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?