Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Putting the Society Under Protective Custody

I recently wrote a little blurb about the publishing of Huckleberry Finn and some reactions to it. In general, in the months after the  publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published (1885), a Concord, Massachusetts, library banned the book, calling its subject matter “tawdry” and its narrative voice “coarse” and “ignorant.” In the 1950s, the book came under fire from African-American groups for being racist in its portrayal of black characters, despite the fact that it was seen by many as a strong criticism of racism and slavery. As recently as 1998, an Arizona parent sued her school district, claiming that making Twain’s novel required high school reading made already existing racial tensions even worse.
So it was banned by two groups, white and black. 

But in censorship there are no ties. Everyone loses. We have loads of examples of efforts throughout history of uncomfortable and simply hateful art and beliefs inflicted upon society. The problem is that such art does not scratch at a scab on the body politic, it is the scab. Sometimes the problem is significant, sometime, like a crucifix in urine, it is gratuitous. But outlawing it is not the answer. Outlawing hate speech would be like trying to outlaw hate itself.

Imagine the Athenians reacting to Lysistrata.” (It is a dirty anti-war comedy by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, first staged in 411 BC.) It is the comic story of Lysistrata and her one woman's mission to end the Peloponnesian War, as she convinces the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands as a means of forcing the men to negotiate a peace. The Athenians were at war at the time--guys were dying--and the playwright was laughing at them.
We must be better people now. We have become much more refined. Now we do not struggle over plays, we struggle over words. We are actually banning words.

There is a legitimate objection when facing something like Finn: The problem with the quality of the understanding of the public. They simply might not get it. The first response to Taming of the Shrew might easily be anger if you are of a parochial mind. And it is especially difficult now as everyone is so tender; the outrage is so quick. But that was Bowdler's original concern; he did not think the audience up to it. They--in his case women and children--were so fragile as to be easily corrupted.
The Church thought that too. That's why they developed The Index. They were protecting those poor people, as we try now.

The problem is simply bigger than that. If education is necessary, then let's do it. But the only thing censorship does is expose our unwillingness to confront and to solve problems. Or, worse, it exposes our fear that those offended cannot be taught, that the work cannot be explained because of the deficit in the audience. Sometimes the work does not deserve our efforts, as when people put crucifixes in urine and call it art, but still the solution is to confront it--or rise above it, not lynch the artist and burn his works.
These works require a response. The question is which response. And our choice is usually less a judgment of the work than of its audience.

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