Should 'the deplorable word' make us rethink literature?

Is the use of racist language cause to condemn literature and television shows, or should the offensive words be viewed in their original context, asks Caroline Delaney
Should 'the deplorable word' make us rethink literature?

Is the use of racist language cause to condemn literature and television shows, or should the offensive words be viewed in their original context, asks Caroline Delaney

Mark Twain whose works contain racist language.
Mark Twain whose works contain racist language.

There’s a character in a children’s book who instantly ends a whole world by uttering a one-word curse. This curse is so bad that we are never told what it is — it is just referred to as ‘the Deplorable word’.

The ‘deplorable word’ of the Narnia by CS Lewis books has been interpreted by some as a metaphor for the atomic bomb. But in this era of free speech, when almost everyone can have a voice through newspaper letters pages or social media, there's another deplorable word.

This word, the n-word, is a verbal atomic bomb. Just like dropping the atomic bomb ‘only’ involved pressing a button, for a white person to call someone this word is to ‘only’ utter two syllables but it drops 15 kilotons of brutal and cruel history into that interaction in a second.

Staying with weapons metaphors, as one Irish political figure discovered recently, the blowback from even uttering that word to condemn racism can be pretty devastating too.

Only a fool would deny that the word has been used by vile people with vile intentions for quite some time now. And let’s not play games now and pretend it’s just urban slang or a derivative of the name of a river or a country in Africa. This unsayable word belongs far away from games and from six-year-olds.

CS Lewis
CS Lewis

Yes, it's true that language evolves and meanings change and are corrupted and hijacked. Closer to home we once had the Cork Spastic Clinic — established in 1955 to help people with cerebral palsy. The medical term "spastic" came from the spasticity or stiffness of limbs associated with the condition. However, cruelty and ignorance meant the medical terminology was stolen by some as a term of disparagement and diminishment. A name change may not have wiped out ignorance but it definitely signified a greater understanding and awareness of the power of language.

But what does this mean for existing literature? What now for classic books such as Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn?

Twain himself warns that "persons attempting to find a moral in it [this book] will be banished". Can a book that has the n-word on almost every page. -200 times approx- have anything valid or relevant to say about anything?

The book describes the appalling cruelty of slavery and of racial segregation. Scenes in which black families are sold and separated are described as "break[ing] their hearts for grief". The main character, Huck, says: "it almost made me sick to see it...I can't ever get it out of my memory."

The characters who are unmoved by these cruelties are typically shown to be corrupt, cowardly and generally awful in other aspects of their lives too.

Would a child — or adult — be able to read this book and discern the context? Or do we need the offending word removed and replaced with 'african-american' or 'slave'? Can we take out the word and keep everything else?

A similar issue has arisen with books by Agatha Christie. Some characters were racist and used racist terms. Plenty of those characters ended up dead or imprisoned — as might be expected in books written by the 'queen of crime'. One book which took its title from a racist rhyme had a complete title change and is now called 'And Then There Were None'.

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie

The books may well continue to cause debate nearly 100 years on as the BBC and ITV streaming service has acquired rights to several new Agatha Christie films, TV shows, and audio plays.

Once-popular TV series have been dropped from streaming catalogues due to sensitivity over some of the content.

Fawlty Towers and Little Britain have been criticised for raising race issues in what may be seen as a clunky or too frivolous manner.

I had to look up episodes of 1970s sitcom Rising Damp recently to see if they were as I remembered them. Yup, plenty racist cracks and allusions there for sure. But as with the recent Dáil utterance, context is everything. The racist character in this comedy series is the miserable, wizened landlord, Rupert Rigsby. He persists, in the face of all evidence, in believing that people of colour are uneducated and savage. He's ignorant, petty and mean - and racist - alright. Would he actually inspire anyone to want to be like him. And the immediate target of his racism is his tenant — student, Philip Smith, played by Don Warrington. He is witty, debonair, calm and intelligent — and very handsome. There are racist words, views and slurs aplenty but are they enough to see it dumped forever or should the entire context be considered?

The use of words to bring discord and harm is apparent every time US president, Donald Trump brays something. How you hear and react to them is up to you. For some, he is a wise orator mocked by liberals and corrupt media. For others, he can cause extreme abrasion even by just drawing a breath to speak. He may not understand every word he uses but he understands the power of enough of the right or wrong ones. He is using words to unite certain groups of people together — the disparaging references to 'asians' and 'eye-rack' are just some examples.

And yet, he may also be bringing about more a different unity and agreement than he intended. Comedian, Sarah Cooper, has surged to 1.3million followers since she began releasing brilliant-timed satirical lip-sync impressions of Donald Trump.

Silently, with a single eye-roll or ironically baffled look she uses his own words to unite more people than ever attended Trump's inauguration.

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