Hiding the Words Doesn’t Make the Problem Go Away

Given the amount of time I spend talking about language, I often encounter the idea that I am trying to ‘take words away’ and want certain words to vanish from English usage. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the very idea horrifies me. Sanitising the language we use to make these words go away is so very much not my goal when talking about language, for one simple reason: Taking away words doesn’t make the ideas behind them go away. It just makes them harder to talk about.

I talk about language use because I think it’s important and because I think some words should be used with care, but I don’t think these words should be eradicated. In fact, I think they should be preserved, not just in conversations about their meaning but in general usage, because if we try to wipe them off the slate, we do ourselves, and our history, a tremendous disservice. Not talking about these words would mean that people wouldn’t have a framework of understanding and a starting point for talking about the ideas behind them; ‘racism’ carries more impact when you link it with racial slurs, for example. Explaining why ableism is an issue is a lot easier when I can point to a book with a disabled protagonist who gets called ‘r#tarded’ by other characters.

The explosion over the bowdlerisation of Huckleberry Finn in January illustrated an interesting and confusing tangle that’s happening in a lot of progressive spaces right now. I touched briefly upon the belief that language is more important than the underlying ideas recently and I’d like to come back to it, because it’s important. It’s this attitude that leads to things like thinking that taking a racial slur out of a book will end racism, to the idea that students shouldn’t be exposed to racist content in books while in a classroom environment because, what, they might be made aware of the existence of racism?

I am vehemently opposed to the bowdlerisation of books. I think we can talk about whether some texts should be read at all in some environments, but mutilating books is not acceptable. Oppressive content is often presented in books for the purpose of criticism; look at the casual racism in Tortilla Curtain. This racism is not neutral! It is contextual to the story and enhances the understanding of the story and the characters, and it is appropriate. I happen to think that Tortilla Curtain is a terrific book to teach in classrooms because it confronts readers with racism and asks them to think about the role of racism in their lives, but a lot of the challenges to this book come from progressives who, basically, don’t want to talk about racism.

Sometimes oppressive content is positive or presented neutrally, and then I think you can have more of a debate about whether a text is appropriate for a classroom. You could argue that students should read it and discuss it, to talk about how these attitudes develop and how they were expressed at various points in time. I think that’s a good thing to do. You could also decide that the text simply won’t work in a classroom because of the content. And I think that’s a valid thing to do. I’m far more concerned about sneaky oppressive content that goes entirely unremarked, which is a much bigger problem in most texts students encounter in school, if you ask me; would I rather see teachers having discussions with students about the n-word, or uncritically teaching content where students learn that Black folks are all poor and lazy?

Gutting texts to take out ‘bad words’ accomplishes nothing good. It makes it harder to talk about the content, the attitudes behind it, and the history of those words and idea. It makes it impossible to have a discussion. Writing at Salon about the Huckleberry Finn controversy, Elon James White said:

America talks about race like scared parents talk with their kids about sex. We’re vague, sometimes terribly misleading and on occasion leave out huge aspects of the situation that would allow kids to make better decisions about how they conduct themselves. If we continue with our horrendously skewed and willfully ignorant interpretations of history, we will find ourselves with a generation that’s woefully misinformed and it will be completely our fault.

Hiding the truth under the rug, not talking about it, telling people to hush and not use bad words, is not the solution. Sunlight, they say, is the best disinfectant, and oppressive language and ideas need to be dragged into the light, where they can be clearly seen and deconstructed, because otherwise they will continue to fester and inform everything we do; they will run through everything we do because we won’t know any better. The classroom environment provides a tremendous opportunity for examining language and ideas in context and talking about them, but everyone is, apparently, too scared to do so. Talking about it makes it real, and that’s wrong. Or white students might be uncomfortable talking about racism in a class with Black students, and we couldn’t have that.

White also touched upon the fact that we in the United States are often reluctant to own our past because we think that means we’re responsible. As a result, we are doomed to repeat the past, because we don’t just say ‘look, past, let’s talk about this shit, so we can move forward.’ We find ourselves trapped in an endless cycle because to admit that these ideas existed, that they continue to exist, is to somehow admit personal fault.

And we all know that for progressives, the worst thing ever is to be accused of being -ist. So it’s better not to talk about it at all, to pretend that it isn’t happening and never happened. To erase the -ist parts of history, literally, in the case of books altered to remove key aspects of their content. Because if you make the word go away, that means there’s no idea left, right?