Sunday, March 6, 2011

More Words

Shortly after my mind started spinning at the manipulation of Twain’s words, a tragedy unfolded in Tucson, Arizona in which 19 people were shot with 6 killed by a deranged young man. Almost immediately mud started being flung from both ends of the political spectrum blaming the other for their inflammatory language causing the incident.

It started a discussion about the lack of civil discourse in this country, particularly in the political arena. Clearly, it is not reasonable to point the finger at anyone other than the perpetrator as being responsible for what happened. However, all the accusations flying back and forth tended to reinforce the point that our civil discourse has become ugly. It doesn’t seem that we have the option of agreeing to respectfully disagree any longer. It must escalate to an angry tone with name-calling. We can’t just believe that there are different ways of thinking about how to solve problems or even what we identify as problems. Those that we disagree with must be evil, stupid and/or unpatriotic and probably all three.

Naturally, the initial calls for civility have quickly disappeared and the nasty rhetoric is back in full swing just two months after the shootings. What is to be done? With a 24-hour news cycle broadcasting the worst of the worst in inflammatory speech, how do we avoid its influence and throw water on the flames? How do we maintain righteous indignation in the face of wrong while refraining from contributing to the uncivil discourse that is seemingly everywhere?

I’ll admit I started bristling when I was first called unpatriotic for having a different political opinion than some others. And after hearing it several dozen times, well, we won’t get into my unladylike response just now. How to defuse such things? How to opt out while maintaining one’s own integrity and remaining engaged? Clearly the media is not going to tone things down. And neither are the politicians. So that leaves the rest of us.

Perhaps a first step could be to reduce or eliminate adjectives when discussing someone with whom we disagree. No longer is that politician/commentator that stupid, lying, evil SOB. He or she is Job-title What’s-his-name and he or she did not tell the truth about X. Maybe it is time to act like Sgt. Friday on Dragnet and use “just the facts.” Naturally, there are people who don’t care what the facts are because they know better and their agenda requires that they not acknowledge any pesky little things like facts. In which case, why bother to talk to them about it any way?

Secondly, we can recognize and acknowledge that most folks on both sides of the political chasm believe that they have the best intentions to work out the best solution to a problem and they are not attempting to do evil things. Whether or not their beliefs are justified is another matter, but we need to stop assuming that the other side is acting from nefarious motives. The person who cuts your hair is not evil just because they prefer a socialist dogcatcher to one from the Bull Moose Party. I have absolutely no doubt that there are some folks that are acting from bad motives, but they are not likely to be among the people you run into on a daily basis.

You may have noticed that these two suggestions are aimed purely at how we perceive someone with whom we disagree and how we respond to them. But isn’t that truly all we can do about the situation? Resolve to not be part of the problem? Maybe, if enough people refused to play along with the status quo, it would spread like a cold until enough people caught it to ignite a spark of civility across our sadly polarized society. At the very least, it could make us, as individuals, feel calmer in our daily lives. And who knows where that might lead?

As I said earlier, words are powerful things. We should be careful how we wield them.


I've been thinking a lot about words recently. It started when I heard an interview on the radio with Dr. Alan Gribben, who has edited a bowdlerized version of the novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. (Published by New South Books) His stated purpose was to make the books more accessible to younger readers by removing every instance of the word "nigger" from the books and replacing it with the word "slave". His stated purpose is to remove barriers because the word makes younger readers uncomfortable and thus puts a barrier between them and Mark Twain's work. He also stated that teachers were reluctant to use the books in class because it contains that word. Once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I started thinking about his argument and found the whole notion of his changes objectionable.

Huckleberry Finn came under fire almost immediately. Published in 1864, by 1865 it was banned because it was "coarse". Who knows what was meant precisely, but the primary objection of the Brooklyn library in 1902 was concerned that Huck both itched and scratched and that the word "sweat" had been used rather than perspiration. Now, of course, the objections are focused on language, which reflect the cultural norms of a particular place and time in history.

In Dr. Gribben's concern for teachers being unwilling to use the book, I believe he shortchanges the profession. I'm certain that any good teacher would begin the study of the book by explaining the book's historical context. They would tell their students that the word was in the book and why Twain used it. They would talk about Mark Twain's childhood, growing up in a slave state and his witnessing of a brutal murder of a slave by a slave owner. They would talk about Twain's position on slavery and his use of sarcasm and irony. They would go on to point out that the character Jim, who is saddled with the unsavory adjective, is the most admirable character in the book. They would point out that Jim frees Huck from his ingrained prejudices and becomes free himself. So, I don't think Dr. Gribben's concerns for the teachers were justified.

Moving on to his concerns for students, particularly African American students, being uncomfortable with the word. Hopefully, their teachers would have taught them about the book before actually reading it. They would know about historical context, how the ugly bigotry and the nasty words related to it are no longer acceptable and why. They would have had discussions about ethnic/racial and all other sorts of prejudice. They would have been given ideas to look for within the characters of the book; the education and evolution of Huck, the ignorance of his father, Jim's essential dignity. Then they would begin their reading. And then, I hope that the word would still make them uncomfortable, no matter what the student's ethnicity, because it is a filthy, hateful word used by hateful people. It should make everyone uncomfortable. And if the students are too young to grasp all of that information, then they are too young to be assigned the book.

Perhaps because I am from Missouri and feel a bit proprietary about Mr. Twain or perhaps because I write a bit myself, the question is is Dr. Gribben's version of Huckleberry Finn still Mark Twain's work once he has tinkered with the objectionable adjectives? At the very least, it is something less than the original. It takes on the weight of a Cliff Notes version, a graphic novel or a condensed edition and, thus more than just a word has been lost in translation. It is not Mark Twain's book any longer. (And I swear that I can hear him cursing in the distance.) It is not just that the words Twain chose have been fiddled with, but also the tone he intended to set has been altered along with them. The people who call Jim by that word do so out of either ignorance, in Huck's case, or hatefulness and that is clearly shown in the book.

Words are powerful things and no childhood rhyme about sticks and stones can negate that. And Twain's use of the word is powerful enough that we discuss it, debate it and are made uncomfortable by it 101 years after his death. He knew what he was doing.