Friday, January 14, 2011
"What are words for, when no one listens anymore?"
I’m coming to this party a little late, but I have some strong opinions about this, so I thought I might as well usher in the new year at Lingwë with something controversial. Just to give you the background (though probably unnecessary): Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University in Alabama, is producing a bowdlerized version of Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which every occurrence of the word nigger — more than 200 of them — is replaced with slave. You can read more about it here. Or just ask Google; everybody seems to be talking about this. But in all the discussion, one thing is not being said much. The offending word itself. That’s part of the reason for this post.
By the way, a note for my international readers. It’s possible that some of you don’t quite grasp what a taboo word nigger is in the United States. It is perhaps the most offensive word in the modern American colloquial lexis—much worse than fuck, shit, cunt, etc., all of which have venerable histories, by the way. And the profusion of the word nigger in hip-hop culture, ironic as that is, makes it even more taboo in mainstream conversation. Even scholars and newspeople cannot or will not utter the word, not even in discussions of what Professor Gribben is doing to Huck Finn. That’s right: the word is so distasteful that we can refer vaguely what Gribben has done to the text, but we aren’t supposed to actually say it. Usually, “the n-word” is substituted. Everybody knows what that means, though, so what is gained by referring to the word without actually saying it? This is much too Puritanical for me. But I digress …
More to the point is whether bowdlerizing the text is right or wrong. People on one side are crying censorship; while those on the other hail the change for bringing the book to a new audience, one that would otherwise be much too squeamish to touch it. Still others point out that since Huck Finn has gone into the public domain, anyone can do anything he likes to the text — which is true; how long until we have a zombie version?
The issue is a troubling one. I feel that bowdlerizing a text is never the right answer. In full disclosure, I have something of a vested interest; I’ve been a big fan of Twain for as long as I have Tolkien — since I was about Huck’s age. The very first book report I ever gave in school was not on The Hobbit, but on The Autobiography of Mark Twain. (This book is in the news again too, with the recent publication of material suppressed from it for the past one hundred years. But that’s a topic for another post.)
A satellite issue that I find equally troubling is that so many people crying censorship are unwilling, themselves, to put front and center the word at issue: nigger. They are, in effect, voluntarily censoring themselves while decrying the censorship of Twain. I posted some of these thoughts on one of my friend’s blogs; he removed them (with apologies) because they actually spelled out the heinous word that must never even be spelled out.
I don’t suppose I blame him for this. It is a horrible epithet, freighted with a history of bigrotry and murder. But before and after all of that, it is just a word. True, the word may remind us of that history of bigotry and hatred; it should, however painful the reminder. Might refusing to say it or even spell it be an attempt to ignore or forget that history? I’m not calling my friends ostriches, but to me, there is no reason that intelligent people making intelligent arguments should be unable to utter the word. How can we rationally discuss a difficult subject if we are unwilling even to name it out loud? The very people who have historically been the target of this epithet should applaud its use in thoughtful conversations about race.
Naturally, I don’t mean to suggest the word should regain it old currency. I’m not saying anyone should hurl it at anyone else; that is absolutely wrong. Words can naturally be used as weapons — this word, along with many others. But words are not weapons inherently, by their fundamental nature. We should be able to use any word in a critical discussions about words.
Apart from the dangers of bowdlerization in a (supposedly) free society, I have another problem with the substitution of slave for nigger in Huck Finn. The former actually occurs in the novel, maybe half a dozen times, as compared to a couple hundred of the latter. By replacing one word with another that actually occurs in the text, you lose the ability to distinguish between the substitutions and the cases where Twain actually wrote slave.
As to substituting n—, which is often suggested, that would be better than a different word, but not very much better . It’s still a problem for young readers, because they will naturally ask what n— means. The people who have a problem with exposing young people to Twain’s own words would have great difficulty answering, probably offering something like, “that’s a very bad word which none of us is allowed to say; it’s so bad, I can’t even tell you what it stands for.” Is a lame answer along these lines really the way to educate our children? I don’t call that education.
Kids are going to find out one way or the other, so you’ve only kicked the can a little further down the street — but at the cost of vandalizing Twain’s masterpiece. Are children’s ears really so sensitive? Or is it not rather the parents who are so uncomfortable? This reminds me a bit of the attitudes of shame and avoidance by everyday Germans about the Holocaust in the decades following World War II. Even today, I’m told this topic is verboten in polite conversation in Germany. I would be pleased to hear from my German friends on this point.
I do sympathize with Professor Gribben’s aims. His point in making the change is to bring the book — all but that one word, anyway — to students who would simply not be allowed to read it otherwise. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, he might say. On the surface, it’s a laudable goal, but is bringing these readers a bowdlerized book better than keeping the original from them? A legitimate question for debate, but I don’t think so. Better would be to continue chipping away at the prejudices in the Deep South from the inside until they’re ready for the real thing. These prejudices are the reason the book can’t be taught as written. To change the book seems to me to be coddling these prejudices, rather than confronting them. They shouldn’t change the book; the book should change them.
My friend referred to Twain’s observation that “the difference between the almost-right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning”, and that is spot-on. In the case of Huck, to substitute the lightning bug for the lightning itself is nothing more than hiding away the very issue that should be at the heart of the discussion, and hiding it from kids at precisely the age where these prejudices can be most effectively battled.
I’ve read that the book makes one other change, substituting Indian for injun, the latter being now also regarded as a racial slur (though evoking nowhere near the reaction of nigger). This change is total nonsense. First, Indian is not accurate; if you want to vandalize the text, just substitute Native American. Second, injun is not a racial slur — or at least, no more than Indian is — it’s a dialectal variation. It really just comes down to local accent, represented orthographically by Twain. And by the way, injun only occurs about ten times in the novel, about one-twentieth the frequency of nigger. Were there Native American schools refusing to teach Huck Finn because of the word, or is this merely meddling to suit the tastes of the editor? And if an editor wants to change this particular word, why not flatten out all of Twain’s meticulous use of dialect? Twain carefully reproduces six distinct regional dialects, if I recall. This is something we ought to preserve, not smooth away.
 This has been tried before, and recently. Joseph Conrad’s 1897 novel, The Nigger of the Narcissus — oh my god, it’s right there in the title! Children, avert your eyes! — was reissued in 2009 by WordBridge Publishing as The N-word of the Narcissus. In this bowdlerization, every occurrence of the word nigger, including in the title, was changed to n-word. Absurd. Even when the book first appeared in America (a little more than a decade after Huck Finn), it was published here under a different title, The Children of the Sea. It is seldom read today, almost certainly because of the offense this word continues to give.