Thursday, 6 January 2011

Offensive or Authentic?

I heard today that an "updated" version of Mark Twains’ Huckleberry Finn is to be published. By this they mean remove any words/ language that in today’s politically correct world might be considered racist or offensive. In doing so it will join a number of literary works, by various authors, to have been so treated.

I will put my hands up and say that I am fully aware I do not come from a background where I have ever experienced any level of bigotry or racism. I believe I have never exhibited any either and certainly if I have then it has been totally accidental and I would apologise here and now. There has been huge struggle all over the world around this issue, with many modern countries seeking to distance themselves form less than glorious past attitudes. Concepts such as desensitising literature, in my mind, help them do this, creating a risk that the past, as it really existed, ceases to be there for future generations to learn from. It then also devalues the scarifies and hard work of generations to bring about change, equality and understanding.

I certainly do not believe that a book should offend anyone; it should however entertain, inform and perhaps challenge the reader. Making them pause and think about what they have just read, stimulating debate over a topic. To this end today’s writers should be aware of how their style and what they say will appear to the reader. These writers use today’s language; just as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens, Wilde, Twain etc did before them.

Books that were written in a different time, such as Huckleberry Finn, are written in the language of the time, usually reflecting the social views of the period of the writer. They reflect the views and ideals of that period, in so doing giving the modern reader a window on the past, providing the ideal ground for stimulating within that reader questions about why it says what it does. It is a part of the development of the social fabric then and the development from then, to the now.

To have been cleansed and purified of anything offensive surely begins a process of removing the trail of change, the reasoning behind the change and the opportunity to inspire debate and questions. It perhaps even starts the process of re-writing history; it reduces the opportunity for students to be asked to explore the thinking behind the text and diminishes the efforts that have gone in to bring about positive change?

Would it not be more responsible to leave the text as it is, but include an additional forward explaining the context and background to the reader? This would increase the educational value of reading the book and help build to a better understanding of where our global society has come from.

My concern is not the singularity of the case of this one book, Huckleberry Finn, as an excellent case is made for this on the Telegraph link I have attached, but on the wider issue. At what point in this approach should the unseen creep toward greater censorship and control over the arts and information sectors become an issue we should question and challenge.

The question I would ask you to think about is where are you, personally, comfortable with this process going? For example; taking some of the great art masterpieces where the content is equally offensive and having these elements painted out, re-writing the history books so they do not offend.

Thank you for reading I hope you are feeling challenged?