Desecration, or Appropriate Sanitizing?

I checked out Banned Books Week’s facebook page, and found a link to this question-should literary classics be sanitized?

In this time of political correctness, derogatory names and nasty words are forbidden in literature. You won’t see many novels calling ethnic groups slang names, or using the ‘n’ word, even if the character within the book would do so.

But should Mark Twain’s masterpieces be stripped of these terms because we as people today cannot understand the difference between what was, and what now is? The argument for removing offending language is that people are so turned off by the words, they won’t read the books.

That to my way of thinking, is hogwash, just to put it as clean as possible. It’s an excuse to destroy the author’s intentions and thoughts, and amounts to censorship.

Should we remove Butterfly McQueen’s scenes from Gone With The Wind as she cries, “I don’t know nothing about birthin’ no babies Miss Scarlet!” Her character is seen as the height of racism, depicting a lazy, whining, lying, slave. Is that to say there were no lazy, whining, lying slaves? One would be asked to believe that, if one takes this one characterization and applies it to all African-American slaves. But the film also depicts upstanding slaves, including Hattie McDaniel’s character, winning the actress an Oscar. In the film, and book, The South is depicted as a tragic misunderstood entity, with kindly thoughts and actions towards their loyal slaves. I believe we can read the book, see the film as intended, and understand that it’s fiction, one person’s viewpoint, and not a historical record of the period. And that African-American slaves cannot be pigeon-holed into groups of caricatures.  We as readers and viewers are not as unintelligent as some would have you believe.

So, taking into account that Mark Twain used the lingo and language of the times to present his truth, why would we as readers be unable to distinguish between what was acceptable then, and what isn’t now?  Are we such weak and delicate flowers that reading a passage using derogatory names will send us into a swoon? Defile our senses?

Take this proverbial slippery slope, and all sorts of literature, and for that matter, film, magazines, children’s books, etc to infinity, will need to be scrubbed of all unsuitable language, characters and even plot lines.

Are all references in Oliver Twist to Fagin to be cleaned up so he is no longer of Jewish descent? Would it be OK if we changed his background, make him a Catholic and therefore offend that group instead?  In this vein, Shylock would need a complete makeover. His “if you prick me, do I not bleed” could be altered to reflect uh, a hemophiliac? Nothing offensive about describing this group.

If one really wanted to remove any offensive language in literature, then any book describing women as sluts, harlots, etc., would need a good exfoliation. Why stop at slang terms for African Americans and ethnic groups, women in literature were constantly belittled through language, practically all pulp fiction would need to be eradicated.

I am so weary of political correctness. People say and do things that are offensive and nasty all the time, pretending it doesn’t happen, or to go nutsy when someone makes a verbal mistake, doesn’t end racism or prejudice.  It only puts it under cover, allows it to simmer unanalyzed. Without discussion as to why calling someone a nasty name, or casting aspersions on certain ethnic groups is inappropriate and exploring the whys and wherefores we as people tend to do such things, leads to a list of censored words which in turn fuels the people who are using such words and have those feelings to anger and to more open hostility. Removing ‘nigger’ from Huckleberry Finn does nothing to achieve racial equality or peace. Leaving such language as Mark Twain intended, and being forced to face what we as Americans were and in many many ways still are, and discussing why, at least puts us on a small trail to illuminating our racial tensions.

This is my take on the subject–you can weigh in with yours here:

3 thoughts on “Desecration, or Appropriate Sanitizing?”

  1. I have a few old joke books (early 1900’s) that utilizes some ‘derogatory’ words concerning the nationalities or races of people. Also included in some of the jokes are the drunken Irish, miserly Scotch, mechanical Germans, lazy blacks, conniving Arabs etc..

    Some jokes are funny and some are not which brings up the point that funny is a subjective term. – So is ‘offensive’.

    Just prior to reading this posting I read a story/blog posting of a Massachusetts teacher that would not allow a student to hang up his drawing of an American flag because it might “offend’ someone. (Reading between the words it appeared there was animosity between two students, one a JW, and I think perhaps the drawing was designed to get his goat) That posting brought up the fact that everyone will be offended by something sometime or another. Quote – “This is because it is completely relative and subjective: Most everything offends someone and most everyone is offended by something.” – End Quote

    If I find an old joke in an old that I think is funny and it has some element that I think might be offensive to someone I have a few choices concerning telling it. For example: One is rephrase the joke to more modern terms. Two is to choose my audience better. (What might be funny to my pastor might not be funny to his wife.) Three is to keep my mouth shut. … There are other choices of course.


    To remove the offending remark, drawing, joke, line in a book, etc. in order to protect some unknown person’s sensibilities does nothing to help that unknown person. It would be better to teach people to: Go ahead, be offended, figure out the source of the offense, say, “Oh well!” and then get over it.

    Otherwise we should make every book and picture and speech about rocks. Rocks don’t get offended.

    • My pet rock takes offense at this slur!!
      No, just kidding, I don’t own any rocks; they are all free-range here…

      I have enormous difficulty listening to anyone who refuses to tolerate differences. I appreciate a certain amount of political correctness (my dad would have called it good manners), I really do not want leering, sexual innuendoes thrown in my general direction, etc. But literature is FICTION. Make the choice either to read it or not… but do not tell me what I can read!
      I agree with your articulate comments, prying1, and Diane, thank you for this thoughtful post.

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