Monday, July 18, 2011

The C Word – On P.C. Cast, Incendiary Language and the Responsibility of Free Speech

by Ceilidh 

Few topics make the book blogging masses rise to defense quite like that of censorship, especially in YA, which is heavily targeted by those who challenge libraries and schools for their literary content. We at the Book Lantern are very anti-censorship – it’s a lazy way to avoid tough topics and it only serves to make us all stupider and more willfully ignorant – and we will continue to stand up against threats of banning in libraries, schools, bookshops, etc, because knowledge is power and it should be used to all its power.

However, with great power comes great responsibility, and this is where today’s topic lies. A comment left on the blog of author P.C. Cast,  co-writer of the bestselling House of Night series, from a commenter named Melissa expressed concern over a particular word choice Cast made:

“My daughter was really interested in starting your HON series. I try to read most of the books before I let her have a go at them. I was offended and a little surprised at the use of "retard" in your book Marked. Needless to say my daughter isn't going to be reading them and I am working on getting the series removed from the District library. As adults really, you should be ashamed of yourselves. Try checking out”

P.C. Cast responded thusly:

“Melissa - try checking out You have the right to decide for your family what they can and can't read. You do not have the right to decide for anyone else. But while you're busily trying to nullify a whole bunch of people's First Amendment rights because you don't like a word in a book you didn't even bother to finish reading, why don't you also petition your district to yank copies of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD? Nigger is a way more offensive word than retard, and it's all over that book. Speaking of, you should also insist Mark Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FIN be banned because there's definitely an offensive word used in there by children. Stick Shakespeare under your moral magnifying glass as well. I taught ROMEO AND JULIET to ninth graders for years, and I promise you there are seriously offensive words in that thing. Wow, that reminds me, Euripides' tragedy, MEDEA (which I also taught), doesn't just have offensive words in it - kids are actually killed - by their mommy! Better ban that.

My point, Melissa, is that once one person or a group of like-minded people decide that they have the right to choose for others what they read, think, say, write – it has no end.

It's a shame you didn't finish reading my series (or even that one book). My characters consistently deal with people who make snap judgments, and through situations that arise because of those faulty judgments they learn to look deeper and use better sense. That's a good lesson for many people to learn.”

Now let me clear this up – I do not agree with Melissa’s desire to remove the book from her district library. She does have the right to monitor her child’s reading choices (something I wish more parents did – come on book banners, try talking to your kids and taking some responsibility instead of blaming the evil books!) but not to decide for the general public. However, I think Cast completely missed the point as to why Melissa was angry.

The ‘r’ word is a disgusting word that degrades and offends those with disabilities, even if it’s not used directly towards the disabled. To appropriate such a word in place of calling one stupid or a similar insult creates all sorts of problems. To allow such offensive language to go unchallenged allows it to become a normal part of our life to the point where we forget how offensive it is. The same applies to using ‘gay’ as an insult, as well as other degrading insults to LGBTQs (e.g. the ‘f’ word, ‘tranny’), people of colour (which I won’t repeat here because Cast already has), women (bitches, whores, other slut-shaming terms), etc.

Cast says that what she does is perfectly in line with free speech and the constitution, and that’s all well and good. While it’s true that fiction isn’t all sunshine and roses, Cast writes an extremely popular YA series with a massive reader-base predominantly made up of teenage girls. I’ve frequently discussed the responsibility that comes with writing for an impressionable audience and the need to not rose-tint and romanticise, be it anti-feminism, abusive relationships, slut-shaming, or any of the myriad of issues I’ve written about before.

For the literary examples Cast used to defend her word choice, the same situations do not apply to her. Huckleberry Finn’s frequent use of the ‘n’ word serves to show the deep seated racism of the time period and how such a harmful word became so normal for a child to use. Shakespearean and the Greek tragedies were not intended for a predominantly teenage audience, and the dramatic tropes were prevalent throughout all such theatre of their time periods. Cast writes a paranormal romance YA series set in the 21st century. While I have only read the first book in full, the one which Melissa takes issue with, I can confirm that the use of the ‘r’ word is not to make a point or to demonstrate the harmful power of such words, it’s a childish attempt to insult someone. Nobody is reprimanded for using the word, it’s just casually tossed into the narration to describe two characters. It was offensive (as was Cast’s rampant stereotyping of the token gay character, the slut-shaming of the female antagonist and the general quality of the writing, but I’ve already reviewed that book at length.)

Would the comments section in Cast’s blog have been so supportive of her had she used the free speech card to defend a racist comment she had made? I highly doubt it. Sadly, there are still some terms that are considered acceptable to use, no matter how offensive they are, and it seems that the ‘r’ word is one of them. This is demonstrated not only by Cast’s use of the word (if I remember correctly, the term is used more than once but I don’t have a copy of the book at hand to check) but by her editors and publishers allowing the word to remain. In the realm of YA, social responsibility has become more prevalent in recent times. There’s still a long way to go and it doesn’t start or stop with YA; this is a much wider issue that runs deep through our media, culture and history. It can’t be fixed with a snap of one’s fingers, but change can start in small places. I think YA is one of the places that can make that change, especially since it reaches a more impressionable audience. P.C. Cast has an inherent responsibility as an author to young adults, whether she likes to admit it or not. YA is just one of the areas of entertainment that shapes our public attitudes and reasserts stereotypes and harmful assumptions, intentional or not.

Censorship is not the answer. We have to have the proper discussions about language and words, as well as the powerful roles they play. I heartily recommend this clip of Professor Melissa Harris-Perry discussing the issue of the censoring of Huck Finn a few months ago for some proper context on that issue. The commenter Melissa should not have the book removed from her district library because censorship is never the answer. We don’t need to let ignorance reign superior over our world any more than it already does, and banning books just because they present a different world view one small group of people has an issue with creates more problems than it solves. However, I do support the fight against using incendiary and hurtful language in all media, especially YA. Speaking out against problematic content is not condoning censorship; it’s a desire for change. This also raises the issue of what is and isn’t appropriate for YA but that’s a hot button topic blog post for another day! I hope Cast takes time to read that website and understand that free speech can have its repercussions and that we can use that power for positive change.

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