Saturday, April 4, 2015

Clean Reader, Blasphemy, and the Value of Culture

I wasn't going to say anything about the Clean Reader app. Honestly, I wasn't. Anything that needs saying on the topic has been said, and quite well. Then I ran into this piece, in which Cory Doctorow makes a free-speech argument in favor. To be fair to Doctorow, he does agree with pretty much everybody sane in that he sees Clean Reader as a terrible idea; where he and I part ways is his insistence that the use of such an app doesn't violate authors' rights and that creating tools for creating derivative works by bowldlerizing their work - often in a clumsy and ham-handed manner.

For those who've not heard, Clean Reader is a filtering app for those who like to read books but fear that their heads might explode if they are exposed to profanity. You read that correctly: there are people so afraid of seeing naughty words that they will filter them out of their books. Many authors, of course, are incensed  by what they see as editing of their work without authorization; Clean Reader claims to get around this by not actually altering the stored text but merely filtering what appears on screen. This, to me, is a distinction without a difference; if what appears on-screen is an alteration of the original text, then the app has, in effect, created a derivative work. Living authors holding copyright do have both the legal and moral right to choose how their work is distributed and viewed.  (Doctorow has always taken an extreme and, to my eyes, silly anti-copyright stance. That's a topic for a later discussion).

In what I see as his misguided defense of Clean Reader, Doctorow says something extraordinary: Free Speech isn't just the right to express yourself, it's the right not to listen. To "not listen" in this context is not to simply not read a book which you might find offensive; it's to purchase a tool to alter your perception of the text so as to expunge those things which offend your sensibilities. It violates authorial intent to the point that, should I ever get around to finish writing something, I'd rather my work not be read at all than twisted in such a manner.

The bigger issue lies in the impulse to do things like this in the first place, an impulse which has two troubling aspects: The Right to Not Be Offended and the drive to Protect the Children.

Protecting the Children
My fellow godless New York liberals may laugh at the Clean Reader brigade, especially
Hawthorn's Nursery rhyme book,
edited for content
when it comes to the censoring of body parts ("vagina" is apparently a bad work in CleanReaderland). How many of us, however, would hand our kids a copy of the Chronicles of Narnia rather than, say Pullman's His Dark Materials? How many of us would have our children read from a Bible or Torah or Koran (and I mean read it with an open mind, not as a pretext for mockery or attacks)? How many would seek out - for ourselves or our children - intelligently written work with a viewpoint different than ours?

Make no mistake -Clean Reader is not only very, very easy to mock, but those mocking it are right. That doesn't mean that mockery is the only correct response or that we shouldn't look into a mirror. I'll make a confession myself; I've edited books for content as I read them to my young children. Chloe was a very sensitive small girl, so I'd gloss over really scary parts. There was also one scene - in The Berenstein Bears Bedtime Battle, in which our ursine family was saying prayers before bed. As we discussed before, my family is atheist; we don't do prayers, particularly the sort of explicitly Christian prayer the bears say before bed. So... I would skip the page. It's something one can get away with if before ones kids learn how to read. I'm not in bad company with this; Nathaniel Hawthorne (who may or may not have been the inspiration for our Nate's name, depending on which day you ask me) marked up some stories in a book of fairy-tales as "not to be read to [his daughter] Uma", and excised the worst bits. True story.

How do I feel about that today? I've grown more likely to share things that don't exactly fit our worldview - to an extent. Chloe did read the Narnia books, Christian allegory and all. Today I'm less likely to skip a "say your prayers" part of a story. Why? Because cultures or ideas different than mine shouldn't be painted as "scary" or "other" or as a big mystery. It should just be part of life - albeing different lives than ours.

Not Being Offended - Blasphemy and Trigger Warnings
This is something that's flitted in and out of the news over the past months, particularly with events like the attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper in France, Draw Mohammed Day and other such events. My position on this one is complicated; I see no value in deliberately causing offense for its own sake. Cruelty is not fun, nor is it useful social commentary. To deliberately attack for no other reason is not only cruel, it paradoxically cedes control of the conversation to those fundamentalists most focused on avoiding such imagery; drawing Mohammed just because someone told you not to do so is as much putting them in control of your expression as would doing the opposite.

More complicated is the idea of "trigger warnings" for contents which might hurt those who are trauma victims. This is something which certain online communities take quite seriously. Is it wise, or kind to censor - or at least label - depictions of rape, for example, in deference to rape victims who might not be in a proper headspace to view such things? I'd answer "perhaps", but it's clearly more complicated than that. There's plenty of great and quite important art and literature - from the very oldest writings through today - which depict quite painful topics. Should we slap trigger warnings on Shakespeare for violence, sex, and suicide, or - worse - create bowdlerized versions without uncomfortable themes (Disney Shakespeare, perhaps)? I'd say no to both,  as I see more value in art which contains some measure of darkness and of complexity. Yes, I believe in the cultural commons and in the right to create derivative works; in this respect I'm likely with Doctorow in saying that such a thing shouldn't be illegal. I'm also with him in thinking it without serious merit.

Is this smart?
I'll add that simple "search and replace" toys like the CleanReader app are pretty much useless for this; they'll miss, for example, the heavily-implied rape scene in AStreetcar Named Desire. Editting for content is problematic enough; if we must, we should do so mindfully.

The conclusion is the same regardless; creation of little islands within the greater culture in which not only are we not looking at the same thing, we look at ONLY those things which reinforce our worldview. The larger purpose of art - to inform, to challenge, to communicate new ideas - is replaced by literary comfort food, reinforcing the ideas with which we're already comfortable. While that might not be terrible - we all need comfort at times - I'd say that it is not enough. We should seek out ideas which challenge us, even those which offend us. 

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