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Politically Incorrect

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If words offend you, DON'T READ THIS!


There’s probably not many people out there who have ever heard of Edward Bulwer-Lytton (I was not one of them—I had to look him up), but there’s probably very few who haven’t heard at least one sentence he wrote, way back in 1839: The pen is mightier than the sword.

And probably, without thinking about it too much, most of us would agree with him. It would be hard not to in a nation where the freedom to speak and to publish is enshrined in one of our most hallowed documents (the Bill of Rights).

Too often, however, people have a tendency to ascribe power to words themselves, not understanding that words are simply symbols designed to express and convey a thought, an idea.

The power, I believe, is in that thought, not the symbol used to express it. Or, to say it another way, words cannot be divorced from the intent behind them.

This might seem like an esoteric argument to make, but it seems particularly appropriate to me in this national discussion we’ve had of late about words.

Does Sarah Palin use a lot of violent gun imagery in her talk? Of course. But does she intend for that talk to result in gun violence? I would suspect not. Sarah Palin is a savvy, charismatic celebrity who chooses her words carefully to portray the persona she has chosen for herself regardless of whether it bears any relation to who she really is. And as such, she has demonstrated rather well the power of the pen because so much of the discourse regarding the shootings last month in Tuscon has revolved around her words.

More apropos, I would suspect, would have been a discussion of failed Nevada congressional hopeful Sharron Angle, who said, “If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking towards those Second Amendment remedies,”; while still falling short of a call to action, these words are at least much closer in intent to what actually happened.

(While the alleged shooter in the Tuscon case has been portrayed as mentally unstable, it’s hard to pretend there was no political intent in his actions given he targeted a politician.)

Our inability to consider intent when it comes to words is responsible for, in what is, to me—a reader and writer who loves words—an unconscionable attack on one of the finest users of words ever seen in American history—Mark Twain.

Mark Twain, you see, writing in the 1800s, used the word “nigger” in the books Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Because we now consider (and rightly so) that word to be unacceptable in common use, a publisher wants to edit it out and replace it with the word “slave.”

How ignorant. And I literally mean ignorant. Because Twain’s intent when he used the word nigger is not at all synonymous with the word slave. And his intent was certainly not to insult an entire race of people.

Which also begs the question: what, exactly, is the difference between ‘nigger’ and ‘the N word’? There is none, because the words (or the word and the phrase, to be precise) symbolize the exact same thing: a race of people. The only difference is the intent when one or the other is used and I’m sorry, but as ignorant as the American people have arguably become, I still think we’re smart enough to figure that out.

Mark Twain wrote about a lot more than just race relations in the 1800s. George Bainton asked Twain to discourse on the art of writing for a book Bainton published (The Art of Authorship) and, among other things, Twain explained: “...the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

Despite what you were taught in school, synonyms aren’t really words that mean the same thing; they’re words that mean approximately the same thing. There is a reason why most writers choose one word over another and, most of the time, that reason has to do with the subtle differences in the meaning between two words that many might think the same. It matters. At least, it matters if you’re using words, be it in speech or in writing, to convey an idea.

In a perfect world, we imperfect humans use information in order to make decisions. Like the old computer-programming credo, if we put garbage in, we get garbage out. Information that has been deliberately stripped of its intent by changing the words used is, in my opinion, garbage.

This is not, of course, a new thing. For some reason history, as taught in our public schools, is most often stripped of all original intent, to the degree that much of what is taught seems more fiction than truth. And literature runs a close second. 

Twain scholar Alan Gribben, the man responsible for the revisions in the new publications of Twain’s books, argues, “We are not eliminating nor are we denying history. We are simply modifying a word that has become intolerable in today’s society. This does not demean the book’s content nor its overall message.”

Actually, yes it does. Twain did not write a book that didn’t include the word ‘nigger,’ and if there is value in teaching Twain, then teach him in his entirety. Some argue that this censorship will allow Twain to be taught where he wasn’t before, because too many teachers (or school districts) are “squeamish” about that word in the book, and their students’ exposure to it.

To that, all I can say is, “Man up, you pussies.”

Oh yeah. I can’t say ‘pussy’, either, unless I’m talking about a cat. Right?

Give me a break.

I can call you a chicken and the intent is almost exactly the same—but not quite exactly. That ‘P’ word I’m not supposed to use is more insulting and believe me, my intent, when it comes to an education system without the courage to teach, is not to use a mild-mannered insult.

So why can’t I use it? Well, because they think... really, what is it that they think? Best I can tell, many conventions about which words are and are not acceptable come from a hypocritical kind of Christianity that chokes on a gnat while swallowing a camel. Which, by the way, is also something that our Bill of Rights is supposed to protect me from. The remainder come from a politically correct society that somehow thinks expunging words will also expunge the more negative emotions that often drive them.

In a rather prescient post, blogger Dale McGowan wrote about this regarding the diaries of Samuel Pepys, which were heavily edited before they were published. As McGowan writes, “If you wanted a window into the everyday life of a person of the 17th century, you were out of luck. But if you hankered to know what a 19th century person thought you ought to know about a 17th century person’s life, boy do I have the book for you!” (McGowan wrote this before the news came out about the Twain revisions.)

The Pepys revisionist, by the way, went even further than just changing words; Pepys, it seems, was a little too earthy for him so he changed ideas, as well. When writing about being caught by his wife while screwing the maid, Pepys described the scene quite colorfully. By the time the censor was done, however, he was merely “hugging” the maid.

In my opinion, controlling words is nothing more than an attempt to control people themselves, and that is why it is expressly forbidden within our Bill of Rights to those who make the laws to govern this land.

Would Twain agree? His books were censored in his own time, and here’s what he had to say about it: “But the truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.”

The Bible, of course, is another area where we prefer our fictions over the truth. But that’s a different column.


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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

Sarah Palin, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, Tuscon, Sharron Angle, Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Samuel Pepys, Alan Gribben, Bill of Rights, Dale McGowan, censorship, cussing

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