Sometime toward the end of 2010, a new edition of our school-time favourite Mark Twain masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn created a furore in America’s literary, scholarly and journalistic circles.
Acting on the suggestions of Alan Gribben, English professor at Montgomery-based Auburn University, the publishers, NewSouth Books (based in Alabama), excised the word “nigger”. The word, which featured in the book 219 times, was substituted with “slave”, sparking a furious but enlightening and rich debate on censorship and where liberalism begins and ends.
The New York Times opened up the sensitive subject, which still niggles away at the mind of many Americans, to a healthy debate. NYT’s editorial stand was at once a shining example of the liberal values that the newspaper espouses and a telling reminder of the social practices and values prevalent in 19th century America riven by slavery and maltreatment of blacks.
Generating a Debate is The Essence of Liberalism
In one article, school teacher Elizabeth Absher was quoted as saying: “I think authors’ language should be left alone. If it’s too offensive, it doesn’t belong in school, but if it expresses the way people felt about race and slavery in the context of their time, that’s something I’d talk about in teaching it.”
Therein lies the essence of liberalism. Absher’s viewpoint was simple. She wanted her students to feel, be shocked and repelled even, by the use of the word “nigger” and generate a debate around it in 21st century America.
The howl of protests that an article on The Quint, ‘Bengaluru Shame: You Can Choose to Be Safe, So Don’t Blame the Mob’, by Sonnal Pardiwala, has generated since it was published on Wednesday evening, reminds me of Gribben’s predicament over the replacement of the word “nigger” by “slave”.
Gribbens was under the impression that Huckleberry Finn was not being read widely because, he thought, people resented “textual encounters with this racial appellative”. So, he sought to have NewSouth Books change “nigger” to “slave” – not because he thought that it was an affront to Jim, Huck’s companion, or modern-day Americans and that it reinforced in them a sense of guilt for the dreadful practice followed in the 18th and 19th centuries.
There’s Not a Simplicity of Right or Wrong But Subjectivity
To feel offended by inelegant words or crass expressions is purely subjective. And in Pardiwala’s case, she had every right to express her opinion, irrespective of whether the readers of her article felt uncomfortable or not.
The views expressed by Pardiwala could be acceptable to some and unacceptable to others. That is the basic principle on which every idea in this world works on, which is akin to saying that human beings have different belief systems and perceptions of the world they live in.
Since its inception, The Quint has strived to practice journalism of the liberal kind: To be a platform which would feature all views as long as they do not hurt the sentiments and sensibilities of any community, backed with facts, presenting cogent and logical arguments by drawing on facts, avoiding communal slurs and disrespectful caricatures.
We at The Quint will continue to make all efforts to present to our readers and viewers quality and persuasive journalism focused on objective and unbiased presentation of facts with an unwavering belief and practice of liberal values in which there is no room for censorship, self or otherwise.
Mark Twain was a nom de plume. His real name was Samuel Clemens. He was at once a “liberal, a racist, an anti-imperialist, a kind man, an angry man, a non-racist and a riot”. He worked as a steamboat pilot, a Confederate soldier during the American Civil War, a miner, a prospector and a newspaper reporter.
Would this description of a remarkable man and writer stop you from reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, works “saturated with ambivalence”? Would you agree or disagree with communal politics? Sure, violence cannot be condoned, but it is ultimately our readers who make informed choices.
The reader is king in a society in which we have all kinds of men and women – liberals and conservatives. But the surest way to lose track – and sense – of journalism is to “clean up”, sanitise or present only one side of the story or one strain of beliefs.