WARNING: This column contains language that could be offensive to some readers.
“What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.”
— Sigmund Freud
I don’t believe in trying to undo things that are irrevocable. Nor do I believe a coat of whitewash can ever truly hide a multitude of sins.
And so I’m definitely not in favour of revisionist history, whether that means trying to pretend the Holocaust didn’t happen or that the word “nigger” was never used to dismiss and degrade black people or that women were always treated as equals.
So, no, I won’t be snapping up a revised copy of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” wherein the word “slave” has been substituted for the N word in an attempt to present a kinder, gentler version of Huck Finn’s story to the world.
And it’s not the first time someone has tried to whitewash Mark Twain’s writing, either.
According to a Jan. 7 Associated Press (AP) story, a Virginia teacher published a version with the same word substitution 20 years ago, and Sterling’s Classic Starts Series offers an
N-word-free version of the American classic for younger schoolchildren.
“The books were abridged in a number of ways to make them appropriate for a third- and fourth-grade reader — length, sentence structure, difficult vocabulary and issues that might be too sensitive or confusing for a young reader,” said Frances Gilbert, vice-president and publisher of Sterling Children’s Books.
I say poppycock.
If the book’s not appropriate for grade schoolers in its original form, then choose a book that is. There’s no shortage to pick from.
If, as Twain biographer Ron Powers points out in the AP story, the author was once “run out of town because he was criticizing the police for beating up Chinese people,” then Twain would likely not be in favour of changing the words he chose so carefully in order to raise the issues of race relations and discrimination.
Change the future, not the past
The problem with revisionism, of course, is that in trying to make the unpalatable palatable, you weaken or negate the point the author or artist was trying to make. You also draw more attention to the very thing you’re trying to pretend doesn’t exist.
In the South, at the time when Twain was writing, black slaves weren’t just called slaves. They were called something worse than that. And you can’t change or solve the mistakes of the past without at first acknowledging them.
Same goes for when a complaint to a radio station led to a ban of the Dire Straits’ song, “Money for Nothing” last week.
It all seems a little after the fact, given that it’s already enjoyed 25 years of airplay. At any rate, the offensive lines — including “The little faggot with the earring and the makeup” — were written to reflect blue-collar stereotypes about flashy rock stars who were seen as glamour-shams who didn’t work, beyond playing the guitar on MTV and flouncing around surrounded by groupies.
Banning the song or changing it to swap out the word “faggot” does not negate the fact that homophobia and negative stereotypes did and do exist.
Words wield power
Ironically, one of the most powerful, poignant pop songs ever written about homophobia and hate contains a variation of the word “faggot” and is sung by one of the world’s most famous gay men, Elton John.
The lyrics for “American Triangle” were written by Elton’s songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, and honour the life of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old who was tortured by two men and left to die on a split-rail fence in Wyoming in 1998, solely because they perceived him as being gay.
The song describes a society where some people, filled with confusion and doubt, “hate what we don’t understand.”
“God hates fags where we come from,” the song continues — a line that wasn’t written to encourage anti-gay violence, but to acknowledge that such hatred exists, as painful a truth as that might be.
Shepard’s parents have set up a foundation in their son’s name in an effort to “replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance,” and I doubt they’d be impressed if a song was banned from radio play that was written to further an understanding of what happened to their son, and why.
That kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
Now, I’m heterosexual, but I can still appreciate why a gay person might find the word “faggot” offensive.
But there are simpler ways to avoid hearing it than by fighting to have a song banned from a country’s airwaves.
As comedian Tommy Smothers once noted, “The ultimate censorship is the flick of the dial.” So, by all means, if a song offends you, turn your radio off.
But don’t deny the rest of us the right to hear the message.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Listen to Elton John’s “American Triangle” on the album “Songs from the West Coast.” Twitter: pam_frampton