Friday, October 9, 2009

To Kill a Mockingbird With One Stonehead

I've been listening to a lot of news-talk radio lately. I prefer my news to be less David Sazuki / Al Gore centric. At any rate, a particular story caught my attention (read it, that article is actually quite a fair overview of the subject). Apparently the mother of a student at Toronto's Malvern Collegiate Institute wants Harper Lee's famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, banned from the school library because it contains the racially offensive 'N' word.

Really? You want to ban one of the greatest anti-racism works of the 20th century because it portrays an accurate representation of Racism? You think that by revealing the wrongs in society, even those perceived to be behind us, the message itself becomes bad? That it somehow promotes or propagates the evil?

Well, upon further review, it seems the problem is larger than I first thought. I was never aware that there was any controversy surrounding Harper Lee's novel. But, unfortunately, it seems the book has been banned many times before. Although, it should be noted that objections to the novel centered more around the depictions of rape central to the plot, rather than the language that is now considered politically incorrect, until racial attitudes began changing in the 1970's.

Does anyone else ever feel like we're living in a Ray Bradbury novel?

Or perhaps it's more like a George Orwell novel? Certainly the social movement to redefine certain words and terms as politically incorrect (i.e. taboo) smacks of Newspeak. But what political correctness hasn't managed to do yet is to actually erase the 'N' word from the public consciousness. Who hasn't heard it, even just in passing, thanks to rap music? Blocking access to responsible discourse on a matter does not make it go away. In fact, ignorance may lead to naive acceptance or at the very least to conditions that foster resurgance of the very problem you blindly hope would just go away.

But here I am blithely tip-toeing around the word itself. Let me give you an example of a responsible use of the word:

'Nigger' is a derogatory term that has passed from regular use in the English language because it is offensive to a group of people and its use is generally considered taboo. It refers to people whose level of melanin pigmentation is within the higher range for humans and their skin is therefore darker. Usually one or more of their ancestors originated from the continent of Africa, although this is not universally true. Historically, this term was used by Caucasian owners toward their slaves. After slavery was abolished, the term continued to be used by racists. Any non-member of the group who uses the term 'Nigger' is now suspect of being racist whether the term was used as a slur or not. My advice: don't use the 'N' word.

(Hope that doesn't get censored. . .)

Of course, when writing about historical events, or even current matters involving racism, it would be irresponsible to gloss over the reality of the actions and language used.

Here is a set of quotes by a famous Canadian, former Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker, that I think are fitting:

". . . he who does not know the past can never understand the present, and he certainly can do nothing for the future."

"Freedom includes the right to say what others may object to and resent... The essence of citizenship is to be tolerant of strong and provocative words."

Today, word has emerged that this latest outburst of insanity has been averted. But for how long, and what of those institutions that continue to ban such books, to suppress knowledge, and subvert future generations? To all those who insist on censorship, on giving up the right to freedom of speech and thought, I have one thing to say:


Edit (05/01/2011) - I have recently discovered that I was not the first to compare the censorship of To Kill a Mockingbird with the world of George Orwell's 1984.

"Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board's activities, and what I've heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.

"Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that “To Kill a Mockingbird” spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is "immoral" has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.

"I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice."

- Harper Lee in a 1966 'letter to the editor'.

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