Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Policing the word

Recently, there has been squall blowing through the media, one that had its point of origin in academics but rapidly radiated into the consciousness of the public at-large.  An edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was released in which a vulgar word for African-Americans was replaced by the word "slave."  The redacted word is deemed despicable by most of society and with good reason.  In fact the very uttering of the word is typically a kiss of death for the speaker, both in professional and social respects.  So much so, that I even hesitate writing it here, even though it is most germane to the post.  Conversely, I don't relish the notion of dealing with the subject in a kindergarten-esque manner, saying "the n-word" or some such.  Therefore, in the interest of striking a balance between the realistic and the sensitive, I will write the word only once and refer to it as "that word" thereafter.

The word is "nigger."

Twain used it in numerous facets in Huckleberry Finn, but mostly in reference to the character of Jim, a runaway slave.  Rather than debate whether the erasure of such a word is right or wrong, I wish to examine it from a perspective of Composition Theory.  
When you change "that word" to another, how does the text then change as a whole?  Is the edit subversive to Twain's original authorial intent?  Or does the composition still survive relatively intact?  Is this an example of a "contact zone?"  While it is true that "that word" is unacceptable in most precincts of society, there remain cultural sectors where it is not viewed as an insult, most copiously noticeable in "gangsta" rap.  Is this an example of one culture policing a text to prevent insult in a cultural demographic where insult might not necessarily be taken?  Divergent compositional views, it would seem. A question of axiology.
What does this do to the teaching of writing?  Is there any place at all for "that word" in the curriculum of English?  Or any other discipline for that matter?  Does this remove an opportunity to teach critical thinking?  To teach "close reading" and study an author's motives and intent?  What affect does sanitizing history have?  Should we remove all "inconvenient truths?"  This would seem to open up several other rhetorical Pandora's Boxes.  What of the study of military history or one of my pet areas, the literature of war?  At times, it would seem unavoidable to research those fields without at times engaging the derogatory words that soldiers used for their enemies.  Indeed, many of those words are racial slurs by nature, not altogether different in breech of common ethics than "that word."

Arguments could be made in many different directions, both axiological and pedagogical.  This will require further reflection.

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