Thursday, April 2, 2015

Censorship and Profanity: The Clean Reader App

There's a new app out called Clean Reader that allows you to read books. Like the Kindle app. Except this one also provides the ability to scrub out profanity.

Naturally, the literary community exploded with opinions. Joanne Harris posted her communications with Clean Reader voicing her discontent. Chuck Wendig as usual had the most colorful response.

Most authors are opposed. Firstly, nobody asked authors' permission. Secondly, authors choose each word for a reason. You're changing our art, making it something different than originally intended. You'll change the impact, the characters, and sometimes even the meaning. It's not the same book I originally wrote.

Now, Clean Reader doesn't straight-up remove words: you can read the original if you desire. There are levels of intensity for replacing swears with different words. The word remains highlighted so you know what was changed.

But the other concern is the substitutions themselves.

Jennifer Porter offers a good look at the word replacements that Clean Reader makes. Some of them make sense. F*** turns into frick. Jesus Christ turns into geez. Which is fine unless you have a character inviting someone to church. "I attend the Church Of geez. Wanna come?" (And while we're changing Jesus Christ, why aren't we changing God? I hear "oh my god" far more often.)

Clean Reader doesn't distinguish between what's being used as a swearword and what isn't. It can't. It's not a human, it's an app. If I want, I can skip over swearwords using my imagination, just like when I'm talking with people. But reading about "people worshiping geez" is going to trip me up.

Asshole turns into jerk. For the character complaining about soreness after their colonoscopy, this becomes nonsensical. Prick turns to groin, but I hear it used more often as a verb than a slur.

Sex scenes are worse. Someone using Clean Reader doesn't want to read a sex scene anyway, but Clean Reader has no way of telling them, "this is a sex scene, here's where it begins and ends, skip over it." Instead, we end up with a passage that is probably more scarring than the original

In my opinion, the most egregious change is this: they count vagina as a bad word. My lady parts are dirty now? Vagina and penis aren't swearwords we use to insult people. They're healthy, medical words for body parts everyone possesses.

The app is blocking out words that nobody should be afraid of. That scares me. Considering this app was originally designed for children, what are we teaching them? To fear their sexual parts? To see themselves as dirty and shameful?

This is my biggest quarrel with Clean Reader: it pushes a very clear agenda in regards to what it sees as profanity.

I'm okay with individuals altering a book they own. When you buy a book, you buy the right to
 rip out pages, burn it, cross things out, or draw pictures in the margins. You can do whatever you like with it, because it's yours.

Chuck Wendig gives examples of Clean Reader substitutions.

I'm not okay with corporatizing those changes. Would you hire a company to make notes in your Bible's margins for you? Of course not. If you're upset with profanity, you can choose to put the book down or to cross out the words yourself.

If your teen, like the child of the Clean Reader creators, is coming to you complaining of profanity in books she's reading, you've been offered a teaching moment. Keep in mind that your kid is one day going to go out into the world surrounded by people who swear. How would you like to teach your child to handle profanity: with censorship or love?

Or, of course, you can get her books without profanity. Plain and simple.
 If you're at an art museum and find one piece inappropriate, you guide your child to another work of art: you don't ask the curator to deface it.

Separate companies should not be given control over changing what we read. Words are a sacred thing between author and reader. People tweaking art makes me exceedingly nervous. Art is inspired. Even the swearwords.

I don't swear much. There are some words I just can't use, like cunt and the f-word. The former degrades women, and the latter is unnecessarily harsh except when life is at the bitter edge.

That "except" is important. I remember the day I moved from helplessness to fury on the subject of my sexual abuser.* I was sitting out in a parking lot looking up at a beautiful evening sky. I watched the moon swinging overhead and thought, somewhere he looks up at that same moon. And I hate him.

Staring up at that moon, do you know what I said? Fuck you. They were the right words. For that moment, they expressed what I wanted to express. You can argue the power of words, but yelling I hate you really isn't much better. And I was going to yell something.

In my latest work-in-progress, a character faces her death: her friends betray her and she's about to be eviscerated and burned alive. Guess what she yells at her erstwhile friends?

Sometimes, profanity is the right word. When I write, I'm not trying to be pretty and politically correct. I'm trying to be true. I'm trying to show life as I see it. I have characters who do things I disagree with. You have probably read plenty of characters who do things you disagree with. Did you rewrite the book to remove those characters? Probably not.

If you're not interested in books with swearing, fine. But don't ask a middleman to go changing art so that you feel more comfortable. That is the door to all kinds of horrible ends.

You have the power to choose what you read. Use it.

Word count: 974.

* For the record, fury was not the final stage for me. That's a story for another time.