This week, the book world sees the launch of an app. called Clean Reader, which claims to remove profanity from e-books, and replace them with “more acceptable” words with more or less the same meaning.
At first sight, this may seem to some to be a reasonable idea; not unlike the programs used by parents to ensure that their children are not exposed to unsuitable material online. But closer inspection of the idea shows how problematic this apparently simple idea is likely to be in practice.
First, what counts as “profanity”? Close inspection of the “acceptable alternatives” suggests a very strong Christian bias. Therefore, “Oh my God!” becomes “oh my goodness!” “Jesus Christ” becomes “geez” and so on. “Bitch” becomes “witch” (bad news for modern pagans), and by now we’re already beginning to see some obvious problems emerging.
The fact is that these “acceptable alternatives” are all taken from modern American slang, and not only do some of them make no sense in the context of English literature, they are likely to be far more intrusive (and potentially, more offensive) than the word they are meant to replace.
Body parts have often been the target for censorship, and Clean Reader seems, not only determined to remove all mention of them from your reading experience, but also to make it as difficult as possible to distinguish one from the other. Therefore, “vagina”, “anus”, “buttocks” and “clitoris” all become “bottom”, which seems to me not only anatomically incorrect, but also pointlessly repetitive (as well as potentially dangerous).
This excellent blog post by Jennifer Porter goes into further detail of how much is lost in translation, and gives more of an insight into the words judged acceptable (“boobs” apparently, are bad, although “rape” seems to be okay).
However, for me, the main issue is not one of vocabulary, but one of censorship.
Most writers think very hard about the kind of language they use. Some of us are well-nigh obsessive about our choice of words – and those of us who are published in the US often have to fight to retain our British spellings and vocabulary. We do this because we care about books. We care about language. And if we use profanity (which sometimes, we do) it is always for a reason. Sometimes it’s about trying to achieve authenticity in dialogue. Sometimes it’s about making an impact. Either way, good writers do not use words indiscriminately, but choose to use certain words, having thought long and hard about their use. Editors often suggest changes to the text, but no-one, not even the publisher, is allowed to impose changes, or to republish a censored, abridged or altered version of a text without the permission of the author.
Except, perhaps, in the case of Clean Reader.
Apps like Clean Reader change the text without the author’s permission. They take the author’s words and replace them – sometimes very clumsily – on the basis of some perceived idea of “bad words” versus “good words”. No permission is sought, or granted. There is no opt-out clause for authors or publishers. This is censorship, not by the State, but by a religious minority, and if you think it sounds trivial, take a moment to think about this:
The Reformation brought about the destruction of over 90% of our country’s art heritage, including music, books and paintings.
The Nazis burnt countless works of art judged to be “degenerate”; including an estimated 45% of all existing Polish artwork.
ISIS are currently destroying antiquities and historical sites in the Middle East, including the ancient city of Nimrud, the walls of Nineveh and statues up to 8000 years old.
The Victorians bowdlerized and rewrote Classical myths and literature out of all recognition (they also converted hundreds of thousands of Egyptian mummies into fertilizer, having judged them of “no historical value”).
And all in the name of purity, morality and good taste.
Anyone who works with words understands their power. Words, if used correctly, can achieve almost anything. To tamper with what is written – however much we may dislike certain words and phrases – is to embrace censorship.
So what, I hear you ask? For goodness’s sake, it’s just a few words.
Well, we’ve been down this road before. We should know where it leads by now. It starts with blanking out a few words. It goes on to drape table legs and stick fig leaves onto statues. It progresses to denouncing gay or Jewish artists as “degenerate”. It ends with burning libraries and erasing whole civilizations from history.
Is that where we want to go?