Raymond Cocteau: "Now, I’ll have carte blanche to create the perfect society … my society. San Angeles will be a beacon of order, with the purity of an ant colony and the beauty of a flawless pearl."
Simon Phoenix: "Look, you can’t take away people’s right to be assholes."
The above exchange took place in the movie Demolition Man. It’s a typical over-the-top action flick from the mid-90s but has what I consider to be a very salient point. In our near-future,, people live in a bland, homogenized society, where no one has to do anything more stressful than walking across the street. People who swore were fined and most of the material pleasures of life – sex, red meat, caffeine, tobacco – were banned. The ruler of said society views this as a harmonious, ideal arrangement – free will be damned.
I bring this up for a few reasons. Mostly, there has been some uproar over a publisher’s decision to strip the "n-word" from the latest version of Huckleberry Finn. The publisher stated that the editing was necessary, as the schools would not let the original version be used in the classroom. This sparked a number of message board discussions and blog posts, most of which decried the editing done to a work widely considered a classic. At the same time, I read two separate message board discussions on that very same word, where the (general) feeling was that no one should use it any more. Some went as so far as to ascribe racist motives to anyone who does, for whatever reason.
What a load of shit.
This whole thing is ridiculous. I get that the word in question – I’ll just say it: "nigger" – has a loaded history. I also accept that as I am not African-American, that I don’t have the capacity to understand why the word causes such pain and humiliation to its targets. Points taken. But it’s not as if the word is unique in its capacity to do that. Words that are meant to hurt, will hurt. If I make up the word "kwyjibo" and use that as a synonym for "n-word," does that make it any less racist? Once the meaning was clear, would that make the target feel any less hurt? It shouldn’t. And one has to consider context. If a friend says this to another friend in a jovial manner, and no one is hurt, who cares? It is a far cry from someone shouting the word in a hate-filled rant of white supremacy. A word itself isn’t a weapon; it’s a tool and isn’t inherently good or evil. The user may be good or evil, not the word.
This brings us back to the publisher’s decision to edit the text of Huck Finn. For the historical context, the word is appropriate. Females staying at home, slaves staying on the plantation, Jews wearing a Star of David on their clothes, the actions of the Inquisition or the Jihad, and actors in blackface. All of these are historical examples of behavior that would not be acceptable in our time but in the contemporary context of their setting, would make appropriate story elements. Should we turn our noses up at a story in which a 1920s character uses blackface because black actors weren’t permitted? That would be stupid … but I know people who espouse that society do just that. Willfully denying history doesn’t make it any less factual.
And if an author wants to use derogatory language in his work, again, so what? Does the use of the language depict a character as a intended – as a racist, or chauvanist, or militant lesbian? If it is does, then good – it connects the reader with the character, in a good or bad way. And it doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of the author. That’s the part everyone gets confused on. I’ve written a lot of characters with whom I would disagree, were they real people. Does that make me representative of their views? Only sloppy, biased thinking would let someone reach that conclusion.
And if someone is a racist and wants to write about it? Well, so be it. I’d hope people would reject the work but that’s their call. And nobody should ban them for it.
In light of my previous posts, I am sure some folks have already pegged me as a right-wing knuckledragger from Red State flyover country. Whatever. Ironic then that I am the one arguing for unrestricted word use, for the ability of people to write whatever they want, read whatever they want – up to and including, being assholes.
Because in this country, you can’t take away that right. At least, not yet.