Apparently, I have no problem with censorship … provided I’m the one securing the muzzle. This self-awareness forced a dissonance between my belief in the power of language and an artist’s creative freedom. It appears I can be a hypocrite, as well.
Let me back up a little.
My wife and I have two twenty-something daughters, each nearing the end of her post-secondary schooling and eager to establish her own home, leaving my wife and I to think seriously about the downsizing on the horizon. To that end, we recently began a campaign of purging, one room at a time. First room: toys, books, and piles of digital entertainment. With streaming services, the collections of CDs, DVDs, and VHS tapes were ripe for removal. This took longer and was more painful than I anticipated; it is very difficult to part with the past. To ease the process of letting go, I claimed a few souvenirs.
I needed to keep my CD equivalents of the iconic ‘mixed tape’ – some represent hours of painstaking digital capture of my vinyl collection. While enjoying a playback stroll down memory lane, I stumbled across a song to which I had taken my splicing knife, deleting offending lyrics. I did a pretty good job, too; the splice is seamless.
I had cleaned up a song chosen for Grad by the Class of 2003, to give it a ‘G’ rating for a family audience. No one would hear Semisonic call for customers to “finish your whiskey and beer”, which would be highly inappropriate only minutes before the class boarded a school bus headed for a Dry Grad event! I recalled the editing process with some pride in its precision, and remembered just how easy it had been. I felt no qualms about this act of censorship – in fact, I felt a little self-righteous. It was for a good cause, after all. It was an interesting rationalization for a student of literature, a lover of words, and an advocate for free thought!
By coincidence (or perhaps, in this case, with a touch of irony), among the books marked for purging was a title from my early days of teaching. And, this novel included an essay that surfaced my hypocrisy.
Among my very first teaching assignments was an English 10 class. They were an amazing group of students, and they devoured everything I put down. Because it was a recommended resource for grade 10 language arts back then, one of the novels we read and studied was Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Maybe the irony is coming into focus for readers now. This particular edition included an essay written by Bradbury when he discovered that editors at Ballantine Books had censored some seventy-five separate sections of the novel, ‘cleaning it up’ so to speak. He wrote “CODA” to be included with the restored edition, ending the novel with his final word on the “sanctity of texts.”
In summary, Bradbury takes his editors to task for cleansing his work in the interest of appeasing a select audience. “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running around with lit matches.” He goes further to direct his condemnation at groups who would each “rip out a paragraph” if allowed to “interfere with aesthetics.” He writes that the “tip of the nose” of his books is where the rights of the public end and his “territorial imperatives begin, run and rule.” I can remember first reading his essay, finding inspiration in his defense of free thinking and expression. Funny how years later, while splicing another artist’s work, I was able to justify my actions without a conscious notion of what I was doing.
Today, I look backward at both the song and the essay with very different lenses formed through twenty-something years as a father, many more years as an educator, and now only a few months as a ‘student’ again as I work to understand my own biases and my own fragility when confronting racism.
In word and action, I have defended the preservation of some literary traditions, acknowledging to my students that the words and narratives spoke of a different time, one that would be unacceptable today. And although I wouldn’t read aloud the offending words, I would use the text nonetheless. In assigning content that reinforced a stereotype, I trusted that my students could make the intellectual distinction, separate it from their reality and not find offense in its lines. I cannot undo these actions, but I can commit to being better.
I can commit to educating myself. Ray Bradbury’s own essay suggests how, and it doesn’t call for a lit match – just a decision to part with past practice. Bradbury argues that those who would object to his works can select otherwise. This same solution would have served me for the Class of 2003. I did not have to practice doublethink and censor the artist; I simply had to choose a different song. Students could listen to their chosen song, lyrics intact, on their own time. When delivering to a ‘captive’ audience, I must choose materials with respect and sensitivity. This requires that I first search within myself to recognize my biases, lay them aside and make conscious choices that preserve the dignity of my students rather than focusing on the preservation of a ‘classic’ and its institutions.
Better yet, audiences will make a choice for themselves when allowed. As educators, it is in our power and it is our responsibility to foster and encourage choice. No need to burn books. Libraries may remain full, with the ideas of writers through the ages preserved, but some volumes will gather more dust than others as the choices of a new generation determine what has value and what can remain on the shelf.