I don’t rightly remember when politically correct language started to be used in mainstream everyday life. Its critics may sneer that it has made the language bland and taken us into an era of Orwellian newspeak, but gender neutral terms and the removal of words which denote or promote discrimination or downright hatred has had a positive effect on how we, as a society, act towards others. The whole concept of PC language has been regularly ridiculed and opposed by the political right-wing, who seem to rather like discrimination and hatred.
PC language has given us a civil basis on which to conduct those aspects of society which rely on language – which is probably everything. However, there is a point at which PC becomes mere sanitisation for its own sake and does nothing for the good of society. Referring to huntsman spiders as huntsperson spiders, for example (which I actually do for effect), and watering down the language in classic literature to make it less offensive.
It was recently announced that the new edition of Mark Twain’s classic book on life in the American south in the post-civil war years, Huckleberry Finn, is to be rendered linguistically pure – that is, censored of all references to ‘niggers’. Let’s make the point here that nigger is not a nice word. It was used to refer to slaves in the pre-civil war years and later, until the civil rights movement in the 1950s, it was a pejorative and highly racist term – think Ku Klux Klan and midnight lynchings. It is no longer used in the USA any more than Australians use the pejorative terms once used to refer to Indigenous Australians. The term ‘nigger’ has been consigned to the wheelie bin of bad language and American society is better for its absence.
The book itself has had a colourful history in American education, having been banned in many school districts since 1957 and is still one of the most consistently banned books in the US. Certainly, there are good reasons for removing it from schools, where children could absorb some of the negative sentiments expressed and transport the language and terms used from the classroom to the playground and beyond. Kids will do that sort of thing. The book, along with its offensive terminology, must be studied in a historical context, but it is a context that cannot be expunged from history.
In 1884, when Twain wrote his reflections on boyhood in the south, however, the term was in common use. It was used by racists and former slave owners who opposed the Union government’s anti-slave policy, it was used by the former slaves and free blacks themselves, having been conditioned to understand that the term referred to them. Despite the post-war emancipation of the slaves, black people were still considered socially inferior by most white people and the use of the term reflected this. Twain used the term more than 200 times in Huckleberry Finn, in all its various timbres, as an accurate expression of post-bellum life on the Mississippi.
A scholar and teacher of Twain, Dr Alan Gribben, suggested the clean-up of the offensive text, describing how he would hesitate and cringe at the term when reading aloud to students. He suggested, and the publishers agreed, to substitute the word ‘slave’ for the offensive ‘n-word’. There are very sound reasons why this will simply not work and will completely change the context and meaning of the book.
Personally, I find the word slave just as offensive. The thought that human beings could buy and sell other human beings, strip them of all their dignity, give them no rights or privileges and use them for labour is a highly offensive concept. Slavery was a dark and ugly stain among many dark and ugly stains in the history of colonialism and the fact that it still happens in some places of the world to young women and girls should be a cause for outrage worldwide – the fact that it seldom warrants a ripple in the mainstream is also offensive. But I digress.
Politically correct language is for everyday and public life. Its purpose is to ensure that the words we use do not incite hatred or promulgate discrimination. Twain is one of America’s most revered writers. In Huckleberry Finn he did not promulgate acts of hatred, rather described a time and place. It was Art imitating life. Art is important. It provides us with windows into minds and hearts, and windows into history. Too often our view of history is coloured by politics or such historians as might be currying favour from the powerful.
In literature and art, however, we see a kaleidoscope of history. We see its colours through many different eyes, we see it unsanitised and, importantly, though we might turn the kaleidoscope to change the patterns, it remains frozen in time. So here’s the key – we can’t change what was, but we can see how it was wrong and change ourselves.
Censorship does not change history. It simply tries to paint over history with white-out and pretend that it didn’t happen. Literature is not always comfortable – it’s not meant to be – but it is honest. Desecrating a work of art by replacing the word ‘nigger’, an offensive and degrading word, with the word ‘slave’, another offensive and degrading word, is not going to change history. It will not change race relations. It will not make Americans any more comfortable with their history. Only social action based on non-discriminatory language can do that.