January 13, 2011

Queer Issue: The Impact of Words

This isn't a queer issue per se, but there are two recent events that I want to comment on, both dealing with censorship either directly or indirectly. One is the removal of the word "nigger" from a recent edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The other is the backlash that has been generated against Sarah Palin due to the connection (however weak) her aggressive rhetoric played in the horrific tragedy that took place in Arizona that left 6 dead and a U.S. Congresswoman hospitalized in critical condition.

Regarding the censoring of Huckleberry Finn, the publishers have justified their decision by claiming that teachers were becoming increasingly reluctant to teach the book, due to the use of a modern pejorative for people of color. My response to this is simply, huh?

Yes, the term "nigger" is a pejorative today, but it's use was perfectly acceptable at the time Huckleberry Finn was published. Rather than not teaching the book, I think teachers should use it as a learning opportunity. That is, they should have students read the uncensored version and then provide students with a history of the word and discuss why it's considered offensive today.

What I mean is this, are not teachers supposed to educate on sensitive issues, not cover them up? Students need tools and information in order to be able to evaluate complicated information in an increasingly complex world. By ignoring the issue itself, teachers are sending all the wrong messages to those they are supposed to be teaching.

Moving on to the second issue, the backlash against Sarah Palin, I have this to say. Using angry, violent, and threatening rhetoric is a problem. Not because it might lead to situation that occurred - and there is little actual reason to think that Palin's comments did cause the shooting - but because such rhetoric appeals to emotions and not to reason. There should be little discussion that reason in today's political climate is what we need now, not amped up emotional appeals.

These two issues are more connected then one might think. Thanks to the unsubstantiated charges that our rancorous political climate is the cause that lead to the shooting, I have seen the suggestion made that certain words (gun, shooting, etc.) and threatening statements should be banned from anyone with a microphone or in the media, etc.

I do not believe that this is a good idea, censoring certain words will only make reasoned discussion harder. Nor do I think that Sarah Palin or any other right wing commentator should be considered responsible for what happened.

However, remember that that the angry and violent political discourse that has taken place is wrong, not because it could cause violence, but because it leaves out reason, which is all that we should be using to guide our way forward.

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