Limitations on Language

An opinion
by Chris Hibbard
Originally written for http://www.lethbridgeliving.com
January 2011

    Limitations on Language

The last several years have witnessed some interesting turns when it comes to the topic of censorship. As a regular reader of news, a passionate music lover and something of a bookworm, I always find the whole issue of censorship interesting. Raised on science fiction fare like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, the idea of a totalitarian “Big Brother” regime telling me what I can and not like has always frightened me. I was raised around action movies and rock and roll music. Over the years, I have been exposed to hundreds of ‘offensive’ words in scripts, lyrics and paperback novels, so to a certain extent, I am not easily offended. With that being said – I certain censorship conversations, for the most part, to be politically correct wastes of good air.

Last year, Dr. Laura Schlesinger, one of North America’s most popular syndicated talk show hosts stepped down after she used (in a conversation-relevant way) the word “nigger” on one of her daily call-in shows. She used it a number of times, attempting to explain how that offensive word is bandied about so casually by many inner city black people – and even more so by hip-hop artists and HBO comics. Because Dr. Laura is Caucasian, a number of listeners took offense to her using the term aloud. Lambasted by many major news outlets, Dr. Laura chose to turn in her letter of resignation, rather than publicly apologizing for what she had been said on-air. “[My] First Amendment rights have been usurped by angry, hateful groups who don’t want to debate. They want to eliminate,” she said.

Several weeks ago, the censorship spotlight turned to Mark Twain’s classic novel – Huckleberry Finn. Written in 1884, the book was written in a time when the ‘n’ word was commonplace. African-Americans were looked down upon, enslaved and discriminated against. In the pages of Huck Finn, there is no shortage of appearances by two characters known as “Nigger Jim” and “Injun’ Joe” – two low-income characters who Huck Finn befriends. A new version of the book was recently released for use in classroom settings throughout the U.S. In the new version, every reference to the words ‘nigger’ and ‘injun’ have been removed; replaced in the new version by the words slave and Indian, respectively. The idea is that teacher’s can adopt this new version if they are uncomfortable introducing racial history discussion to their classes.

Some other ongoing censorship controversies are related to 1951′ The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger and 1960’s To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Between them, these books contain racism, violence, anger, prostitution, and sexual behaviour. For decades, they have been used as study material in language classes, as they also touch on individualism, on history, on civic duty and daily life struggles. However, because some individuals either seem easily offended or content to turn a blind eye to our own history, the titles are being considered for being redacted, with substitutions made for offensive language.

A number of things bother me about this ‘re-writing’ decision and process. Originally, these authors were writing in a different period. Their works captured and created those worlds, passing down cultural memories and descriptions of our history to future generations. These books, offensive or not, have historical context stamped all over them – ranging from periods of abolition to emancipation; from racism and crime to courtroom justice; from attending private schools to growing up troubled and alone as a runaway in the big city.

The authors of these novels don’t hit you over the head with the fact that certain characters are doing something wrong – but by the end of the books, readers are expected to understand the mistakes they made. The main characters in all three of these books were essentially uneducated and were living in a country (and time period) in which discrimination was rampant. Yet in all three novels, the authors’ goals included spreading tolerance and acceptance while forming new appreciation for those who are different.

Last but not least, it was announced recently here in Canada that an old classic rock song by Dire Straits is to be essentially banned from airplay, at least in its original format. ‘Money for Nothing” was a huge hit released in 1985 my Mark Knopfler and company, and I’ve lost count of how many hundred times I’ve heard it on the radio. Last week, one homosexual listener in St. John’s, Newfoundland, took offensive to one verse in the song, calling it “derogatory to gay men.” The lyrics in question included the word “faggot.” The song is sung by the point of view of a grumpy store deliveryman who envies the life of an MTV rock star. Grumpy, macho and jealous, the singer calls the rock star the ‘f’ word, just like this:

“See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup,
Yeah buddy that’s his own hair.
That little faggot got his own jet airplane,
That little faggot he’s a millionaire.”

In our modern rock and roll, other curse words or insults would work just as well, it’s true. F-words and S-words and D-words and more. This single track was released nearly three decades ago, and one single complaint from a St. John’s listener has resulted in the following Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) command: the St. John’s station must in future play only either a) an edited and trimmed version of the song or b) refrain from playing the song at all.

Keep in mind this is a rock and roll song that won a Grammy award; that has been played regularly across the country for three separate generations, and that is typically played in an edited format anyway, as the original album version is over eight minutes long – but still. To summarize the CBSC statement (link available below), the council said while it realizes that Dire Straits used the word sarcastically, and its use may have been acceptable in 1985 when the album was first released, but is now deemed inappropriate. This Dire Straits ruling only technically commands the St. John’s station to play-edited or play none-at-all, but this essentially opens the door, meaning that any other Canadian radio stations can get in trouble it they air the song in its full uncensored format. It is difficult for me to understand how just one single complaint in three decades can result in this Council decision.

THE CBSC statement can be viewed in its entirety via this link:
http://www.cbsc.ca/english/documents/prs/2011/110112.php

Making these censorship matters more difficult is the fact that at any given moment, my television listings are full of silly, immature, partially offensive programs like Jersey Shore, MTV Cribs, Entourage and more. When I flip to music video channels, I am treated to songs called Sexy Bitch and Pimp Like Me. Five minutes of regular evening programming contain ten times the language that Dire Straits offer in their entire musical career. There are millions of books in the world with more being published every day. Likewise, there are billions of songs in the world, hundreds of which are a lot more offensive than any by Dire Straits. While I don’t wish to come across as being insensitive, I have to wonder why in a country of 30 million, one angry letter writer can singlehandedly manage to get a song blacklisted; and how one school district can force a classic novel to be reprinted for the entire United States of America.

Yet this notion of censorship is a slippery slope indeed. Within weeks of the planes striking the towers on 9/11, select songs were unofficially ‘banned’ from airplay including: Jerry Lee Lewis’ Great Balls of Fire, Billy Joel’s Only the Good Die Young and Dave Matthews’ Crash Into Me . This was a silly attempt to keep the public’s mind on other things – sanitizing the airwaves with sugar to coat an ugly and violent memory.

If we keep heading in this direction, what is next? Shall we cover the genitalia of Michelangelo’s David statue? Shall we cut ‘offensive’ pieces out of timeless operas and plays? Lord knows that Shakespeare has some strange word choices, made by some strange villainous characters. Likewise, Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ features suicide, theft and violence against women of the night. Perhaps we should just completely overhaul some old classics, shaving some extra weight off Piggy in Lord of the Flies, and setting The Scarlet Letter in a polygamous compound instead. While we are at it, we can rename classic albums like Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and swap out all the professional sports teams named after First Nations symbology.

The sad truth is that we live in a part of the world where greed and stress can ruin personal lives; where economy and environment are unstable and where hate speech is delivered discreetly via politicians, pundits and more recently, Wiki-leaks. To whitewash our reality and ‘protect’ our young, rather than inform and educate them about where we have come from, we are thinking of blindfolding them with politically correct re-writes.

We live on a planet inhabited by seven billion people, almost half of which live on less than $3.00 a day. While we are absorbed in our technology, entertained by Hollywood and spoiled by variety, all while we claim to follow the rules of knowing what is right, to leave a better legacy for our children. It all makes me wonder just who it is that gets to decide what’s right and wrong, and how in a country of 30 million, one angry letter can result in a song being blacklisted; like one school district’s wishes can force a classic novel to be reprinted for the entire United States of America.

Following that slippery slope, a committee, one that scrutinizes every work, might someday oversee all of the art we produce, and then decide how it should be valued. Were Mark Twain to stay our reference point, there would be no room for Huckleberry Finns – he is just poor white trash with a limited vocabulary.

I know that many people may simply shake their head, and say, “No Chris, you’re wrong! Bad words are bad words, and I don’t want my child to be exposed to them.” That is completely acceptable with me, but I believe it is important to maintain ties to our history. We did not come from a perfect world, nor do we live in one now. By re-dacting, re-wording, and re-writing, it seems to me like we are trying to sweep our humanity under the carpet – pretending that we never had slaves, we never had racism and we never had offensive words used commonly in our English language.

When I sit back and think about it though, it is all really quite simple. When you ban a word, you are actually making it more powerful, while pushing the hatred and negativity deeper and deeper into it. Words only contain the powers that we ascribe to them individually, and by making a word off-limits, you are making it more valuable to certain age groups and target demographics.
Knowing this, it seems that a much easier solution would simply involve turning away. If you don’t like it – put the book down. If you don’t like it – turn the radio off. Better yet, take a little bit of time to explain to those around you why you find it so offensive. For in my mind, a good classroom teacher will keep the books on the curriculum, but will explain before reading them what the world was like when they were written. Otherwise, by re-touching our old classics, we are attempting to impose our modern societal flaws upon some of our most endearing and astute creative minds.

It is like rather than dealing with controversy and emotional issues, we would rather pretend they just don’t exist. Rather than handling the story of who we are and how we got here, we’re turning a blind eye to serious discussion. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for parental advisory tags and disclaimers before mature programs. I am all in favour of rating systems and optional language filter devices. Nevertheless, if we start dumbing down our prized literature and watering down our culture, we are also washing away our humour, and our humanity.

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~ by Chris Hibbard on January 19, 2011.

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