Definitive Characterization: The Insidious Corruption of High Art

In 1885, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was challenged in Massachusetts for obscene language relating to people of color, and has since come under tremendous fire for the same reason. In 1988, The Lord of the Flies was banned by many schools in Canada for “denigrating blacks. ” Even To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s novel about racism in the South, was removed from schools across Canada in 2009 for racist language and epithets.

How horrible, think many confronted with these facts. And obviously, banning books is wrong, most would agree; it is a denial of free speech, it crushes dissenting opinions, it fosters children who are sheltered from a whole myriad of challenging themes — I could go on. But obviously, it is not a desirable practice for a nation to get into the habit of.

However, it is a common misconception that bannings such as these are the results of religious groups. On this logic, the exigent problem which demands our attention is the overreach or intensely religious communities or organizations. While this is certainly far from falsehood (the banning because of sexually inappropriate material stems mainly from them), we waste our energy standing like adept watchmen on guard for religious groups to exercise the power they had in past years. Religious censorship, while it might have had an considerable effect in its heyday, carries far less weight than people afford it today.

Just take the last complete century. In 1900, there were 226,120 registered atheists, according to the world census totals, as opposed to the 150,089,508 in 2000, an over 650% increase. And since then, the ranks of agnostic/atheists have been swelling at a rapid pace, tripling in 18 years. And this not even mentioning those who are unaffiliated with any particular religion, which is a whopping 16.5% of the adult population. Around 1.1 billion. And too many now believe wholeheartedly in the school of thought that banning books is a malicious and condemnable process before going home and becoming part of the problem. Because the problem is not religion. It is definitive characterization.

“Definitive characterization” is a term that I created in order to accurately describe the growing school of thought which increasing numbers of people have unknowingly sworn themselves into. It is the school of thought that says that to examine the character of an individual is to examine their moral status as pertaining to only contemporarily paramount topics. Regardless of the actual content of the piece (an aspect carrying less and less weight in a world that moves steadily away from artistic quality), judgements are rather based on the political orientation of the work or person.

This resounds very powerfully today, especially with increasingly common cases such as that of Roseanne Barr. After Barr used racist language to describe Barack Obama on Twitter, a whole storm of outcry that would end up forcing ABC executives to cancel the appropriately titled reboot Roseanne. While Barr’s remarks were inexcusable, the mixing of politics into anything other than public demonstrations, and, well, politics, should be grossly undesirable for our country. Because once Barr had been so definitively characterized, all of her work, whether high-quality of low-quality, racist or not, was discarded.

And it is the very notion that accomplished people, important works, productions, publications, and the like, that they, before being judged on a basic level, must first subject themselves to a thorough moral pat-down that appalls me. Before being accurately rated, they are checked for standards totally unrelated to the pure quality of the book — the melodic prose, the subtle undertones, the particularly thrilling twist.

Take Of Mice and Men, a John Steinbeck classic detailing the taunting allure of dreams, banned in certain schools in 2002 for racial slurs. It is a novella, somewhere in the realm of 27,000 words. Near the middle, there is a scene in which Lenny (a gentle giant with minimal intelligence), left alone on the ranch in which the book takes place, strikes up a conversation with “Crooks,” an African-American ranch hand.

Crooks, named for his crooked back, is first terse with Lenny, but is won over by his almost puppy-like demeanor. After a bit of small talk, Crooks lets gushing out a monologue on the hardships afforded to a black man simply for his skin color. He loudly laments the fact that he will never be fully accepted, no matter what he does. It’s a poignant speech. It is even a scene which Steinbeck seemingly goes out of his way to jam into the novel — which is to say, it hardly fits with the general plot arc of the novel. This should perhaps be a perfectly fine, even well-respected scene. But then Steinbeck makes one surprisingly significant misstep: he has another, completely antagonistic figure come into the shack, a rancher by the name of Candy. For a few plot-related reasons, Candy begins to become a little aggressive towards Crooks, using derogatory language as a defense mechanism when Crooks becomes harsh towards him. After examining the lengthy list of reasons for the banning of Of Mice and Men, I’d say it’s a fair gamble to say that the most common reason given is racism and derogatory language.

This parable acts as a perfect paradigm, a symptom, if you will, of a larger, more sinister malady. Many classic pieces today are discredited for the simple fact that many refuse to look past the author’s political orientation, even if, as in this case, the passage actually sympathizes with the plight of blacks worldwide. Once Steinbeck brings forth “derogatory language,” however, our brains close off to receiving any new information. Anything we read from that point onwards is as if we were reading it through tinted glasses: everything is still technically legible, but it heavily discourages closer reading.

And another example is found in the debate over Thomas Jefferson.

Now, Jefferson has an admirable resumé (negotiated the Louisiana purchase and wrote the Declaration of Independence), but he has come under heavy fire lately for owning slaves. Yes, this accusation loses much of its weight under research, but the more troubling fact about the accusation, (more than it’s objectively unsteady factual foundation), is that the character of a historically vital piece in the creation of this country, could be called into question over whether or not he owned slaves. The two are separate entities.

Hearing that someone owned slaves, according to the gathering storm of believers in definitive characterization, shuts off any further examination. The main thing to know about Thomas Jefferson, first and foremost, is how he related to minorities. If he owned slaves then other achievements, no matter how important, are irrelevant.

And because my conscience will not allow me to continue without a clarification, Jefferson was not some dastardly owner who mistreated his slaves. It is so easy to forget in this post-Industrial Revolution era, machines could not do that basic level of menial labor. The southern states, being farther away from countries in Europe that could give them indentured servants, were geographically forced to look for workers in the southern hemisphere. Jefferson inherited a plantation from his father, and used it to keep himself afloat financially. However, in horrible debt and thus financially blocked from freeing his slaves, Jefferson still paid many of them, as well as constantly working on laws to halt the slave trade. He enacted landmark legislature in 1778 and 1779, as well as a proposal to ban all slavery in the North and South in 1800 that failed to pass by one vote in Congress. On the other side, one could make the case that many Northerners did manage their businesses without slaves fairly easily, and that Jefferson, if he believed so wholeheartedly in the edicts he preached, would have taken the hard way by selling Monticello. If Jefferson cared about freeing slaves as something other than a political mechanism, a move to the North was certainly plausible. Jefferson is also rumoured to have had an affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, when she was sixteen, though some academics quarrel with the DNA study which gave new life to that theory. The majority are not entirely compelled to believe it was Jefferson, and not a family member, who impregnated Sally Hemings, but opponents fight back with the evidence that the Sally Hemings and her children were the only Monticello slaves to be freed. Still others maintain that this is irrelevant, given the nature of Jefferson’s life and his contributions to freeing the slaves entirely. The point is, the rewards of such research require only people to remove their tinted glasses, and keep open the possibility to learn more and develop thoughts on a subject. For those who can take the leap, a treasure trove of enlightening information lies waiting.

And not only do we shut ourselves off from acquiring new information, and close our minds to available knowledge, we encourage our posterity to follow in that example. By making it clear that a creative artist’s work will first be weighed according to his or her politics encourages those who might write silver tongued masterpieces to blandly plod forwards in their perfectly average pieces, intent only on not being subject to the horrible literary torture of being seen through tinted glasses. By continuing to definitively characterize art forms, ideas, companies, and people, we destroy any future progress in humanities and the liberal arts.

Our energy is misplaced when we scream the dwindling religious figures who will today barely manage to get a religiously based ban past school boards. That aggressive and uniquely unproductive use of our energy is far better spent in educating ourselves on the true nature of a situation. It would be better spent prying our minds open to hear the opinions of those that we disagree with and not judge their character for it. The evidence of this pandemic is everywhere. In the words of the English historian Christopher Hill, “history has to be rewritten in every generation, because although the past does not change, the present does; each generation asks new questions of the past and finds new areas of sympathy as it re-lives different aspects of the experiences of its predecessors.” And indeed, haughty with our modern ideas, (just as much of a construct of the imagination as any past idea was, for the record — human rights are no less fictitious than dragons are), we refuse to consider further perspectives once the author has activated any of our newfangled tripwires.

Ask Ty Cobb, who had the best lifetime career batting average of any major league player, but whose reputation is sorely tarnished by his anti-semitic activities. Take a look at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, literally an anti-slavery novel written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, who made the mistake of having the white characters refer to the black characters using derogatory terms, such as “house negro.” That was banned in a whole district in 1984 for racism. Ask Cesar Chavez, a famous labor leader and civil rights activist whose phrases and speeches (when collected into a book entitled The Words of Cesar Chavez) was banned for derogatory language towards illegal immigrants. The Color Purple. Or Beloved. Or The Invisible Man. Peruse the contents of any great library to see dejected works of brilliant literature lost to time for their failure to comply with new, modern standards, and attitudes about history from. Watch as the magnificent works of Conrad, Twain, and, Steinbeck droop in sorrow, and check that you do not fall prey to this enticingly simple trap. Ensure that this practice, all too easy to subscribe to, may begin to be reversed within our lifetime. Ensure that you can help spur that change.

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