NYT columnist: If censoring “Huckleberry Finn” gets more people to read it, why not do it?

posted at 3:23 pm on January 5, 2011 by Allahpundit

I skipped this story yesterday thinking that, after so many years of this idiocy, not only is there nothing left to say about it but practically no one left who’s willing to argue the other side. There’ll always be a few dim liberals ready to make the literary commissar vanish, but my hunch is that even most progressives oppose bowdlerizing the book. It’s historically false, it betrays Twain’s intent, it sets a horrible revisionist precedent for other great works, and maybe worst of all, it misses the point of why the slurs are there. Twain’s goal, of course, wasn’t to gratuitously dehumanize blacks, it was to use the sympathy you feel for Jim to make you feel the injustice of that casual day-to-day dehumanization. With all that arguing against editing the text, I figured no prominent liberal would support it.

But I was wrong, wasn’t I?

If censoring Huck Finn will help get a great book back on h.s. reading lists, isn’t that worth it?

Give him credit, I guess, for not using a euphemism in lieu of “censoring.” Jesse Walker and Patterico have thoughtful takes on the new bowdlerized edition, but all I want to know is: Where does this practice end? And what kind of high school teacher are you if you can’t explain the difference between a racist book and a book that uses racist language to argue against racism?

Update: Amerpundit e-mails to say that he received this in his comments section last night:

We understand there are strong feelings about this; we feel strongly too about the sanctity of literature, and opposing censorship.

What is perhaps unclear in the article above is that this edition is not meant to pretend as though the offensive language doesn’t exist; rather there is a detailed introduction included in this volume that addresses the language, its historical context, and the ongoing debate in schools as to whether or not to teach Twain’s work because of the language. No reader can read this book without facing the question of including or excluding the language; this book is about the language question, not hiding from it.

If the publication sparks good debate about how language impacts learning and/or about the nature of censorship or the way racial slurs exercise their baneful influence, then our mission in publishing this new edition of Twain’s works will be more emphatically fulfilled. We encourage everyone to read an excerpt from Dr. Gribben’s introduction at http://www.newsouthbooks.com/twain. Thanks!

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Why are other words that have historical usage claims to dehumanization given contextual moderation?
Saltysam on January 6, 2011 at 10:21 AM

Another point to ponder on this subject if you will:

Regarding the argument that because the house does not ban all words that have historical usage claims to dehumanization absent contextual moderation, it is indefensible for the house to ban any single word of same:

In general, I agree with this argument, as this is what is done in my house, with very few exceptions (i.e. this story). That said, when I leave my house, I become a visitor in the house of another. I should not expect the other house to behave the same.

It has been discovered there is indeed a word of same being used within my house to this very day. The word is Fetus, to me it means unborn. To some it means dehumanizing an individual to the point that the slaughter of said individual is not only allowed, but encouraged.

I have now banned the word f**us from my house.

rukiddingme on January 7, 2011 at 8:30 PM

Why are other words that have historical usage claims to dehumanization given contextual moderation?
Saltysam on January 6, 2011 at 10:21 AM

Since you haven’t responded (or read for all I know) what I wrote to you, here is where the story ends as to why this particular word, and not all words of like kind, has been banned from HA, irrespective of contextual moderation. I will use the word fetus to demonstrate.

The derogatory use of the word has exceeded the non-derogatory use outside the house. The house is no longer willing to use the word fetus and instead uses the word ‘unborn’.

Outside the house, others still use fetus and give contextual moderation pointing to the non-derogatory use. Still others use the deragatory nature of the word.

Those allowed in the house, leave messages on the walls. Up to this point, all have given contextual moderation when using the word.

While contemplating the scrutiny of your question, someone was in the house and wrote the following word all over the walls:

Fetus, fetus, fetus, fetus, fetus, fetus………

The problem occurs when one writes the word in its’ simplest form. Contextual moderation is absent, and there is no mechanism to determine intent. The writer of the word may tell the house the intent was not derogatory, but the house (nor the reader) can establish this as fact. To the house, the words is reprehensible regardless of user intent. The house decides it will no longer let anyone use the word, lest it risk scrubbing the walls at a future date.

Place this particular word in the place of fetus and you have the answer to your question why this word is no longer allowed at HA.

In my opinion, other like-kind words are given contextual moderation probably due more to the fact the other like-kind words have not been scribbled on the walls of HA in their simplest form – yet.

I suspect that if that day comes, HA will ban use of those words as well, irrespective of contextual moderation.

rukiddingme on January 10, 2011 at 4:31 PM

Comment pages: 1 2 3