Sunday, 22 October 2017

The sleep of

political correctness

The basic function of literature, apart from being an entertainment, is to raise questions with the aim of both forming the social and private identity of people, and developing their thinking and linguistic expression. This is the reason, in brief, that it has been included in school curricula and is at the heart of the Humanities. You would, therefore, expect that such practices* would be applied widely, particularly in countries such as the US, where there is a strong need for dynamic narratives and guidance against inequality and racism.

On the contrary. According to this article, ten days ago, Harper Lee's classic "To Kill a Mockingbird" was banned from the reading list of a junior's high in Biloxi (Mississippi) because of a word which "makes people uncomfortable". This word is "nigger" – an extremely offensive term used by white people, esp. in the US, to insult and humiliate a black person. Because of its racist use, this word has been gradually deleted from the American pop culture. However, it still appears in great works of classic American literature and it, still, sparks controversy. Last year, this word was the reason that Lee's book, along with "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", were removed from classrooms and school libraries in Accomack County, Virginia. It came after the mother of a mixed race child said at a school board meeting: "I'm not disputing that this is great literature, but there is so much racial slur in there, and offensive words that you can’t get past, and right now we are a nation already divided." She adds: "What are we teaching our children? We are confirming that these words are acceptable. They are not acceptable. We are really divided. We will lose our children if we continue to say that's okay, that we value these words when we should not."

I wonder: Won't they lose them if the children don't learn to think on their own so they can evaluate the words and not just repeat them by heart? A simple word that was used in Spanish, in a neutral mode, to describe people with dark skin has come to incorporate in its definition the whole life (i.e.:
ethnicity, well-being, the quality of being "black", the supremacy of "white", social cohesion, social inclusion / exclusion, etc.) of African-Americans (both as social capital and as bearers of an identity) for more than half a century. This is why it carries a particularly significant value. It is precisely this collective memory, according to Natacha Polony, that children must be taught in order not to lose themselves. If children don't read about their past, how will they learn that the world was not always as it is today? That it became much better owing to the struggles and bloody fights of the previous generations? How will the children learn to react in the face of authoritarian attitude of ignorant, uneducated people? How will they contribute to their community if they don't read/ask-questions about and discuss the other side of things? Speaking of which, why is it called dark?

Last year, a committee was set up to assess whether these books should be banned on a permanent basis - apart from racist words, Lee's book contains extensive references to violence, sex and rape. I took for granted that they would consider these issues (and many more that arise) and will, ultimately, set things on their proper frame, backing up the role of a teacher and the important use of literature in it.  However, Virginia's Accomack County decision, where 37% of its 5000 pupils (= 1850 children) are coloured, was to ban the book from both the curricula and the local school libraries.

This year, being both an administrative and department decision, it remains the same. Those who should set an example with their strong stance
against stereotypes, inequality and racism and in favour of pluralism in knowledge and literacy, chose the most convenient, fast-track, solution. "... we can teach the same lesson with other books. It’s still in our library. But they’re going to use another book in the eighth-grade course.” the vice-president of the Biloxi school board said.

I do not know why I'm writing about these incidents - the literature of belonging doesn't seem to relate to us here in Greece, in Europe. Unfortunately, however, it does and this is why, adding considerably to the notion that one-dimensional, linear, thinking is powerful and diffuses extremely easily.  So, I couldn't help it: more than children, adults are those who should be taught that reading literature is not just reading aloud the words.

* A conference held by the University of Thessaloniki, Greece, examining the ways of reading literature at home, at school and in communities/society.

Notes: In both cases, the teachers –and some thoughtful, open-minded parents, I suppose–  objected strongly to the ban. In Virginia, they succeeded in withdrawing it. // The photograph is a screenshot of the novel's adaptation for the cinema in 1962, two years after its publication. Gregory Peck, who starred, won one of the three Academy Awards the film got.

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