Ignorance, Misrepresentation and Censorship

I’ve been wanting to write this post for over a week now, ever since I first heard the news story  that Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five had been removed from the reading list for a high school English class in Republic, Missouri. But, just as I don’t like to talk when I’m angry, I also don’t like to write when I’m angry. Well, I’m still angry, but I’m going to write a post anyway. 🙂 I’d like to say, too, that what finally lit my fire to do so was remembering another “Great moment in Censorship”: the 1985 “PMRC” senate hearings about labeling the content of certain music as objectionable and providing parental warning stickers. One hero of those hearings was the “relatively unobjectionable and mainstream” singer John Denver, who I’m sure many thought would come down on the side of the conservatives.

Denver dashed those hopes early by saying, “May I be very clear in that I am opposed to censorship of any kind in our society or anywhere else in the world.” As the moral watchdogs cringed he also explains why censorship occurs inthe first place, saying that “censorship occurs where some are afraid of the consequences of an informed and educated people.” Words to remember. A YouTube search of “PMRC hearings” will lead you to some great, inspirational video of artists eloquently defending their work and freedom of speech.

Anyway, to get back to the present day… In a nutshell, the Republic, Missouri story is that a “concerned parent” (who reportedly home schools his own children) complained about some of the reading material in the Republic High School curriculum, specifically that it contained too much foul language, sexual themes, and taught principles contrary to the Bible. I was able to find the Original opinion piece written by the concerned parent, Wesley Scroggins (pictured at the link below), which likely is different from the “official complaint” (if there was something that formal). It may be found online here There were three books targeted by Scroggins’ rant, and I’ll quote in full the paragraph that deals specifically with Slaughterhouse Five:

“In English, children are also required to read a book called ‘Slaughterhouse Five.’ This is a book that contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame. The ‘f word’ is plastered on almost every other page. The content ranges from naked men and women in cages together so that others can watch them having sex to God telling people that they better not mess with his loser, bum of a son, named Jesus Christ.”

Now, language is a beautiful thing, and the older I get the more I come to appreciate it. When writing or speaking, choices are inevitably made in how to describe things to convey the message you wish. In this light, I find Scroggins’ paragraph regarding Slaughterhouse Five and his choices regarding the language he uses both illuminating and irritating.

First, right off the bat he tells the readers that “children (CHILDREN!) are required to read…” One could also have just as readily said “students” are required to read, but the word “students” sounds a lot less “innocent” and “impressionable” than children. There is irony here too. In Chapter One of the book (which, for the record, is in fact subtitled “or The Children’s Crusade”) Vonnegut explains how he visits the home of Bernard O’Hare, a former war comrade and encounters hostility from O’Hare’s wife who, knowing Vonnegut is working on his book about the war, says “You were just babies then! But you’re not going to write it that way, are you? You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.” The “babies upstairs” referred to are Vonnegut’s and O’Hare’s children. One other thing Scroggins and the school administrators who “caved” to his pressure could consider: countless thousands who fought in the war described by Vonnegut in this book were young enough to be students at Republic High School. Is being old enough to fight and die in service to the country “age appropriate” while reading a book that is anti-war is not?

Second, I find it somewhat amusing that he refers to the work in question as “a book called Slaughterhouse Five.” To me, this is like saying to somebody, “I read a book (or saw a movie) called Gone With the Wind the other day.” When you say it that way, it sounds like you assume the audience has never heard of it. (or, maybe the writer had never heard of it and feels it needs to be couched in this language). If either are true in this case, it’s a shame. Slaughterhouse Five repeatedly makes lists like “The 100 Greatest novels of All Time” and the like. In spite of its renown, either Scroggins was ignorant of the book, or he insultingly assumes his readers are. I suspect some, maybe including him, might be insulted if I referred to Republic as “a town in a state called Missouri.”

Third, the choice of words is significant in the sentence “there is so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush in shame.” There is a lot of foul and obscene language in the book. Probably just the right amount to tell the story. Right or wrong, soldiers (and sailors, as he points out) tend to swear a lot. The writing wouldn’t ring true if there were a bunch of “gosh darns” and “son of a guns” in there. Scroggins’ choice to use “profane” may be telling here as well, since it implies a debasement or defilement of that which is considered holy. I admittedly don’t know the motives behind Mr. Scroggins’ complaint, but wouldn’t be surprised if this is where the heart of the matter lies.

Fourth, he invokes the forces of wild hyperbole when he says, “the f word is plastered on almost every other page.” I’ve read this book a couple times and, though my memory is sometimes poor, I didn’t remember it as THAT rampant. SO, I’ve started reading it again. I’m up to page sixty (of 213 pages in my edition), and there have been two “f-bombs” dropped so far. Maybe things will pick up, but “almost every other page?” Come, now. Oh, and I should add that it’s not “plastered” either. It is not bold-typed or a larger font, or italicized either. It looks like all the other words. Such an exaggeration is either deliberately misleading or indicates an unfamiliarity with the text. Both are irresponsible in this case.

Fifth, he characterizes the content of the novel as including “naked men and women in cages together so others can watch them having sex.” Literally, this one is ALMOST correct. Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack (and that’s ONE man and ONE woman, not “men and women”) are kept in a cage in hopes that they will “mate” and have children. What Scroggins doesn’t include is the context (a favorite tactic used by those whose strategy is to mislead). Billy & Montana are kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians (aliens) and kept in something akin to a zoo exhibit on the planet Trafalmadore. In that context, the content sounds a lot less salacious, doesn’t it?

Lastly, what I suspect bothered Scroggins the most, is the content of “God telling people that they better not mess with his loser, bum of a son, named Jesus Christ.” I think Scroggins is here referring to a section of Chapter Five, where a (fictional) science fiction book by Kilgore Trout titled “The Gospel from Outer Space” is being discussed. The POINT of this passage was that readers of the gospel knew that Jesus was the “Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe” and thus thought, “Oh, boy – they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!” and that the “message” could easily be misinterpreted as “Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected.” In the alien version of the gospel, Jesus really was a nobody, and that god “adopted the bum” as his son to show people that they couldn’t even torment a bum who has no connections. This is hardly the assumption of content that one would make in reading Mr. Scroggins’ paragraph, is it?

Also, in the original opinion piece, published in September 2010, the three books are referred to (in the title) as “Filthy Books Demeaning to Public Education.” Boy, those that fancy themselves watchdogs of public morals sure love that word, filthy, don’t they? There’s irony in its use here, too. Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Slaughterhouse Five, is At one point described as not looking like a soldier at all and, instead, looking like a filthy flamingo. Curiously, if you are to look the word up in Merriam Webster’s dictionary – at least in my edition – the usage example given is: “The filth of a slaughterhouse…” But that’s just a coincidence… In my opinion, what’s demeaning here isn’t three “filthy books,” but rather a self appointed moral watchdog who has the gall to presume he knows what’s best for the rest of us and our children.

I have been somewhat gratified to see that many responses to this story condemn the decision (school, superintendent Vern Minor removed two of three challenged books from the curriculum, citing age-appropriateness as the reason. He even says about Slaughterhouse Five, “Im not saying it’s a bad book.” Well, thank you for that at least…) and also it has caused me – and hopefully many others – to give this book another look. I’m sure Vonnegut would be happy about that. He would also be happy that The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is giving away free copies of slaughterhouse Five to those students in Republic who want to “read it anyway.”

I have made no mention about the other two books attacked by Mr. Scroggins, and I feel bad about that, but one other defense of them can be found here.

Well, that’s about it. Rant over. Thanks for listening, though. 🙂 Is anyone else aware of this story? Any personal experiences with censorship that you’d like to share?

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14 Comments

  1. Jade said,

    August 8, 2011 at 6:57 am

    I can barely talk about this subject because it makes me so angry. I just don’t get people sometimes. I just want to scream “if you have a problem with the book, don’t let your kid read it…but it’s a book for pete’s sake. Don’t punish the rest of society.” Having said that, I have actually never read this book and it’s on my TBR list. Funny, since Kurt Vonnegut actually went to the Writers’ Workshop at Iowa. Anyways. I’m with you on this post. Makes me furious.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      August 11, 2011 at 10:10 am

      Hi Jade,
      It is rather infuriating, isn’t it? 🙂

      P.S. I also just read a collection of Flannery O’Connor stories, and I guess she, too, was associated with The Writers Workshop. Must be cool to “live in that neighborhood.”

      -Jay

      Like

  2. Alley said,

    August 8, 2011 at 10:46 am

    I heard about this and about the Vonnegut library giving away the book. It’s ridiculous whenever anyone decides on censorship for the good of other people. If you don’t want your kids to read it, that’s fine. They’re your kids. But quit trying to control everyone else. At least the kids that want it can get a free copy of the book. Hopefully this means more kids will read it than if it had never been banned in the first place.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      August 11, 2011 at 10:11 am

      Thanks for your comment Alley. I’m with you in hoping that this will only give the book more attention that it normally would get – something I’m sure Vonnegut would have a chuckle about…
      -Jay

      Like

  3. Dale Barthauer said,

    August 8, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    I agree with you 100%, Jay!

    Like

  4. mummazappa said,

    August 10, 2011 at 2:08 am

    I first heard about this issue from YA blogs furious with his comments regarding Speak, which is an utterly brilliant YA novel about how a young woman finds her voice after being raped, which has thousands of testimonies from people telling how this book saved them. There’s a beautiful poem written by the author, here’s the link if you’re interested

    The thing that really terrifies me about this guy is not so much that he is vocal about what he thinks (there are crazy people everywhere they can’t be stopped) but that he has enough influence to get a book pulled from the curriculum!

    Like

  5. mummazappa said,

    August 10, 2011 at 2:09 am

    woah, the whole video popped up in my comment, I didn’t mean to do that, I hope that’s ok!

    Like

    • Jay said,

      August 10, 2011 at 5:56 am

      No worries! Thanks for sharing. I didn’t focus on “Speak” or the other book since I haven’t read them, but i can only assume Scroggins misrepresents them as unfairly as he did Slaughterhouse Five. You’re right, what’s truly scary is that he was at least partially successful in his protest.
      -Jay

      Like

  6. Alex said,

    August 10, 2011 at 9:24 am

    Amen! Great post Jay, congratulations! I’ve also been following this story in the news and the move by the Memorial Library (I wonder if many students took advantage of it) and when reading the infamous accusations the first thing I’ve noticed was the “a book called ‘Slaughterhouse Five.” part. You’re very right, it does tell you a lot, straight away.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      August 11, 2011 at 10:18 am

      Thanks Alex! It took quite an effort to write this post without including a bunch of ad hominem attacks on this guy. I found some more info about his original complaint, etc. last night and will try to post a follow up soon. It seems to me like it’s all about the system not following his own dogmatic beliefs, therefore “it must be changed!!”

      Like

  7. Megan said,

    August 10, 2011 at 10:54 am

    My whole body fills with tension when I read about people acting on ignorance, using hyperbole to prey on other people’s ignorance. Out of all of this, the thing that really bothers me is where he says “The ‘f word’ is plastered on almost every other page.” As if the word almost makes it true. He’s hoping that others haven’t read the book and that nobody will call him on that point. it’s a flat out lie. Not an exaggeration, just a little stretch to make a point, but a lie. I’m glad you pointed it out, but I wonder if anyone else did during the board discussion.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      August 11, 2011 at 10:21 am

      Thanks for the comment, Megan. Last night I found a copy of his original complaint to the school board, which includes appendices where certain sections of the books included and the “offending passages” highlighted. Of course he cherry picks a few passages that have the most bad language and uses those. I suspect and fear that those considering action on his complaint based their decision only on what he included in his appendix and not after actually READING the book themselves.

      Vonnegut himself was good on “calling people on it” if they made spurious claims or tried to pass off untruths. I’m happy to try to continue that tradition…

      Like

  8. Tom Schulte said,

    September 4, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    Shameful, shameful assault on a noble work. Well, it was learning that there was even such a thing as banned books that made a serious read out of me. I just had to get my hands on “Brave New World” and “Flowers for Algernon” (both banned in my Middle School at the time) and I haven’t looked back, since. Hopefully this silly ban wil make other students eager to read.

    Like

  9. Jay said,

    September 4, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Tom. Hopefully, most incidents like this have the boomerang effect you describe – making people even MORE likely to read the book in question.

    Also – and I think this is in an early chapter of Vonnegut’s book, “Palm Sunday” – Vonnegut himself writes a great response to another incident where his books were banned, even burned (!!) in that case. Great reading if you get ahold of a copy of that book.

    -Jay

    Like


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