tw: a few swear words ahead. Inevitably.
Thanks to a pretty awesome blog post by Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat), the recent app Clean Reader has been garnering quite a lot of attention – and not for necessarily good reasons.
In case you haven’t heard of it, Clean Reader is an app that replaces what it deems ‘profanities’ with more ‘acceptable’ alternatives, such as ‘bitch’ to ‘witch’, ‘oh my god’ to ‘oh my goodness’ and ‘vagina’, ‘anus’, ‘buttocks’ and ‘clitoris’ all to the unhelpfully ambiguous, and rather primary school-esque, ‘bottom’. There are clearly a lot of issues with such an app, not least the Christian-agenda undertones of the words it deems ‘profanities’ and the alternatives it provides; but there are bigger issues at stake here that need to be addressed.
Rage against the machine…
An app that judges a piece of literature and edits it according to its own cultural standards without the permission or awareness of the author, without the availability of the original to the reader, is an app that is pro-censorship.
Whilst I may not argue to the lengths that Harris does, that it is one of the logical steps towards the scale of censorship instigated by the Nazis or, more currently, ISIS, she does have a point. We are currently living in a time where freedom of speech is at the top of the media agenda – it is being discussed at every level; should Charlie Hebdo have published those cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed? should twitter trolls be imprisoned? Should figures who openly promote negativity towards multiculturalism such as Nigel Farage and Katie Hopkins be allowed the platform they are given?
We need to consider what an app like Clean Reader is doing, because it is doing more than just preventing 11 year olds from stumbling across a swear word in their bedtime reading. It is indirectly condoning and enabling unauthorised editing, and therefore censorship, of a literary text’s original form, and that is not compatible with the idea of freedom of speech.
The Death of the Author…
Roland Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author argued that once a text is written, the author’s control over the text is lost – the reader can determine any meaning they want from it. This is an interesting stimulus for discussion about the relationship between reader-writer-text and the meaning of meaning, but in terms of Clean Reader, this ‘death’ seems rather more sinister.
A good writer crafts language to his or her will and its success relies on how closely it follows what the text is trying to do; either convey a situation authentically, or emphasise certain words or phrases over others, or create an atmosphere purely through the associations certain phrases have – the list is endless. Whatever the intended effect, every word is crucial to a writer’s craft, and so an app that gives itself the authority to replace and edit whichever words it finds offensive, is perhaps the most offensive thing of all.
In the real world, some people swear and some don’t; some people have sex and some don’t – whatever your beliefs or cultural values, people are entitled to their opinions and to their own freedom of speech. The difference with fiction writing, is that it is just that – when an author uses a swear word in a text, it is not followed by a footnote that says ‘Hooray for swear words, everyone should swear!’. If being generous to other people befits a character, that character should be generous to other people; if swearing befits a character, they should swear – a writer’s ultimate aim is to write well, not prioritise any sort of ethical agenda (The Wolf of Wall Street would be ridiculous if Jordan Belfort used ‘flip’ every time he said ‘fuck’).
Fiction is an object of art and should be treated as such – as a whole, to be judged as it was created by the author, unedited, uncensored.
Let’s talk about sex, baby…
Salt-N-Pepa got it right when they wanted to ‘talk about sex’, namely, to talk about ‘all the good things and all the bad things’.
The media has become increasingly over-sexualised – after all, sex sells. But there is still an embarrassment that prevails about talking about sex in reality, in day-to-day conversation, which results in a dangerously skewed, glamorised and unrealistic image of sex that is being fed to younger adults, without the realistic and frank conversation that needs to follow. I’m not saying we should talk about the ins-and-outs (no pun intended) over breakfast, but parents especially have a responsibility to teach their children about life, and sex is an unavoidable sub-topic.
When an app censors not only swear words, but anatomically correct words such as ‘penis’ to ‘groin’, and ‘vagina’ and ‘clitoris’ to ‘bottom’, a harmful message about our bodies is being sent out, an automatic sexualisation of anatomy that then needs to be censored. Censorship of this kind promotes the idea of shame over certain parts of our body, that the difference between the ‘vulva’, the ‘vagina’ and the ‘clitoris’ is not to be known but covered up under the veiling, ‘safe’ word ‘bottom’. If a parent doesn’t want their child reading about sex, fine – but if in a non-sexual context, the word ‘breast’ is changed to ‘chest’, what message does that send? It assumes that ‘breast’ is automatically sexual, and therefore inappropriate. In the times of the #freethenipple campaign, and the contentiousness over breastfeeding in public, this is particularly poignant; a ‘breast’ is not an exclusively sexual object and should not be shamed through censorship as thus. Because that’s what censorship does – it places shame on the words its censors, an unhealthy abuse of language.
In theory, I don’t disagree with the creators’ intentions – they don’t personally want their children to encounter swear words in books or inappropriate material and that’s fine, that’s their prerogative. But I can’t help but feel uncomfortable about the real-life practicalities and implications of this app. Cultural beliefs vary but two things are vital if we are to live in an intellectually free society: a writer writes, an author has authority and nothing should change that.