another word when reading aloud. do students still read aloud in school these days?
    JamesBrett recently posted..adam and eve’s exchange

    • Not usually. Reading aloud is humiliating for students who don’t read well or read slowly.

      • tim, the humiliation is part of why it’s such a good idea. it’ll encourage them to work harder and to be better readers.

        heck, we ought to make the little skinny guys (and the big fat ones) read aloud in class with their shirts off. [the really masculine and well-built jocks probably embarrass themselves enough just with the trying to read part…]

        i’m telling you, there’s nothing wrong with a little humiliation as motivation. have you ever seen someone fall down in front of a lot of people — and not get up? nope, all the people laughing at them is plenty of reason for them to get up real quick. that’s motivation.

    • I can understand that, but I think students have the chance to learn the true offense of that word by reading it.

  2. If we spend too much of our time looking back, I doubt that we will move forward as we should.

    I totally agree with your statement/question … “Trying to make history inoffensive only makes people ignorant of history, and you know what people who are ignorant of history are doomed to do, right? I find that offensive and unethical.”

    I don’t see removing the “N-word” in historical writings as a step toward healing. I think that’s the wrong approach to (try to) address an issue. Obviously we are responsible for our own writings today, no “N” words and other offensive words … but even more so, we should live without discrimination against anyone (anyone!) … that’s where the healing will come from.

    Your second question asks … or are we past the point of no return? I don’t think so … because “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” (Cicero)
    Janet Oberholtzer recently posted..My First Guest Post on Another Blog

  3. Twain should not be touched. If we remove the offensive N- word, then we pretend that we are innocent of ever having used it. We cannot now look back to sanitize our history. We did enslave African-American people, and there is no way around that. It was a national sin. After all, what is the role of Jim is you take away the fact he was a runaway slave?

  4. Many Christians have already set the precedent to edit Twain. They have devices in their living rooms that remove offensive language and scenes from their favorite movies as well.

  5. Yeah leave it in. It’s like replacing the word “sin” with, “faults, goofs, mistakes, etc.” There’s sort of an unhinging of the seriousness of the word.

    And I think if we erase the “N” word, we’re erasing the struggles and hardship and the failings of the whites and a majority of America. If you don’t know what failing looks like how do you know what winning looks like? Winning = that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

    nicodemusatnite.com
    Charlie Chang recently posted..253 Letting your drink fall

  6. Who we are on the outside does not make us unclean, it is who we are on the inside and how that comes out. (paraphrasing Jesus) This tells us that Twain’s use of the word nigger did not make his work unclean, for Matt is right, Twain’s heart was in the right place.
    The freedom to express our thoughts will mean that some speak lies and hateful things, but it will also mean that I can speak of Jesus. We will not be made clean by creating rules that must be lived by. We will be made clean by the renewing and transforming of our minds and our hearts, something that if we are willing, God joyfully does.

  7. You’ve set up a false choice here. “Kids can read Huck Finn, n****r version, or they can read Huck Finn, slave version.” In reality, the choice is the slave version, or not reading it at all. Teachers don’t pick Huck Finn because of the N-word. That’s not going to change any time soon. Giving them an option to pick an edited Huck Finn is better than no one reading it at all.

    • But I feel that factors into my point as well. We’re content to protect our kids from history because it’s offensive. True, people have always been offended by Huck, banning the book all over the country, rather than seriously examining the mirror it holds up to society. The book was excoriated for being “uncivil” when it was published.

  8. Let me get this right, Biden can use the “F” word on national TV, Obama can say “So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” and “N” word is off limits in 100-year-old book?

    There is stupidity on the other wing as well. “When I take action, I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive.” -George W. Bush

    Can’t we focus on how people back up their words? For example: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust! Iran is not free. Chavez says that Venezuelans are happy and well fed. Are you kidding me? It’s a lie.

    In an age where we can’t get unbiased news, and so-called scholars want to rewrite history, Americans had better get a grip on what’s important and it ain’t Jersey Shore.

    The Communists already tried the sanitized history experiment. The decided to keep out any ideas from the free world. They failed. I lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation and the mistrust of government in the wake of the JFK shooting – rewriting history, controlling literature, and other freedoms is a grave mistake.

    It the statement is true that we are doomed to repeat history, this behavior is only going to make it worse.

    I really have to ask the question, do these people think that Americans are too stupid to turn off the TV or put down an offensive book?

    Sure, the “N” word represents a sad time in American history. There were plenty of sad times in American history.

    I think these guys need to watch an All in the Family marathon and lighten up.
    David recently posted..Tradition- Breaking the Mold Without Ruining the Work

  9. Scrubbing history clean makes it inaccurate and inaccurate history makes us ignorant about where we have been and where we desire to go. If we head into the future ingorant about our past, we will surely be worse off and the consequences could be severe.
    seekingpastor recently posted..Who I’m Comfortable With

  10. I think this edition of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is ridiculous. You cannot rewrite history, as much as some might try. I also find it troubling that the word used in place of “n*****” is slave. The two are far from synonymous. I was watching “The Daily Show” this week, and the Senior Black Correspondent (lol!) commented something along the lines that Jim was 1.) no longer a slave (he had escaped) and 2.) Twain was making the point that one could run from being a slave but not from being a “n*****”. Okay, so he was joking, but I got the point. The original was best.

    Excellent post by the way!
    Alisha recently posted..Why Is The Black Abortion Rate So High

  11. The irony is that Twain was the first guy to give us real American speech, and now he’s being edited by some namby-pamby hack. When I read Huck Finn in junior high we all tensed up at certain points, but then we were able to ask questions in a positive environment about WHY that language was there and what it all meant. I’ll never get over these elites who think they know what’s best for everyone else.
    eduClaytion recently posted..Why Am I Writing About Katy Perry &amp Kelly Clarkson

  12. Can you imagine how short the bible would be if everything offensive was edited out?

  13. Let us take this back to theology (gasp!).

    We know this has been going on since the beginning of time (“Adam, where are you?” “NOWHERE! NOTHING! SHE MADE ME DO IT!”), and the Sanhedrin attempted to change history from the get go (“say ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep'” Matthew 28:13). Thomas Jefferson cut out all of the miracles from his Bible, including the resurrection, because he believed in science and our ability to live moral lives. I think this is really what it all comes down to. Not really living moral lives, per se, but what we “can do”.

    If we try to change history (even, as mentioned above, Christians using devices to edit movies and tv shows) we are saying our world is not what it is. If we truly tried to remove everything offensive, not only would we end up with a 1984 world (which we are getting ever closer to) but we would see crucifixion disappear from our Bibles. This is obviously wrong since our whole message is supposed to be based on Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1-2 is the best example), but what else? Suddenly we have an unnecessary Resurrection (the Sadducees are so happy!). It becomes even more unnecessary when we realize we have to remove two-thirds of the Bible that helps us understand the need for a sacrificed Lord including the Original Sin in the Garden of Eden. Now we become sinless.

    Hence where our culture now stands. If we have millions and billions of years, if we have evolution, then the first man and woman could not have sinned since they would not have really known better but would need to be taught everything first. Therefore we no longer have original sin. Therefore we no longer have need for a savior. Therefore we not longer have need for God.

    Trying to change history is way more serious than some people think! If we drop “the N-word” to avoid offending people, we should make it true among our “African-American” friends (a term I despise if they were not born in Africa, by the way. Same with many other similar terms) between each other; we should make it true for other curse words; and we should make it true everything. Some people can be offended by just waking up in the morning (or the afternoon, whenever their morning is), and we can never offend no one. We just need to grow up as a whole and get over ourselves. That is one thing Jesus helps us with, though sometimes (too frequently) Christians are too easily offended, too.

    By the way, great post!

  14. “Trying to make history inoffensive only makes people ignorant of history, and you know what people who are ignorant of history are doomed to do, right? I find that offensive and unethical.”

    That’s exactly how I feel on it. Great post, man.
    Jason recently posted..Day 13 Bonus- A Solomon experience

  15. Unethical to use the word in most circumstances? Yes. Unethical to remove it’s exsistence. Absoluely. And impossible.

    Just found your blog, i like it a lot! Thanks for posting.

  16. I saw this news a week or two ago and it really bothers me too.

    When we change our past we destroy our future.

    Great post!
    Rocco recently posted..December 26th…

  17. I’ll be so glad to get to the New Earth and read history as it really happened, accurately, from God’s perspective… What was really going on, and not just the way the authors have revised it.

    How could we ever be thankful for God’s redemption of us, and His rescue of us, if we expunged the memory of all the bad things that had happened, and all the bad things we had done?

    So, I’m with ya. Removing words is not only uncivil, it’s unwise.

  18. Is Injun Joe next?

  19. I haven’t seen “political correctness” anywhere in the Bible.

    Moreover, if we change history and destroy its value, the future generation will have a skewed sense of consequences and what has actually taken place in the past as a result of bad choices. People who are extremely progressive sometimes get this idea to shift and subvert popular ideologies, like Christianity in America, for their own views of how this country should be.
    Brooklyn Cravens recently posted..Avatar- Chicken Soup for the Lost Souls

  20. i would just like to say “THANK YOU!” to Matt and Everyone on here. I am new to my own faith, although I am a pastor’s daughter. It’s so refreshing to hear Christians talk about real issues in America (homosexuality and racism now and in history). I have been in the church a long time and seen people whisper or ignore these important issues in our society, as if they will go away. It is definitely time for a change, time to open our mouths as Christians and talk about how we feel about the changing world around us.

    Keep the “n” word in there. That word is a part of our history as much as slavery is and there is no erasing it now, as much as it might hurt sometimes. I grew up in a inner city high school in Durham, NC that was 95% African American. I was the minority for the first and only time in my life so far. I have never used this word, but heard it constantly. Yes, it seems ignorant to you and I for rap songs and some African Americans to use that word to describe each other, but they are trying to change the word. The use of it, the meaning of it, the power of it. If they can use it and yet the white people of this country cannot socially in the same way that gives them a certain power over the word. They change the word from a derogatory term to something they refer to their friends, family and fellow African Americans. I am not encouraging the use of the “n” word in the African American community, but it is important for them to recognize it and know where it comes from and the power it has for generations to come. Erasing the history of the “n” word or ignoring it, as we do with some social issues in church, will certainly not make the word go away, but cause history to possibly repeat itself. We cannot let that happen!
    Meredith Moore recently posted..Dancing with God

  21. The least offensive approach to history is pretending it never happened, but it would leave a lot of things unexplained. Also, by eliminating the evil parts of our history, you remove the greatness of individuals who overcame and conquered evil. MLK has no value in American history if whites had always treated blacks with respect and dignity.
    Jeff recently posted..Bully Beatdown- Verbal Bullying

  22. I was thinking, if they edit Huck Finn, then I suppose they’d have to do Canterbury Tales and Little Toot. Some things are better left alone!
    David recently posted..Is It Really God

  23. Living in Australia, the word nigger has not had as big an impact on me or my life as it would if I were American. Still, there are words that were used to describe Aboriginals and immigrants that are no longer politically correct (and were never kind to begin with).

    Reading this, and other places, I’m beginning to think George Orwell is a fairly accurate predictor of the future. It saddens me that people are so unimaginative, or uneducated, or just plain weary of trying to find the truth in the news/politics/world that they just plain give up and believe, or maybe just don’t care, what they are told.

    Matt, keep putting stuff in our faces so that we have to think about it.

  24. You have done an important service in calling attention to a couple of serious problems we are facing. “Editing” or revising history is not only foolish, it is criminal. The refusal to respect those whose opinions differ from our own is also foolish. It has already led to schisms in our society which too few seem willing to make an effort to heal. Thankfully, you are one who does care.
    vanilla recently posted..We Visit a Tourist Marco

  25. Leave Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and all those classics alone. Preserve those classics from the hands of the other side (notice how I didn’t use a label)? Using the N__ word was a part of that history.

    I never knew that about Huck Finn. Thanks for the clarification on the fact that I really need to focus on my goals for the year which is to read history and that includes literature. I can’t learn enough.

    If a government can rewrite history, the lessons our people have learned will be wiped clean from memory in just a few generations and then, they can create laws to eventually give them more power until the constitution becomes just a piece of paper.

    Great blog! I agreed with everything you said here.
    Nikole Hahn recently posted..Freedom in Silence

  26. There is nothing more I can add except that I agree with your post 100 percent. I am also retweeting this.
    Jason recently posted..“The Quotable Chesterton” by Kevin Belmonte

  27. Scrubbing history clean makes it inaccurate and inaccurate history makes us ignorant about where we have been and where we desire to go. I was thinking, if they edit Huck Finn, then I suppose they’d have to do Canterbury Tales and Little Toot. This is obviously wrong since our whole message is supposed to be based on Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1-2 is the best example), but what else?

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