Bad Words

By Sean Carroll | January 6, 2011 9:23 am

Bit of a skirmish in the culture wars this week, as word spread that the publisher NewSouth Books is coming out with a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The notable feature of this expurgated edition is that they have removed all 219 appearances of the word “nigger,” replacing them with the word “slave.” (They’ve also removed “Injun,” although this doesn’t push people’s buttons quite as directly.)

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Huckleberry Finn Censorship
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> March to Keep Fear Alive

Count me with those who think this is an incredibly dumb move. The motivation is clear, and quite sensible — high-school teachers who have assigned the book have found that many young black students react viscerally to the word, and have trouble putting it into a harmless historical box. I can believe that’s true. But if, in the judgment of the teachers, this creates such a barrier that it does more harm than good to assign the book, the answer is extremely obvious — don’t assign the book. Maybe you can encourage your students to read the book on their own, with appropriate warnings about the content and explanations of its historical context. I think it’s a good book for everyone to read, but that’s different from insisting that the reading be mandatory.

What you absolutely don’t do is change the book to fit your idea of what is appropriate. It’s cowardly, untrue to history, and massively unfair to Mark Twain. Personally I suspect that students have a better ability to appreciate historical context than their teachers give them credit for. But there are many good books that have been written over the centuries, and there’s no excuse for bowlderizing a classic to make your life a little more comfortable.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Words
  • ossicle

    Couldn’t agree more. Thanks for standing up and being counted.

  • Michael Aye

    As others on other blogs already have commented: If it is taken for granted that Twain wanted the reader to feel outraged about racism, how is he supposed to do this without using one of the most important elements of it: the condescending and devaluating language used between humans?
    In other words: you can’t show the cruelty and extent of racism without using its vocab, because that’s actually an important element of the psychologic impact. (Same is very true for bullying today!) Euphemistic language does not depict the full reality at all and is therefore not only untrue to the author but to history.

  • Georg

    The word “nigger” was/is offensive because it was the name for
    a slave, the word per se is the word.
    Omitting the word will not change the historical fact
    that there were slaves in the South!
    This is a shame for the contemporary whites , not for the
    today colored people.
    A french nobleman murderer and looter in the 16th
    century named the protestants in the netherlands “gueux”,
    which means “beggars”.
    Still today in the Netherlands people pride in naming
    themselves “Geuzen”.
    That is the way to deal with such a “problem”.
    Georg

  • Alan Macdonald
  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    This raises the following question concerning this and all works in the public domain: Since no-one holds the copyright, no-one can object on that basis. But does this mean that one can edit any work to taste and offer it to the public? If so, is it required to announce the editing in any way?

    A different situation since he holds the copyright, but note that Steven Spielberg changed some things in a new edition of ET to make them more politically correct.

    When will we see a no-smoking version of, say, Casablanca?

  • Liz Edwards

    Changing words is more of a translation device, IMHO. Label the book as a translation and let students know that the original has offensive language … I bet they flock to read the original!

  • Charles Schmidt

    If we as a people let this kind of thing go and do not protest it then what is next? Will we say that a book is bad or sends the wrong message and have it burned or may be the writer. Does that also put free speech in jeopardy because we may offend some person or group? That word has been used rightly or wrongly for a long time and is still in use today by some, that does not mean that it should be only that it is. We cannot sanitize life and still have it worth living and sometimes being made to feel uncomfortable is not a bad thing that is life, just move on and get past it.

  • Chris

    Censorship of such a fantastic and insightful look into this nation’s past is probably one of the stupidest ideas we’ve had to date.

    sarcasm
    Of course, I wouldn’t mind a bit if the powers that be decided to ban and burn all copies of A Tale of Two Cities. No person should ever have that atrocity as ‘required reading’…
    /sarcasm

  • http://DevonYoung.com/ Devon Young

    This is ridiculous. That book sheds a little light on the idiocy of how African-American’s & American Indians were treated at the time. Removing the n-word and “injun” (altho I think injun is just an accent and not a slur?), removes the power of the idiocy. If you don’t see the stupidity of how they treated them, you lose out on learning why racism is wrong. So if they’re starting to hide it, they’ll forget it, they’ll never teach it, and then the next generation will be doomed to repeat the history we learned from.

    It also reminds me of the Soviet’s trying to censor their history. I don’t see it as any different ’cause the principle’s the same.

    Also … what are they going to do with Uncle Tom’s Cabin when they read it?

  • bystander

    While I can see why blacks might consider “nigger” to be offensive, I find their vehemence hypocritical. Anybody who has spent time around blacks, especially younger ones, knows that they use it themselves incessantly. It is even used as an offhand term of endearment. To get upset about its use in a period classic is just ridiculous. Mr. Clemens, after all, was raising awareness of the plight of slaves in the deep South during the 1860s. I think they should praise the work not denounce it.

  • Sha-Ron Rhodes Cassel

    On what precipice do we now stand in relation to George Orwell’s “1984”? Protagonist Winston Smith works for the “Ministry of Truth”, which revises historical records in order to make the Party omniscient and always correct. Mind control disguised as temperance for the better good is still mind control. With such behavior, we stand the chance of misinformation becoming fact.

    I clicked the additional link (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tomchivers/100050346/mark-twain-huckleberry-finn-and-nigger-jim-sense-or-censorship/) and was moved by its attempt to get people to read the book in the first place. I’m an African-American born in Alabama and have not changed my stance that this is a hugely dumb move. Yes, it’s painful to read. But, isn’t that partly the point. Discomfort stirs you to move. Let today’s youth read the book in it original, raw form and obtain some sort of reaction to engage in society and make sure that things are never that bad again. Cleansing this gem will keep their minds submerged in the stagnant water of apathy in which this generation dwells.

  • Moshe

    I actually have the opposite impulse. There is nothing wrong with reading literature in translation, as long as it is true to the original (of course, it may not be). You can contemplate translating from e.g. contemporary French to contemporary English, or similarly from 19th century English to 21st century English.

    Thinking about it this way, the question is whether a more faithful translation is to preserve the combination of letters (or sounds) of the original, or do we want to preserve a deeper meaning of the work. In my mind, translating 19th century “nigger” to 21st century “nigger” may not be a particularly good translation, as the connotations the word acquired since Mark Twain’s time deforms the original meaning of the word.

    Editing for content, which is oftentimes also unpleasant, is a different story.

  • Toivo

    My understanding was that the problem isn’t just that students are upset, but that counties, states and schools ban the books outright so teachers don’t have the option of using the books, or students the option of reading the book at all.

  • spyder

    We Americans are a nation of sanitary bumpkins. This constant striving to sanitize all of our lives–to make convenience the operative watchword of the now–is a path of self-ridicule that is only matched by the blatant hypocrisy that is present. Clean up our books and language so we won’t have to think about stuff. Clean up movies and tv so we won’t have to think about stuff. But, leave our personal stuff alone (we currently have a number one movie based on the implied misuse of the word “Fockers?”). I can’t remember the French philosopher’s name from an essay i read many years ago, but he argued that countries (the world in the 1890s) could be described by rooms in a house, and the US was most certainly the bathroom. Changing Mark Twain is more a matter of getting the right toilet paper, than it is a matter of actual thinking. Shame is too nice a phrase.

  • réalta fuar

    I suspect that very few black students are actually upset by the use of “that” word. At least no more upset than Twain intended everyone of any decency to be by his deliberate use of exactly the language he wanted. To censor what this reader believes is the finest American novel ever written is worse than a travesty, it’s criminal.

  • jonesing

    Moshe gets it right with respect to changing connotations and usage when it comes to the “n” word. It’s a much more loaded term now than it was in Twain’s day when it was regarded as a culturally appropriate term for people of color in some circles.

    How does Sean know that replacing the “n” word with a more culturally appropriate term would be “massively unfair” to Twain? I have a feeling that if Twain was aware how the term has morphed over time and understood the political/cultural sensitivities surrounding it today, he would likely give some thought to the issue… perhaps even agree to a less inflammatory term. Like most authors, rather than holding out for a “must word” he would likely be more keen to have his work widely read. Editing of texts/editions goes on all the time.

    The term “slave” could be used along with a footnote stating plainly what the original term was. An explanation for the decision could also be included in a preface for example. That way students would ‘get it’ without having to read the “n” word in racially mixed classroom settings. Sure it’s nice to think that kids would be able to neatly slot it all into historical perspective and be culturally hip about it, but I’m afraid that is rather naive given the incendiary nature of the word and the type of emotion it stirs up.

    réalta fuar says that “few black students are actually upset by the use of “that” word”… hmm, depends on the circumstances and who is using it. Depends also on the reception, and you can be sure the presence of the word in Huck Finn would provoke reactions in the classroom.

    The impatience with PC attitudes can unfortunately become a knee-jerk tendency across-the-board if there is any perceived move to sanitize. On the whole censorship is a lousy idea, but there are cases such as this where the benefits of making the book widely accessible outweigh the value of retaining “that word” at all costs within the main body of the text. Contrary to a few commentators above, I don’t believe that such a modification would radically compromise the power of Twain’s message. As with most things, there just needs to be a little flexibility and common sense.

  • psmith

    @#4, Alan McDonald, thanks for that link. I thought that summed it up well.
    @#15, réalta fuar, you say
    I suspect that very few black students are actually upset by the use of “that” word.

    You entirely underestimate the depth of pain caused by racism. This is a hurt that will take a long time to subside. Every insensitive remark or behaviour stirs it back into life and prolongs the healing process.
    We help the healing process when we take affirmative measures to respect the hurts caused by racism.
    It comes down to a simple equation, which is more important? Actions to help the recovery from a deep injustice or respecting the accuracy of a text?
    Having lived for a long time in a deeply racist country I can appreciate the importance of respecting racial sensitivities in every little way as an important way in which I can contribute to the healing process.

  • Somebody

    Nothing of substance to add. Just picking nits: “bowlderize” should be “bowdlerize”. No?

  • Mike

    “Actions to help the recovery from a deep injustice or respecting the accuracy of a text?”

    Ah, the tyranny of the ‘or’.

  • psmith

    @Mike, well spotted. I accept that any problem statement in the form of either … or … is often a false dichotomy (embarrassed grin).

  • Mike

    psmith,

    It’s often easier to point out a false dichotomy than it is to figure out what appropriate actions should be taken in a particular situation — but thanks.

    Mike

  • nick anderson

    Anyone who has read Huckleberry Finn should realize that Twain used the word “nigger” to show how absurd the stereotype is! It is one of the most powerful anti-racist books ever written. That is one of the reasons it was controversial and banned in many libraries and schools shortly after it was first published! I cannot remember the name of the black literary professor who I heard on NPR several years ago who said he frequently travels all over the country to appear before local school boards who want to ban the book to tell them they have it all wrong, however well intentioned they think they are. The irony is that many readers got the anti-racist message back then and objected, and many today do not and therefore object for the opposite reason. No “historical context” is really needed, only good literary discussion and sensitive guidance from teachers at the middle or high school level.

  • ray

    The association and use of a word change with time and ‘nigger’ in Twain’s day was considered descriptive rather than demeaning. Anything which has connotations we wish to avoid is given a euphemism, which eventually acquires the negativity and is replaced by another euphemism, ad nauseum. In 1950, ‘nigger’ was taboo but ‘negro’ or ‘black’ was okay. “Colored’ was sometimes heard, but was sometimes considered condescening.
    (Heck, I’m colored too – I’m pink). “Afro-American” didn’t get much traction until until the 1960s. What will it be in 2020?

    My grandmother (b. 1870) used the term ”darkie’ which was common in Ohio in 1880 but would be considered taboo and condescending today, yet she hadn’t a racist bone in her body. When a new hotel opened in my home town in 1884, the waiters and maids – all Negro – arrived in town with great fanfare and greeted the press with a impromptu rendition of “New Coon In Town”. Try that today.

    I recall an old Lakota who felt ” Native American” unfairly omitted most of of us – he figured if you’re born here, you’re a native American.

  • http://www.rohanmedia.co.uk Rohan Mehra

    I don’t see a problem with people altering public domain works at all.
    In many ways it’s like the open-source software movement.
    As long as changes are acknowledged somehow (perhaps in a foreword or disclaimer) then it should not be an issue.
    People are free to choose which version of the text they buy.

    (On a personal level however, I do also find it petty and pedantic, let history speak for itself!)

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »