Do we have to CGI Cato out of the Pink Panther movies now? Or overdub Clouseau’s affectionate racism with something less off-color? My Twitter feed was deluged with commentary on the sanitizing of Huck Finn for a couple of weeks a while ago. I think there are three major things to consider:
1) The sanctity of an artist’s work: this is the very first thing that popped up for me. Regardless of social correctness, historical accuracy, stereotyping, what have you — how is it even imaginable to think it is ok to commandeer someone else’s work, alter it in ways without consulting with the original artist or garnering his approval, and still offer it as the author’s work? Twain’s stories may be in the public domain now, but they are still his intellectual property, and it’s a travesty to let that be subject to mob rule.
2) The harm caused by stereotypes: This one is trickier, but I think it can be approached in much the same way that hate speech is approached. Surely there are valid and strong arguments for how marginalization/caricatures of any group of people can be harmful to a member of that group’s psyche, but eliminating the symptom doesn’t eliminate the disease. It’s only possible to counter irrational or harmful thinking when it is out in the open for debate, I think. The Miami ACLU advocated for first amendment protection of offensive art, kind of.
On the other hand, P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, later altered her original scenes in a book which depicted people from other countries in stereotypical, offensive ways. That points back to my first point, though — the creator of the book did the alterations herself. She claimed to regret her depictions, but iirc said something about those being the times, which leads me to my third issue:
3) Historical context: some definitions of art cast it as a reflection on society. Huck is nothing less than that, and arguably more. I think it’s incredibly important to know where we’ve been, historically, if for no other reason than that it helps us define where we want to go. We can’t deny what the prevalent thinking was at any historical juncture of our country, so why are we trying to hide it from people who will be the directors of our future?
Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, either. Reading a book isn’t going to implant the ideas therein into a reader’s brain lock, stock, and barrel. I’m guessing that the majority of American kids who read Huckleberry Finn do so in school as a requirement (I know that’s why I read it) — it creates discussion, analysis, the things we need to be able to do to sort out what is good of a thing and what is not so good. This whole movement is misguided and dangerous, and I think is best countered, as so many things are, with reason and humor. On January 4th, Walter Kirn took the opposite approach via Twitter: “Let’s add offensive words to American novels that don’t have enough of them. Little Women could use a few more ‘shits.'” I think that pretty well demonstrates the absurdity of the situation.