Sanitising the World: The ‘N-Word’

As the New Year broke, I found a news article that offered some insight into what this decade would have to offer. And guess what: it was more of the same. The latest example of misdirected political correctness is the republication of Joseph Conrad’s 1897 novel The Nigger of the Narcissus as The N-word of the Narcissus.

I’m not kidding. This is true. There’s a news article about it and everything.

The new version is the first instalment of WordBridge Publishing’s classic texts series, featuring “texts with a message for moderns, made accessible to moderns”.

But some critics say updating a Conrad novel by replacing all mentions of the offensive term “nigger” with “n-word” is just as offensive as the word itself.

“It’s outrageous,” Niger Innis, spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, a New York-based civil rights organisation, said.

“Are they going to go to Mark Twain as well and take out all of those references?

“It’s censorship and to blacken over a word does not mean that you can blacken over the history.”

I wonder if they chose a lesser known book to judge reaction before going after a bigger fish like Mark Twain?

They changed the language to avoid offending people. Well guess what, people: history sometimes is offensive. It should be offensive. A time period should be every bit as dark and horrible (as well as wholesome and pure) in our minds as it was to the people who lived in it. If the era was a racist one, then we shouldn’t pretend it wasn’t.

But maybe that’s the thing. So many people don’t seem able to tolerate ambivalence. For them, the notion that history is enlightening, heartening and horrific is irreconcilable in their minds. And when greeting card companies are trying to return us to the nostalgic 1950s – when family was all that mattered, and before rampant consumerism and advertising conquered the world – we are not really being encouraged to think of history as multi-faceted.

But the fact remains: if you’re going to learn a sanitised version of history, you might as well not bother at all. If, for example, the 1950s were just a time of homemaking and family ideals, and not of war and bigotry and McCarthyism, what lessons can be learned? Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it forever; this is the most fundamental of truisms.

And, just to be completely melodramatic about this, when Big Brother starts controlling what you see and know of history, Big Brother controls the world. (And yes, I realise that this particular example is one publisher’s decision, independent of government intervention; I’m just saying that the same principles can be translated, and this could be the precedent)

Double Standards

It seems hard to believe that Joseph Conrad should be the first target of the new decade. Not when the word “hell” has found its way into G-rated TV, and anything seems to go at M and MA levels. Not when extraordinarily violent video games are finding their way into the hands of children without so much as an ID check. And not when enough free internet porn to choke the world is but a single mouse click away.

It seems to me that if you want to sanitise the media, you would be best to begin with the stuff that has the biggest, most impressionable audience, wouldn’t you? Rather than targeting a book that, let’s face it, has a primarily academic audience.

No one seemed to mind when the Simpsons suddenly slipped a few “craps” into their show, and then a few more… and the rest of TV followed suit.

A slippery slope?

They should totally remake It’s A Wonderful Life so that the family’s maid isn’t black, and so that the main villain isn’t in a wheelchair (because withered legs are not a great metaphor for his withered soul, it’s clearly just an attack on “persons of diminished physical capabilities”).

Dad’s Army made fun of old people, so we should pull those DVDs off the shelf and recall all those that have been sold.

In fact, ALL 1960s TV is sexist and exploitative by today’s standards – get it OFF THE AIR at once!

Parting Thoughts

I want my daughter to understand that the word “nigger” used to be a widely used perjorative term, but that it’s no longer socially acceptable. If she goes into life thinking that it has always been the “n-word” and that times pretty much never change, how is she going to be prepared for the changes her generation will face?

Big Brother wants to know the answer, too.