Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Bad Words



The upcoming publishing of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer with the words nigger and injun removed has been all over the news this week. The publisher (and professor and Mark Twain scholar) explains the change as a catering to 21st century ears that (rightfully) are offended by the word and schools that (wrongfully, in my opinion) take the book off curriculum because of the word.


There’s a lot of discussion swilling around it: Those like myself view it as 1984’s history revision come frighteningly to life, and those that are made so uncomfortable by ugly things that they’d rather pretend they don’t exist all together.


One of the main arguments is that it’s awkward for white teachers to say “the n-word” in front of black students. But the undertone of this sentiment is troubling— if they would be fine saying it in front of a class of white students or calling women bitches and whores when out with the boys, that reveals more about their true thoughts than their refusal to say it in “mixed company.”


I’m disappointed to hear English teachers on the side of revising literature in order to avoid an awkward classroom moment. If you can’t guide a class of high school students in understanding the language, history and themes in Huck Finn, you shouldn’t be teaching high school English. And if you are a high school student or parent of one who can only have an knee jerk reaction to something without attempting to understand the context, then you lack vital critical thinking skills essential to the kind of education that we should want for students.


Aside from the point that Mark Twain was no hack, that he knew what he was writing, and isn’t alive to protest the revision of his word, changing the word changes the meaning of the book and the historical context.


As The Washington Post points out: “To remove it from this context is to strip it of its power -- and to needlessly whitewash a period that deserves no whitewashing.”


White people did a lot of really fucked up shit to people of other races in our history, to tiptoe around it doesn’t do anyone a service, nor does pretending that they used more polite words while they did it.


I’m reminded of my other favorite George (Carlin). In his famous 7 dirty words he said: "There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions, but no bad words."


Nigger is a “bad” word because we made it bad, we invented it and used it to mean horrible hateful things, but if we pretend that we didn’t, if we just don’t mention it, it doesn’t change the thoughts and intentions of the people who use it. I fully understand how uncomfortable it is to hear hateful words and I would never advocate slurs in modern communication, but rewriting the language of history to mollify our 2011 enlightened PC ears is a worrisome precedent. It’s double plus bad.