There were two new stories recently that caught my attention due to their similarities and differences.
(Wow, is THAT ever a stupid sentence. Oh well, carry on…)
It seems that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is being altered to remove the ‘N-word’.
It also seems that the Dire Straits song ‘Money for Nothing’ has been deemed unacceptable for play on Canadian radio.
The general reaction to both of those stories was “that is stupid”.
I think lumping these stories togather is a mistake, and cannot be judged by the same standard.
Altering this book to remove the N-word is ridiculous. And remember that this is coming from a person who refuses to even use the actual word in his blog.
Let me be clear: using this word in any context is objectionable. (I suppose I am speaking about non-black people using the word. I am not a fan of the word regardless, but I am certainly not about to tell a black person whether it is acceptable or not for them to utter it.) It is extremely offensive and using it brands you as a racist… and well it should.
Does that mean Mark Twain was a racist?
Well, probably yes. He lived in a time when racism was pretty much a given.
So now that this word is no longer acceptable, shouldn’t we take it out?
Absolutely not. In fact, doing so is very destructive because it waters down the impact that the word had, and hides some of the attitudes towards black people in the time and place depicted in the book. Removing it does not protect black people from the impact of the word, but rather it forgives its usage in the first place. We get to pretend that the book exists in a world where the white people were not all racist and the black characters did NOT have to live with that weight on their shoulders.
In addition, by substituting a different word, you are turning THAT word into something every bit as offensive as the ‘N-word’ because it is filling that spot in the lexicon. When you substitute one word for another without changing context and the intent of the writer still exists.
(To use a geek example, having Battlestar Galactica people say ‘frak’ is every bit as stupid. Is it okay to swear on tv or not? If it is not, switching to a different word the CLEARLY means the same thing and is a swear word is stupid. The fact that it is allowed showed the idiocy of the rule and those enforcing it…)
Finally, you are changing a work of literature without the author’s permission.
If you feel that this book shouldn’t be read, then don’t read it. Don’t change it, just don’t read it.
So, I should be opposed to banning ‘Money For Nothing’ from the airwaves, right?
Here we have a song that was offensive when it came out and it is offensive now. If Huckleberry Finn had been published in the early 80s I would say the same thing about that.
More importantly, a song is not a book. In the book, Twain is saying that these characters say certain things. He is not saying them himself. He is not endorsing them. (Though…)
In this song, there is no ‘narrator’. It is Knopfler singing so it is Knopfler’s voice. When he spoke, he was intentionally trying to paint a picture that was offensive. He said it in a time when it was OKAY to insult gay people, so it was accepted.
HOWEVER, when the song plays on the radio now, there is no context. There is nothing in the song that says ‘back in the 80s we would say…’, like there is in Huck Finn. When the song plays, it plays. Just like I don’t buy the argument ‘I wasn’t saying it, I was just quoting it.’
When you play it, you play it now. You don’t play it then.
I am not saying that Knopfler is a homphobe now because he was then, but that has no bearing on the song because when you play it, you play it.
(Interestingly, you can get a mix of this two arguments when you talk about ‘Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues and Kirsty McCall… I would be opposed to that song being banned because it clearly is ‘characters’ that are signing and evoking a certain type of person and setting…)
Remember, when talking about things like broadcasting INTENT DOES NOT MATTER. If a song will be taken a certain way (like automatically equating gay with BAD) then it is your responsibility as an artist or the controller of the medium to understand than.
The Cure had a song called ‘Killing An Arab’ that was about the book ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus. When Robert Smith found out that there were people who were misunderstanding the song (famously, an american radio announcer introduced it as ‘a song about killing ay-rabs’) he asked for the song to no longer be played on the radio. He took responsbility for the damage that a common misinterpretation could do and took action to prevent it.
Don’t play the song on the radio. I’m not saying to not allow the song to be available for sale or whatever, just don’t play it on the radio. This is no different than not playing the Forgotten Rebels ‘Bomb the Boats’.
The TL,DR version: don’t rewrite Huckleberry Finn and don’t play ‘Money For Nothing’ on the radio.