Quote OTD: Freedom, Rights and Accountability – the denialism of fools and knaves

Indeed, an astoundingly small proportion of arguments ‘for free speech’ & ‘against censorship’ or ‘banning’ are, in fact, about free speechcensorship or banning. It is depressing to have to point out, yet again, that there is a distinction between having the legal right to say something & having the moral right not to be held accountable for what you say. Being asked to apologise for saying something unconscionable is not the same as being stripped of the legal right to say it. It’s really not very fucking complicated. Cry Free Speech in such contexts, you are demanding the right to speak any bilge you wish without apology or fear of comeback. You are demanding not legal rights but an end to debate about & criticism of what you say. When did bigotry get so needy? This assertive & idiotic failure to understand that juridical permissibility backed up by the state is not the horizon of politics or morality is absurdly resilient.

The “fools and knaves” quote comes later in China Miéville’s brilliant post at rejectamentalist manifesto about the recent Belgian legal decision regarding Tintin au Congo, where shehe notes that grey areas and hard cases when it comes to controversial content are not a reason to refuse to address the problem – we are intelligent people who can work it out.

This sentence in particular is the crux, for me:

It is a strange, depraved morality that chooses relentless fidelity to racist texts over consideration of the day-to-day lives of children & others.

The idea that, at the very least, cultural slurs in older books or films which make life difficult for children of that culture should not be treated as “innocent” simply because of the mores of their time, and that those slurs should be signposted in some way on covers or in library shelving systems seems like such a minimalist starting point for notions of basic polite consideration for others in a civil society. Hergé himself revised Tintin decades ago to strike out some portions he was no longer comfortable with; Enid Blyton’s daughters did the same with her golliwogs; Disney revised Fantasia to remove a character depicted as a racist stereotype – all felt a need to modify certain content which they had come to see as troubling because it was gratuitously confronting to some of their readers/viewers. If it seemed so obvious to them back then, why is it so hard for some others to see it now?

Image credit/description: Index thumbnail is part of a panel from Tintin au Congo, showing Tintin being carried in a sedan chair by African bearers. The African men are depicted with grotesquely large lips and eyes in stereotypical “minstrel” fashion.

Categories: arts & entertainment, language, social justice

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6 replies

  1. This is really interesting and calls to mind recent posts at Reelgirl about Tintin books and historical media. Reelgirl’s focus is of course the depiction of women and girls in media, which, surely, should be called when sexist, just like racist depictions are. Of course, our tolerance of sexist depictions is much higher.
    BTW China Mieville is a ‘he’, which may be why he didn’t extend his argument to sexism…

    • BTW China Mieville is a ‘he’

      Oops, I meant to check whether my gender assumption was right there, and then didn’t do so. Corrected now.

  2. There’s always going to be archives of the original versions, Paul, and often annotated versions which make sure to reference the redacted portions and list them as appendices (rather like Catholic Bibles have the no-longer-canonical Apocrypha as a separate section from the current canonical books).
    The court case in Belgium regarding Tintin au Congo didn’t even want the “bad” parts edited out – it just wanted the book to have a warning sticker on it about containing racist stereotypes, and for it not to be shelved alongside children’s books that don’t need a warning sticker. No pretending these things never happened, just refusing to pretend that these things don’t matter.
    Disney on the other hand chose to edit their racist unicorn segment out of Fantasia on their own, and did then try to pretend that it had never existed, you’re right there. But because the original versions are in archives, that original segment was found and distributed to highlight their lie, and now the fact that we know that they lied tells us something important about the ethical standards of the corporation.
    It’s an interesting contrast to Warner Bros, who have chosen to not include racist episodes of Bugs Bunny or Merry Melodies in their big anniversary DVD collections, and who long ago withdrew them from the compilations they make available for TV syndication – but who don’t pretend that those episodes never existed.

    • P.S. I guess my point, and China’s, is that when it’s material created primarily for children, then it should no longer be socially acceptable to confront the children of certain cultural groups with cultural slurs that tell them that they are inferior to other cultural groups. There’s no reason at all that publishers cannot still continue to publish only the racist originals, but if they do then they should not be able to continue stocking it on the children’s shelves. They could even double-dip by doing an “updated” version acceptable for today’s children, and an “original” version acceptable to the nostalgic traditionalists.

  3. The most hilarious thing I ever heard was a radio presenter saying she didn’t see what the big deal about Tintin in the Congo was, that it was ‘just a children’s book fercrissakes’. I laughed so hard, there’s no way she could have possibly read it to make a statement like that.

  4. @Tamara: I could really use an advisory for the approximate level of sexism on the cover of all books! I read a Tintin (from the library) recently and there were women at the very beginning, in the background at an airport; and at the very end, watching TV with a man who was doing all the talking. The intervening actual story had no women and no evidence they existed.
    @tigtog: I think you’ll want to release from moderation the comment (by Paul?) if you’re going to address it in your comments. Or a redacted form if necessary. I’m guessing it’s racism 101 and not really appropriate for this blog, so perhaps your comments should have been sent straight to Paul?

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