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?