Archived Opinion

Words have a power we often forget

Just as I was sitting down to write my column on the controversy surrounding a new edition of Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which an Auburn University professor plans to publish with the intention of replacing the “N” word with the word “slave,” news of the tragedy in Arizona began to break. Even before the horrific facts of the tragedy were fully established — six dead, a congresswoman shot in the head and fighting for her life in the hospital, 14 injured, the suspected shooter in custody — commentary began to appear on the Internet ascribing blame for the shooting on the vitriolic tone that is so pervasive in modern politics, particularly from the right wing.

“I think the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business and what (we) see on TV and how our youngsters are being raised, that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in,” said Pima County, Arizona, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik at a press conference within hours of the shooting. “And I think it’s time that we do the soul-searching.”

Sheriff Dupnik’s comments have touched off a national debate on the power and influence of language, which is more or less the thesis I set out to explore with the recently censored edition of Huck Finn. Advocates of the new version of the book point to the potential harm to self-esteem the repetitive use of the word “nigger” in the novel might cause for young, vulnerable readers. Others fear that exposure to the word might result in its continued use as a racial slur among students looking for a way to justify bad behavior.

In both of these cases — different as they are — the issue seems to be the power of language to inflict damage, and what measures we, as a society, are willing to go to as a possible remedy. As ugly as the ‘N’ word is, are we ready to accept the censorship of what many consider to be the greatest of all American novels in order to avoid exposing students to it, even taking into consideration the context in which the book was written and the word used, not to mention the major themes of the book, not least of which is that the institution of slavery was profoundly wrong and immoral? Twain used the ‘N’ word, at least in part, to demonstrate man’s inhumanity to man. Remember, in helping the slave Jim escape — in learning to see him as a human being and not “property” — Huck becomes an “outlaw” and believes that his actions will cause him to “go to hell.”

When the “N” word is “erased” from the book, the power, context, and authenticity of the novel are severely compromised, and the lesson lessened, if you will. Censorship is not the answer; understanding is.

On the other hand, there is perhaps no way to understand the mindset of a 21-year-old man who goes on a killing spree on sunny Saturday morning in Tuscon. I have not read any conclusive studies done on these mass murderers, but doesn’t it always seem as if they are cut from the same piece of cloth? Invariably, they are young male loners who have struggled to fit in anywhere or find a coherent meaning in life.

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In this latest instance, the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, had posted messages on YouTube in which he rambled on about issues he had with “informing conscience dreamers about a new currency.” According to friends and teachers, he had a tenuous relationship with reality, at best, and had been kicked out of a local community college until he agreed to seek psychiatric help.

All of this makes it difficult to draw a straight line from the likes of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh to Jared Loughner. On the other hand, when Sarah Palin has a Web site with a map in which Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, one of the victims in the shooting, is listed as a “target” — complete with crosshairs — and when Palin tweets inane messages that exhort her followers, “Don’t retreat, instead RELOAD,” it is fair to debate how much of this kind of rhetoric adds to a climate in which violence is perceived as an acceptable solution to political disagreement.

As with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the answer is not censorship. It is taking responsibility for one’s actions — and words. And it is holding those who do not act responsibly accountable for their actions, rather than remaining silent.

“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

So Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said in 1927. True then, and true now. Whether or not Jared Loughner shot a bunch of people because someone told him to reload rather than retreat, we must stand up and speak out when the Sarah Palins of the world use the threat of violence — even if it intended as a lame metaphor — in an effort to incite their followers. The remedy is not censorship. It is telling them their 15minutes are up, and showing them the way off of the American stage.


(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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