Laurel L. Russwurm's Free Culture Blog

a writer, the copyfight and internet freedom

censorship and children

with 4 comments

Parents protect their children.   As a parent, I censored what my child was exposed to.

grandmother holds toddler

What if grandma heard him say the F-word?

I protected my child from the information or reality that he was not able to handle.

He was probably in the first grade the first time he saw the classic movie
A Christmas Story.”
Naturally, it made him desperate to know what Ralphie’s “F-word” was.

My argument:

Once known, this word of power might be used inappropriately.

At school, say.

Or at Grandma’s… She would be horrified.

And when Grandma asks where he learned this word, he would have to say:

“Mommy taught me that word”

I don’t think so.

black and white publicity still portrait of the named Dog character from Tim Burton's short film of the same name

'Frankenweenie' was our substitute F-Word

His argument:

he just wants to know.

He will not use it inappropriately. In fact, he promises faithfully never to say it, if only I tell him.

Was he mature enough to abide by this agreement?
My greater life experience inclined me toward disbelief.

So I told him the word was

“Frankenweenie.”

Having just vowed to ‘never’ use the word,
naturally the first thing out of his mouth was “Frankenweenie.”

So there was some vindication in my decision to censor.

(He did, of course, learn how to both say and spell the actual “F word” when it was spray painted on the wall of his elementary school a year later.
Only then was it safe to show him the Tim Burton classic Frankenweenie film.)

But as a parent, there were things I knew would disturb him. Being in tune with my child, I was uniquely positioned to have a good idea what protection was necessary. For instance, in the early years, good guys could never die. As he grew and learned acquired the ability to protect himself, the terms of censorship changed. Before he was 18 he had acquired enough maturity that external parental censorship was no longer necessary.

Of course I never did show him Old Yeller, a film that traumatized me as a child. Just seeing a commercial for it makes me burst into tears to this day.

rewriting history is a bad idea

Although there is a time to protect children, I thoroughly disagree with the practice of rewriting literature to “protect” children.

The very famous examples of this kind of “politically correct” censorship are William Shakespeare’s “A Merchant of Venice” and Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn‘.

The portrayal of the Jewish moneylender Shylock caused offense to a great many forward thinking people. In an era of political correctness many schools banned the play from the curriculum.

The “N-word” caused the same fate for Huckleberry Finn. Even worse, liberal minded people thought a reasonable compromise was to change the text. Rewrite it to make it ‘suitable’ for children.

One of the great philosophers who influenced my adolescence was Lazarus Long. To this day it doesn’t matter to me that he was a fictional character.

A generation which ignores history has no past: and no future. “

—Lazarus Long, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long (reprinted in Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein), eire.com: QUOTES ABOUT HISTORY

Rewiting history doesn’t change what has come before. It merely serves to prevent any possibility of learning from the mistakes of the past. Personally, I have always learned best from my mistakes. I was horrified to hear that revisionism was extending to Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. Seems everything that was a ‘bad influence’ was redacted. Look around. Has the world become a better place for it? I don’t think so.

Huckleberry Finn

black & white stidio portrait of Mark Twain, 1909 photograph by A.F. Bradley

Mark Twain, 1909

Personally I never much liked Tom Sawyer. Sorry folks, I think Tom was a creep. He’s dishonest, venal, manipulative. Even his friends can’t trust the guy.

Now, Huck Finn, there’s a character I can get behind. I admired Huck. Maybe because he came from nothing, he is one of the least judgemental characters in literature. Certainly one of the most egalitarian. Yet some people wanted to remove the N-word from the world. How can you teach a book that uses the N-word to impressionable children?

Easy. You TEACH children. You talk about it.
What a wonderful opportunity to talk about what people said and did back then.

Removing the “N-word” is a small obscenity in a book that includes a big obscenity called slavery. Contrast that with the good in the book. A central part of the story is the incredible friendship between Huckleberry Finn and his friend Jim.  That was unheard if in the day.   Huckleberry Finn is a wonderful book capable of engaging empathy, and changing the way people think.   Watering it down into a politically correct revision helps no one.   Teaches nothing.

A Merchant of Venice

Copper engraving of Shakespeare found on Title page of the First Folio

William Shakespeare, 1623

A smash hit at a time when Jews were prohibited from full citizenship in Elizabethan England.

Religion permeated the laws of the land at that time. Usury was illegal for Christians… that meant Christians could not charge interest on loans. The net result was that Christians with money were singularly unwilling to loan money to strangers for business start-ups or investments. This was particularly rough on the economy.

Although prevented from holding many jobs or owning land, Jews were legally allowed to lend money. Charging interest was one of the few sources of legitimate income available to a Jew in England in Shakespeare’s day.

Looked at in the context of the times, it is incredible that Shakespeare was able to write and produce a play in which a Jew could hold such an important part.
Certainly in some ways Shylock is a caricature, but everything he does and says is perfectly understandable in the historical context.

Even more importantly, he delivers some of the most powerful dialogue ever to address the issue of racism:

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh?
if you poison us, do we not die? “

–Shylock, William Shakespeare’s A Merchant of Venice

Shylock made Jews real. You might not like him, but there is no question of his humanity. And although Shylock is the villain of the piece, his daughter Jessica is also a Jew. Of course Jessica is quite ready to throw away her heritage to be accepted in the wider world in which she lives. Just like any normal girl.

Huckleberry Finn frontispiece preserved by Project Gutenberg, illustration by E.W. Kemple 1884

What an amazing window into history. What an incredible opportunity to discuss perception, religion, race and even human rights. What better place to deal with it but within the education system. Banning “A Merchant of Venice” teaches that it’s best to sweep what we don’t like under the carpet.

That doesn’t address problems, or overcome them. When we bury a social problem like racism, we just drive it underground.
When that happens, it is almost inevitable that it will gather force in the dark, and come back as a more resistant strain.
We need to look racism in the eye and say “that’s wrong.”
If we don’t, it grows and spreads.

How has the world changed since Martin Luther King Jr.‘s day?

I suspect Dr. King would not be happy to see so many citizen protections that existed even before his Civil Rights movement have been curtailed. I kind of think Dr. King would prefer to see a little more citizen protection. I can’t imagine he would be glad to see the erosion of civil rights he fought for.

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

- George Santayana, eire.com: QUOTES ABOUT HISTORY



Image credit: Fair use of black & white publicity Frankenweenie still portrait of named title character from the early Tim Burton short film.

A.F. Bradley’s 1909 Photograph of Mark Twain, internationally available in the public domain, downloaded from WikiMedia Commons.

From Wikipedia Public Domain engraving of William Shakespeare, Title page of the First Folio, by William Shakespeare, with copper engraving of the author by Martin Droeshout. Image courtesy of the Elizabeth Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Project Gutenberg’s preservation of the Public Domain work Huckleberry Finn provided this E.W. Kemble frontispiece illustration of Huck from 1884

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4 Responses

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  1. Well, well! It looks like the CRTC is taking action to make the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) reconsider their decision. Of course, 300 letters from the public protesting the CBSC decision probably had some bearing on that action…

    –Bob.

    Bob Jonkman

    January 21, 2011 at 7:46 pm

  2. [...] censorship and children But as a parent, there were things I knew would disturb him. Being in tune with my child, I was uniquely positioned to have a good idea what protection was necessary. For instance, in the early years, good guys could never die. As he grew and learned acquired the ability to protect himself, the terms of censorship changed. Before he was 18 he had acquired enough maturity that external parental censorship was no longer necessary. [...]

  3. I’m surprised you didn’t make an example of today’s controversy over the lyrics in “Money for Nothing”:

    That little faggot with the earring and the make-up
    Yeah, buddy, that’s his own hair
    That little faggot’s got his own jet airplane
    That little faggot, he’s a millionaire

    Of course, songwriter Mark Knoppfler points out that this is from the point-of-view of of a stupid character who thinks musicians make their ‘money for nothing’ and his stupidity is what leads him to make ignorant statements.

    p2pnet news has all the details.

    –Bob.

    Bob Jonkman

    January 19, 2011 at 12:21 am

    • Between novel prep & blogging I’ve actually been quite out of touch today; controversy? What controversy…. (off to visit p2pnews….)

      Laurel L. Russwurm

      January 19, 2011 at 1:04 am


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