There has been much controversy lately about various attempts at censorship, using the term broadly to include efforts to revise, omit, or forbid various forms of expression. The efforts come from both the right and the left, although in different forms. If you follow the news, this is all familiar. The right, led by attack-dog Ron DeSantis, in the name of fighting “woke” behavior, is trying to take control of school systems and intimidate teachers, passing laws forbidding honest discussion of race and LBGTQ+ issues. The “woke” left have become language police, setting themselves up as arbiters of which terms are acceptable and which are “offensive.” Most recently, publishers have gotten into the game, published “revised” versions of books by famous writers, from Roald Dahl to Ian Fleming. Some of this is billed, as censorship so often is, as protecting the delicate minds of sensitive children. Some of it is not, unless there are parents out there reading James Bond to their kids for bedtime stories. Frankly, I can think of no more futile task than trying to Bowdlerize Bond—surely if you did the job thoroughgoingly, there would be nothing left.
The material of the following discussion is not particularly original: as I say, if you follow the news, I’m sure you have heard all of it before. My hope, however, is that my usual impulse to look at the Big Picture, the total pattern formed by the evidence, might result in a fresh perspective. Historically, at least in the United States, the subject begins with the First Amendment. Legalistically, according to the letter of the law, the amendment only applies to speech criticizing the government. However, there has been a progressive expansion of the First Amendment’s interpretation to include all forms of expression. But the emphasis has been on the free expression of ideas, the guarantee of a right to debate contending views. This is vitally important, but, as we shall see, the “culture wars” have steadily drawn the focus away from argument and debate into the area of feelings, and therefore into hysteria. The United States deserves great credit for building the right to freedom of thought and argument into its political system, but of course it has not always lived up to its high ideals. McCarthyism attempted to dictate which ideas about America were acceptable and which were “un-American.” It launched an Inquisition whose model is the persecution of “heresy” by organized religion. Heresy is any ideas or interpretations that contradict those of the prevailing power structure, whose rationale is that weak minds must not be led astray by the wrong interpretations of heretics or dissidents, who are always portrayed as power-loving egotists, never as honest critics driven by conscience and intellectual rigor.
The great document defending freedom of inquiry and argument, both religious and secular, is Milton’s Areopagitica. Milton boldly declares that we do not have the truth, about Christianity or anything else, and therefore must allow free debate, which works to refine truth progressively from error. It is one of the great Western texts, arguably as profound as anything by Jefferson or Locke. Milton’s critics accuse him of intellectual dishonesty: he qualifies his assertion of freedom of expression by excluding “Popery.” True, but it can be said that he does so because Catholicism denies freedom of expression; the Catholicism of Milton’s time asserted that it did know the truth, and was determined to impose it for people’s own good, for the salvation of their immortal souls. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, salvation required more than having a good heart and performing charitable actions. You had to believe the right ideas. The 6th circle of Dante’s hell is an eternal Inquisition punishing heretics and schismatics. A theme that touched Dante closely, as he was exiled for his political views by no less than the Pope himself, or so he believed.
Heretics are not the same as charismatic cult leaders, who draw people to them by the contagion of mass emotion. Heretics are men of ideas, and heresy is thus typically a sin of authors. They also serve who only sit and write. Nonetheless, writing books can be as hazardous for your health as political activism. An adjunct of the Inquisition is the Index Expurgatorius or Index Liborum Prohibitorum, the list of books that Catholics may not read. It was finally retired only in 1966. Every book published by Catholic presses used to have an Imprimatur in its opening pages, a stamp that meant “It may be printed.” Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 because of books he had written.
The dissident authors who risk their lives writing books telling the truth about authoritarian regimes, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, may end up in gulags, or dead. The United States and Europe like to believe that their democratic tradition of free enquiry makes them superior to the coercive regimes of the past and of the non-Western world. To an extent this is of course true, yet some targets of criticism or satire are a lot safer than others. Sinead O’Connor set her career back a good number of years by tearing up a picture of the Pope onstage. That is better than what happened to Salman Rushdie and the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, Perhaps the professor who showed her class a painting, famous in art history, of the prophet Mohammed was lucky only to be fired and not killed. It is important to note that those who condone such attacks always speak of disrespect to their religion, but that is not quite the case. What is really felt to be intolerable is disrespect for the charismatic mass leader. At other times, the nation itself is the charismatic object of faith upon which a sense of pride and security is founded, so that an idealized image of the nation becomes beyond criticism. The shameful episodes of U.S. history, such as slavery and the treatment of Native Americans, become minimized or simply unmentioned. Any attempt by revisionist historians to write a history of the country that takes into account its collective Jungian shadow is bitterly resented, regarded as basically traitorous. Wars are a time-honored way for politicians to draw the country together under a demand for “patriotism,” as Shakespeare in his history plays showed long ago. Things have not changed: when it comes to a war, whether Vietnam or Iraq, for many people it is still America: Love It or Leave It, as the Chicks Formerly Known as Dixie found at their expense. Across the water, the Tories continue to wreck the UK through such suicidal gestures as Brexit out of a desperate, delusional nostalgia for the British Empire, whose shadow side is again minimized or unmentioned.
Most of what are called the culture wars, however, are driven less by ideology than by morality, less by abstract principles and more by the need for social bonding on a local level, although theory and practice of course intersect and interact. Morality may pretend to be deduced from high principle, but in practice it is often no more than peer group pressure, conformism, tribalism, the need to fit in—in short, everything summed up in the term “respectability.” It is in this area that the United States has made qualified but real progress over the last century. The demand to repress what are increasingly admitted to be basic human drives and not regressive animal or “savage” impulses has loosened in both main areas of respectability, sex and aggression.
Most people know something about how prudish American society was about sex a century ago, to the point of denying as far as possible that it existed. When Edith Wharton begged her mother before her wedding to tell her about sex, her scandalized mother told her never to mention that subject again. Men sometimes were instructed by prostitutes—women who were not respectable, who were blamed for having loose morals rather than being driven to prostitution by economic desperation, a desperation that often originated in having gotten pregnant without being married. Married couples were shown sleeping in twin beds, and women could not be shown pregnant—in fact, the very word “pregnant” could not be used. A woman was “expecting” or “in the family way.” Both film and television were rigidly censored—film censorship did not end until 1968. Raise your hands, those of you who are old enough, like me, to remember raising your hands during Catholic Mass to recite the Pledge of the Legion of Decency not to view any films that were disapproved of by the Legion of Decency. As usual, social hysteria seized upon language obsessions for lack of anything real to fuss about. Somewhere around 1972, the comedian George Carlin began performing his monologue about the Seven Deadly Words that can’t be used in public performances. Wikipedia cites a 2004 NPR interview with Carlin in which he says, “These words have no power. We give them power by refusing to be free and easy with them.” It’s important to note, however, what kind of words Carlin actually had in mind. The seven words all refer to sex or other bodily functions. One of the delightful surprises of a long teaching career is the change in what you can say in the classroom. I give the younger generations credit for a genuinely insightful shift in what should be regarded as forbidden speech. When I began teaching, saying “fuck” in class was an absolute no-no. Students today couldn’t care less. They have come to understand the difference between words that are merely vulgar and who cares, and the words that are truly obscene, which are the words that demean and demonize, the words that are not "expression” but hate speech. The c-word is still forbidden, but not because the female genitalia are shameful—rather, because it is used as a weapon, a way of denigrating, a form of violence against women. The n-word is the same way. So is any term weaponized as a way to hurt or threaten people. I am fine with censoring such language.
I do have mixed feelings about making it taboo to mention—not use but mention—such words at all, especially of course the n-word, even when referring to their existence in a literary text. I willingly go along with this, and do not wish to cause pain to anyone, but I think Carlin is right: there is a price to be paid. A total taboo gives a word power that it would not otherwise have. To be unable to bear hearing a word pronounced, even when not used as hate speech, gives an impression of weakness and vulnerability. And if hearing the word gives pain, then surely reading it does as well. This means that classic texts of American literature become virtually unreadable, not to mention unteachable, starting with Huckleberry Finn. That in turn leads to a potential erasing of the past that makes me uneasy. I think that the total ban is an understandable reaction by those affected to the wave of overt racism unleashed beginning in the Trump era. When, as I hope, this racism will be tamed in the future, perhaps the stricture may be somewhat relaxed. For now, I go along with it willingly out of sympathy with those who have to live with racism every day of their lives. The same is true of visual representation. It is regrettable that a professor was recently disciplined for showing Lawrence Olivier’s Othello in a college class, even with prior warning, because of course Olivier acted in blackface. Again, the “see no evil, hear no evil” attitude leads to an erasure of the past that sets a dangerous precedent. Still, academics need to be mindful of how what they teach resonates with what is going on outside the classroom, and right now, really, aren’t there other great performances of Othello that would avoid exacerbating the sensitivity of those who live with the awareness that the likes of Trump and Fox News are doing their best to whip up a lynch mob mentality among their followers?
American puritanism runs deep, and the United States is still deeply ambivalent about sexuality, the near-total disappearance of sexual censorship notwithstanding. As with race, a new and totally admirable sensitivity to abuses that had long been denied or tolerated has led to a charged atmosphere that renders discussion of freedom of expression difficult, perhaps impossible. Most discussions of pornography, for example, are conducted in near-complete ignorance of the actual range of available porn, and this has been true since the anti-pornography campaign of feminism in the 80’s and 90’s. One type of porn, the abusive type, is singled out and made to represent all porn. I am sure that such porn does tend to inspire, if that is the word, abusive behavior on the part of male creeps, including, these days, teenage boys who want to act out such fantasies with their girlfriends. But that is a narrow band in a broad spectrum that shades into “erotica” that some, not all, people regard as relatively innocent. Nevertheless, once again, no sensible discussion seems possible at present, especially since #MeToo has made us aware of how often women truly are abused in our society. Add to this the hysteria on the right, where people are clearly lusting (ahem) to outlaw birth control and reduce sex to the act of procreation, and you have an atmosphere in which discussion of the role of fantasy—in other words, of the imagination—in human sexuality is well-nigh impossible, at least for the time being.
The discussion of sexuality has been additionally complicated by the surprising but utterly welcome change in American attitudes about gender and sexual orientation. It is not much more than a decade since Barack Obama felt it politically necessary to pretend that he supported the ideal of heterosexual marriage as normative. Nowadays, acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and nonbinary is the true norm, somewhat disguised by the vociferous opposition of what is actually a minority who would like to impose minority rule. The old wisdom that any major social change necessarily has to take place slowly, over many generations, has been disproved. This should hearten progressives, who are used to being told that their calls for change are naively utopian and political suicide. (The same is true about climate change: it has been only a few years since Nancy Pelosi sneered at AOC’s Green New Deal—a good part of which is presently being enacted by the Biden administration).
What is increasingly accepted is not just the existence of people who do not fit the old heterosexual norm but also the possibility that gender and sexual orientation are not fixed but, within certain limits, changeable. “Born this way” used to be an argument for tolerating homosexuality, but it is increasingly common, especially among the younger generation, to regard gender and sexual orientation as choices, as acts of self-imagination. Much as I despise vile bigots like Ron DeSantis, I believe it is one of the responsibilities of the educated imagination to try to understand what is going on in such people’s heads. For such people, any books or class lessons about LBGTQ+ people are “grooming.” Despite our disgust and contempt, we should recognize that such reactionaries have understood at least one thing. If gender and orientation are choices, then any discussion of such subjects, even an acknowledgement of the existence of non-heterosexual identifications, might well be persuasive to young people. When the reactionaries learn that 20% or whatever it is of young people do not identify as heterosexual, it confirms their suspicion that young people are being persuaded, led astray from the cis-normal path, and the response is hysterical panic. Of course they are in denial about the fact that heterosexuality itself as a norm is largely as a result of “grooming”—people are conditioned into it as much as they are born into it, reproductive exigencies notwithstanding.
Many of the recent attempts at censorship have involved children’s literature. Children’s literature has always been censored, and with good reason, since children are immature and impressionable. I am not in favor of the revision of older classics of children’s literature by removing or altering passages now deemed offensive, but common sense recognizes that some revision is inevitable. No parents read the actual Grimm version of “Cinderella” to their children, in which the wicked step-sisters chop off their toes and heels in order to fit into the shoe and birds peck out their eyes at the end of the story. I grew up reading Little Black Sambo and watching the Little Rascals on TV, but it is proper that such things be relegated to the realm of historical scholarship because of their racism. There is plenty of other entertainment for children.
Nonetheless, book publishers’ revisions of older classics are very likely to spin out of control, and apparently already have. A reader’s comment on a discussion board after a New York Times article on publishers’ revisions claims that the following alteration was made in Dahl’s Matilda. The original sentence read, “She went on older-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling.” Allegedly, this was changed to, “She went to nineteenth century estates with Jane Austen. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and California with John Steinbeck.” I should perhaps not be using this example because I have not checked it out, but let us take it as an example of the kind of thing that could possibly happen. What went on in the head of the censor? Conrad is replaced with Austen—why? For gender representation? Because the censor had heard that Conrad (the author of a book called The N-Word of the Narcissus) has been accused of racism? But then Jane Austen has been criticized for the sugar cane plantation aspect of Mansfield Park. Was Kipling—a famous children’s author—replaced because of his imperialism? And why leave the sexist Hemingway? The point is that cuts and revisions are going to be made randomly, subject to the censor’s ignorance, and with a nervous desire not to offend the audience and thus imperil profits. Another reader on the same discussion board pointed out that Ray Bradbury discovered that his Fahrenheit 451—of all books!—was being censored by publishers to make it more palatable to high school readers. In an Afterword to the 1979 Del Rey edition, he responded, “There is more than one way to burn a book.”
At the level of college and university education, new issues arise. One of them is trauma and the ways of coping with trauma, including trigger warnings. Here we arrive at the other traditionally censored subject area, along with sexuality, that of violence. Since the 1960’s, explicit sexual content and graphic violence have been allowed more or less freely into both popular and high culture. Children’s entertainment screens out disturbingly violent content, but what is appropriate in secondary education, where the students are adults? Older adults who call young people overly sensitive snowflakes for asking for trigger warnings are not taking into account the realities of many young people’s lives. Many students have friends, acquaintances, and family members who attempted suicide, sometimes successfully, or who have been addicted to heroin, opioids, you name it. A shocking percentage of girls have been subjected to sexual harassment and abuse, both online and in person; some have been date or acquaintance raped. They have lived in fear of school shootings and of the death from Covid of grandparents and others for two years of a pandemic. They have witnessed the huge increase in open racism, misogyny, homophobia, and gun-toting threats of violence since the Trump years. Climate change catastrophe hangs as a possibility over their future as nuclear war did over ours.
Sometimes people say that a previous generation weathered the Great Depression and a world war and came through fine, so why isn’t the present generation that tough? The reason is that that is a lie. The Great Generation did not come through intact, but their dysfunctionality was covered up. I know because it was my parents’ generation, and I knew family after family in which alcoholism, wife beating, child molestation and physical abuse ran rampant. But no one talked about it. It was utterly taboo. People say that the counterculture kids were just spoiled, ungrateful brats. But a lot of the teenage runaways who became hippies during the Summer of Love were fleeing from dysfunctional families, looking for a warmer place to belong. When we grew older, we learned that our parents were such a mess because they had been mistreated by their parents, often immigrants who had been permanently wounded by the Social Darwinism that the United States always inflicts upon those seeking refuge. To some of us, the phrase “family values” is deeply ironic. The 50’s happy-family sitcoms were so popular because they expressed a poignant yearning for something better than was actually the case. They represent, in the phrase of sociologist Stephanie Coontz, the way we never were.
Young people are at least honest and up front about their mental health issues, which are often not the result of personal weakness or moral failing but of a pathological family and social environment. The disappearance of censorship since the 1950’s has resulted in pervasive scenes of graphic violence in books, television, and film, often without any real artistic need for it. Sometimes the explicitness is driven by the need, on the part of both artists and audience, to prove that they are toughminded adults—I can take it; I’m not soft and sentimental. At other times it seems driven by an arrested-adolescent desire to look cool. Irony is cool; alienation is cool; edgy is cool. No smiley buttons for me. We might long for a return to the convention of Greek tragedy, in which all violence took place off stage. Oedipus returns with bloody sockets for eyes, yet those are the sockets of a mask. But no, our style is that of King Lear, in which Gloucester’s eyes are ground out on stage by a villain’s boot. My former wife holds a permanent grudge against the school system that made her read Elie Wiesel’s Night, about the Nazi death camps, when she was only 13, a traumatic experience. I don’t blame her. I don’t teach any really violent literature, but if I did I’d have no problem excusing any student reluctant to be exposed to it. When I taught Tom Batiuk’s graphic novel Lisa’s Story, about a woman who dies from breast cancer, a student asked me to be excused because she had lost her mother to cancer two years previously. Who in the world would say no to that?
Young people are sometimes accused of making comedy impossible because you’re not allowed to make fun of anyone any longer. No more fat jokes; no more age jokes; no more alcoholic jokes. Which means no more Falstaff, who is old, fat, and, if not alcoholic, hangs out in a tavern. It is a difficult issue because the fun poked at Falstaff is not cruel, and the fat-and-old jokes are usually Falstaff’s own, at his own expense. The fun poked is not scapegoating fun: Shakespeare makes Falstaff at once a butt and a poignantly likeable character. The complex interplay of satire and sympathy makes him one of the most memorable characters in drama. Mind you, Shakespeare does not always come off so well: the treatment of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is imperfect, to say the least. Even there, Shakespeare forces his audience to confront the uncomfortable fact that Shylock is humiliated at the end less for his Judaism than for his implacable vindictive cruelty, and that he has been made cruel and vengeful by Christian anti-Semitism. The mood is infinitely more complex than the lynch-mob mentality of Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, but it hardly comes up to modern standards.
And what does? We can perhaps agree that a good deal of the new sensitivity about terms is not mere self-righteous virtue signaling but a new social maturity. Historically, even in relatively recent times, we have been like name-calling kids, not malicious and yet unconscious of how hurtful many terms formerly accepted as perfectly normal were in fact demeaning. We do not need terms like Mongoloid, cripple, spastic, retard, homo. We can all slip—Taylor Swift recently apologized for “spazz” and changed her lyrics. But retraining ourselves takes no great effort. I think some of the resentment is less at the exhortation to change than it is a response to the obvious self-righteousness on the part of some of the critics, who have set themselves up as arbiters and come off as grievance collectors.
We have come full circle to where I began as an academic, to the culture-wars battle over the Western canon. Except that now the shoe is on the other foot. Back then, the Dead White Males were still predominant, and any attempt to balance departmental offerings with newer and more diverse work was met with howls of outrage about a literary equivalent of affirmative action. They are replacing Shakespeare with Alice Walker! Of course “they” weren’t, but the irony is that nowadays the old canon really is being replaced by diversity of all sorts. It is not a conspiracy, not at all. It is simply that the older faculty who taught the classics are retiring and dying off, and the younger generation does not teach them, not because of ideological disapproval but because they simply have no deep relationship to them. They have not grown up with them, are not rooted in them. A few do resent the old works, like the Classics professor I spoke of in a previous newsletter who believes Classics departments should be abolished because the Classics are nothing but "white supremacy." And there are indeed some students who clearly want to read nothing but works that reflect their own values--which is to say, works written within their lifetime. I was once criticized in a student evaluation for teaching “old” stuff—from the 1980’s!
I still believe in what Northrop Frye called an “order of words,” which is not at all the same as a canon. A canon is a set of works stamped with approval because they reflect, or at least are thought to reflect, certain cultural values. A canon is ideological, even though its criteria are usually said to be aesthetic—the best that has been thought and said. However, Frye infuriated some critics by pointing out in Anatomy of Criticism that all aesthetic value judgments are really ideology in disguise. Rather than the woke tendency to look for things to disapprove of, and thereupon either revise or replace, I wish we would take a second look at Frye’s notion that all texts whatsoever—the good, the bad, and the ugly—are interconnected. Martin Luther King had a dream of universal human harmony, and in a Christmas sermon four years after the “I have a dream” speech, he explained that “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny” (497).
All works of literature, past and present, are woven into that garment: indeed, the word “text” has a root meaning of being woven, as in “textile.” The reason to seek a balance between past classics and present diversity is to create a dialectic across time. New works reflecting contemporary values change our perspective and cause us to read the old canon in new ways, sometimes becoming more critical but sometimes also becoming aware of qualities we were blind to before. But the old works challenge us by their mysterious otherness. It is simply arrogant to think that we have all the right values and the old works are simply obsolete, ready for the dust heap of history. That is an adolescent attitude that I hope we will outgrow. We claim to value “difference,” and the old works challenge us with their weird, fascinating difference. Reading them provides a valuable discipline in detaching from our own values. If we revise older works in light of present values, we risk obliterating the past in the act of “improving” it, like the 19th century restorations that “improved” old paintings and thereby nearly ruined them. My students often realize this, and are happy to study the old works as well as the new. They recognize what is offensive, yet take it in their stride, because they see that there is also much else in those old, strange texts. So long as that attitude prevails, there is hope for our society.
King, Martin Luther. “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.” In Dreams and Inward Journeys: A Rhetoric and Reader for Writers, 8th Edition. Edited by Marjorie Ford and John Ford. Pearson, 2012. 496-503.
Censorship is rampant on the internet. Accounts canceled, shadow-banned, voices silenced and suppressed in nefarious ways for expression of opinions counter to the dominant ideology. Intense pressure applied by the security apparatus and government agencies on the internet companies to suppress and bury dissent similar but so far more subtle to the McCarthy hearings in the early 50s.