Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Discomfort Offensive

     Nicki at The Liberty Zone cites the most egregious case I’ve seen so far:

     Mark Twain’s classic has always been the subject of controversy. It its early days, racists condemned the novel for positively portraying a friendship between a white boy and a black man.

     Today, Special SnowflakesTM demand its removal from schools and libraries, because it chafes their fragile labia.

     This week, a Montgomery County school removed Huckleberry Finn from its curriculum after a group of students said the book made them uncomfortable.

     After a forum for students and faculty, the administration of Friends’ Central School decided to strike the book from the 11th-grade American literature class, principal Art Hall said in a letter to parents this week.

     “We have all come to the conclusion that the community costs of reading this book in 11th grade outweigh the literary benefits,” Hall said in his letter.

     That Twain’s markedly countercultural novel, hailed for decades as among the most rebellious books of its era, should be excluded from a high-school curriculum is disturbing enough. But it’s my responsibility to plumb the implications and secondary consequences of such phenomena, and I take my responsibilities seriously.

     Let’s postulate that there were – hopefully, there were and still are – instructors at that high school who wanted their classes to read Huck. The “discomfort offensive” has just undermined their lesson plans. Indeed, it’s cut into their vaunted “academic freedom.” Do you imagine we’ll hear from the teachers’ unions about that? If so, to what effect?

     If there’s a “right not to be uncomfortable,” can children assert it against their parents? Against other authority figures?

     But let’s not stop short. The “right not to be uncomfortable,” if it’s truly a right, belongs to everyone. Individuals could assert it against their neighbors. Employees could assert it against their supervisors. Litigants could assert it against one another during a trial. Members of legislatures could assert it against their colleagues. And you may take it as written in the stars that it will be asserted, by all those folks and others that haven’t yet occurred to me at this early hour.

     Scared yet? If not, I prescribe more coffee.

     I’ve written before about rights and how they differ from other kinds of claims. Probably the most important statement anyone could make about rights comes from one of my fictional characters:

     "But there's still quite a lot unexplained, big guy. Like that baby in Terry's arms, when Teodor swore by the host of the Great Sacrifice that you and she could never conceive. And what's become of your little kingdom in the wastes. And just how much exploring you intend to do, and how. What should we brace for? Doesn't Hope have a right to know?"
     Armand regarded her steadily for a long moment. Though the rest of the family had departed the kitchen before he'd returned, the sense that the entire mansion was listening intently to his every word was unshakable.
     "Mom," he said, "maybe you should sit down."
     She nodded, squeezed his hand, and sat next to Teresza and Valerie. The baby cooed at her, and she put a gentle finger to the infant's cheek.
     "First we'll do the question you've wanted to ask for months. Our baby's name is Valerie. She's a child of rape. We adopted her a few days after I executed the man who raped her biological mother."
     A murmur circled the table.
     "What's the matter, gang? Isn't that what we do down here in civilized society? It's just that up there where your outcasts live, keeping the pecking order neat is a little bit more important than getting community buy-in. If you want to see justice done, you'd better be the biggest, toughest guy around, and maybe have a little something extra on top of that. Guess who that was in the fair city of Defiance?"
     He swept the table with his gaze. No one spoke.
     "As for my little 'kingdom,' they gave me a nice sendoff, and I told them I'd be back if I could manage it. I didn't promise; it might have turned out to be something I can't deliver. I won't know until I've finished my exploring. But I'll say this much: they deserve to have a lot better life than they've got. Most of them, anyway. Say, did you know that they were confined there? That the Midgard Spacehawk battery has been incinerating anyone who comes south over the land bridge? Until recently, that is. So have the grace to speak no ill of them while I'm still in town and above ground."
     "Armand --" Chuck started.
     "Shut up, roomie. Chary led you into this, didn't she? She asked the questions, and she'll have her answers, here and now. And then you can decide whether her favor is enough recompense for your sarcasm and your angry glare."
     The muscles in Chuck's jaw rippled, but he said no more.
     Armand smiled. "Thanks for your forbearance. Last but certainly not least, Hope's 'right to know.' You've studied rights theory, Chuck. We talked about it a few times, back when. 'Rights are those things you can morally acquire or defend by the use of force.' Those were your words, as nearly as I can recall them. How close did I come?"
     Chuck nodded, his eyes wary.
     "Well, what's your opinion of 'Hope's right to know?' Do the hundred million people not sitting at this table have any right to beat my intentions out of me? Does it have any bearing on the question that I don't know them myself?"

     Therein lie the ultimate implications of “a right not to be uncomfortable.”

     Still think you shouldn’t spank your kids when they're naughty, Gentle Reader?


Hans said...

Life is uncomfortable.

Learn to live with that fact, or exit now.

Tim Turner said...

Bear with me for a moment. That right to not be uncomfortable is already far more ingrained than you might suspect.

Christians used to burn people at the stake. Much of the world used to enslave people. So many atrocities have been committed by so many peoples throughout history that it would be impossible to be "fair" trying to list them.

Those are *facts.* One can argue that those facts represent wrong behavior. But, as Fran has so eloquently expressed, they are true, no matter what you do, say or believe.

Some people refer to whites as "crackers." Throughout history, people have referred to others in what are often derogatory terms. I've heard "wop," "spic," "gook," "raghead" and "kike" in my own lifetime. "Haole" and "gaijin" are examples from other cultures.

And yet, in a discussion about why Huckleberry Finn was taken out of a school's curriculum, the linked article could NOT mention the reason why: people used to refer to blacks as "niggers."

It's not just that people are offended by a book reflecting speech used 130 year ago. A modern NEWS paper can't even report it.

Then again, I guess I'm being oversensitive. If a Quaker school had chosen not to teach Catcher in the Rye because it uses the word, "fuck," the paper would probably not have used that word, either.

I guess I need help, Fran. If we expect our politicians, reporters, Disney movies and newspapers not to use offensive language, is it really such a stretch for a school to decide that a book - despite its other qualities - be set aside?