Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Ennword and the Teeword

Recently, two events prompted a lot of media coverage. On January 8, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a number of supporters were shot--some fatally--  by Jared Loughner when Giffords made a public appearance in her home state of Arizona. Close on the heels of this tragedy, a publishing house announced that the upcoming edition of American classic "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" would have the word "nigger" excised and replaced with "slave."

Mark Twain knew, better than anyone else, the power of using the right word. He deliberately chose language that would underscore the humanity of Jim while highlighting the inhumanity of slavery. He wrote "Finn" in 1885, 20 years after the insitution of slavery had been illegalized in the US.  But the Jim Crow South was no picnic for former slaves and their descendants, and Twain spoke to that social reality in the most potent way he could.

To alter his original language is to mitigate the power of his book. It is sadly ironic that the loudest voices in favor of watering down Twain's message are those who identify themselves as militantly anti-racist. They worry that use of the word "nigger" causes undue emotional pain to the reading audience and therefore is not useful.

This sort of editing is not new, and even Shakespeare's works were not immune to well-intentioned idiots. (The word "bowdlerize" comes from a man named Bowdler who attempted to revise a lot of profanity out of the Bard's plays.) Michelangelo's nudes were likewise supposed to be repainted and clothed, although in the case of both Shakepseare and Michelangelo, artistic integrity was maintained and the changes did not stick.

But I think "Finn" will be different. The language in the book has been a bone of contention for years now, and the novel regularly lands on the censored list for this reason.  It's only a matter of time before the "official" version of the book will have a nicer term for Jim.

But what will that do, ultimately? It will soften the impact of "Finn," but it will also allow the politically-correct version of American history to move forward with inoffensive revisions.

Indentured servitude  was also slavery, though it manifested in a much different way for most of the people affected. It was supposed to be temporary, a condition that would be lifted when the person fulfilled the terms of his servitude. However, there were blacks who arrived in North America as indentured servants--or, even if nominally slaves, at least slaves who could achieve freedom under certain circumstances.

Did Twain speak only to surviving slaves who were freed with the end of the Civil War, or was his book a larger statement on race relations in our society? If the latter is true, then the word "slave" is inadequate.

But if the word "slave" is used, then "slave" will eventually come to mean "anyone in forced servitude," which would include indentured servants. It would also include waves of immigrants who arrived here, and continue to do so, beholden to those who financed their passage to the US. Slave then has to be broadened to the point where it is almost a meaningless designation. 

I guess that is okay, if references to the reality of slavery are so disturbing that we should move forward and no longer refer to them except in the vaguest terms. I personally do not agree that our cultural history should be stripped of its lessons, but maybe "Finn's" critics have a point. Maybe, also, in future depictions of Jim, he should be portrayed as a white man...isn't it, after all, racist to ALWAYS show him as black? When slavery becomes a universal shared legacy of all Americans, it would not make sense to stereotype Jim as black.  Would it?

Arizona brought up another example of broadening the language to the point where it is meaningless. Shortly after the kiiller, Loughner, was identified, several media outlets began insisting that he be referred to as a "terrorist." This was often at the suggestion of Muslim groups--who bridle at being associated with terrorism--who wanted to remind Americans that terrorism takes many forms and should not be another word for Islam's war against the West.

But remember, terrorism is a tactic, not a motive or ideology.

A lot of blame has been spread around regarding what actually provoked Loughner, and much of that blame of course came home to roost at the doorstep of the conservative/Republican sector. Sarah Palin got in trouble for having a target superimposed on a map of Giffords's district, and a lot of people expressed the belief that this somehow made her accountable.

Never mind that Loughner had been holding a personal grudge against Giffords since 2007, well before Palin's political ambitions had gone national. Maybe these critics also believe she practices some sort of hoodoo voodoo mind-control on people like Loughner.

There is also the whole "climate of violence" argument, and this too comes back to the conservatives.  The underlying, though not completely original, theme is, How can this not be Bush's fault? We all know of course, that EVERYTHING is Bush's fault, including Stalin's rise to power, the bubonic plague, and the Fall of Man.

But now that the dust has settled we do know a few things about Loughner. His poltical stance was so scattershot and illogical that he was no more a pawn of the Right than a product of the Left, so those influences pretty much cancel themselves out.

In regard to Loughner, the word terrorism can only be used in its most broad sense--to instill terror, or to use violence or the threat of violence to terrify others. He certainly did that.  As for using the word "terrorist" in the contemporary, conventional way--as a member of a group that uses terror tactics to achieve their goals--I don't think he fits that at all. (Nor does Tim McVeigh, who was also kind of a lone wolf.)

As with the sanitized version of Huck Finn, the word "terrorist"  allows us to distance ourselves from reality, and convince ourselves that the only danger we face is random and general--anyone can be mentally ill, like Loughner, just like anyone can be in forced servitude, like 19th century factory workers.

But if we are going to talk about Jim's experiences honestly, we should allow Twain to use the term with the greatest impact, not a generality.

And if we are going to talk about terrorism honestly, we will likewise have to stop using the word "terrorism" if there is any political group behind it. We will have to use the most specific language possible, even if some people think it's politically incorrect to do so.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Nice post! I mostly agree with it. I certainly believe in precision in language no matter how uncomfortable the truth.