This is not about to be a blog extolling the virtues of reading; I assume…
Sensitive Readers: A sensible approach to publishing or a worrying disempowerment of freedom of speech?
Pause long enough in a second hand bookshop and it won’t be long before you stumble across a volume that contains stereotyped portrayals of groups of people or views that belong to a bygone era. The very vocabulary and sentence structure may well suggest antiquity as society evolves around and through us. Indeed thoughts, assumptions and views that allow us to peer backwards at society that once upon a time was ‘modern’ provide an interesting social history that makes up our fabric of society just as significant historical events clutter our text book timelines.
So now let us turn our attention to the new(ish) phenomena of being able to hire ‘sensitive readers’ (Guardian April 2018). An editor or an author can hire people to read manuscripts from a specific perspective to ensure that the published work does not offend a particular group of people or indeed, however consciously or unconsciously, propagate a view that some may find unacceptable. Clearly a second hand bookshop would be ill advised to hire such a service to vet the stock as there would be a very limited selection of books left after such a culling!
Does the very act of editing to avoid offence result in an airbrushing of society so that when ‘modern’ life becomes history a skewed impression will be left? Some views are unpalatable, some views demonstrate a lack of understanding but that these views exist is undisputed. They are the ‘truth’ of our society. We can educate and question. We can probe and pry, challenging assumptions and through this process of evolution we, the humble members of our ‘modern’ society, are empowered to shape our future and reminisce on our past with clear, untainted glasses.
Could such editing also result in a lack of empowerment? Rather as the parent makes a home environment as hazard free as possible for their toddler is this in effect what will happen to books? A ‘safe’ hazard free environment in which we do not need to question because the very source of debate has carefully (albeit for honourable motives) been removed? A child, at some point, must learn to risk assess autonomously just as the literate adult must make a judgment on what they read. Books unlock worlds that we, as the engaged reader, have the opportunity to be stimulated by, to discuss, debate, enjoy and bask in the freedom that blossoms from every page.
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Surely it’s better for people to come across opposing (and even insensitive or offensive) material in the controlled environment of a book, anyway? Otherwise, how will the readers of these expurgated texts cope with either real-life interaction with people who hold opposite views or with the unregulated mayhem of social media? When reading a book, one can stop and consider and either formulate an answer to an opposing view or admit that there might be some truth in it; which means you’re better equipped to deal with it in other circumstances.
There is a similar phenomenon in the field of hymnody. Many hymn-books, particularly (but not exclusively) those from the Kevin Mayhew stable, now take it upon themselves to amend older texts to bring them into line with modern sensibilities about inclusive language. This, however worthy at first sight, in fact takes us right back to the Victorian editors of Hymns Ancient and Modern; who, believing themselves to be the pinnacle of human achievement, had no qualms about amending the words (and music) of earlier centuries. In both cases the result is the same: history is homogenised, and our Christian ancestors are presented as being just like us, instead of appearing in their original diversity. Even worse, tin-eared copy-editors think themselves qualified to amend the phrasing of a Robert Bridges or a John Mason Neale, with often painful results: the worst one I know is where someone changed Neale’s line ‘Man in wine Christ’s blood partaketh’ to ‘We in wine Christ’s blood partaketh’! Bring back the principles of the English Hymnal, I say . . .