Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Racism, Humanism, and Speciesism: The Irony of the Censored “Huck Finn”

For reasons unrelated to the recent controversy surrounding the book, I’ve recently been rereading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (the Norton Critical Edition, uncensored). Nonetheless, the controversy has been sharp in my mind as I’ve been reading, and it’s striking how deeply the change undermines some key passages from the book. Take this one, from the end of Chapter XIV:
“Why, Huck, doan de French people talk de same way we does?”
No, Jim; you couldn’t understand a word they said — not a single word.”
“Well, now, I be ding-busted! How do dat come?”
I don’t know; but it’s so. I got some of their jabber out of a book. Spose a man was to come to you and say Polly-voo-franzy — what would you think?”
“I wouldn’ think nuff’n; I’d take en bust him over de head — dat is, if he warn’t white. I wouldn’t ’low no nigger to call me dat.”
“Shucks, it ain’t calling you anything. It’s only saying, do you know how to talk French.”
“Well, den, why couldn’t he say it?”
“Why, he is a-saying it. That’s a Frenchman’s way of saying it.”
“Well, it’s a blame’ ridicklous way, en I doan’ want to hear no mo’ ’bout it. Dey ain’ no sense in it.”
“Looky here, Jim, does a cat talk like we do?”
“No, a cat don’t.”
“Well, does a cow?”
“No, a cow don’t, nuther.”
“Does a cat talk like a cow, or a cow talk like a cat?”
“No, dey don’t.”
“It’s natural and right for ’em to talk different from each other, ain’t it?”
“ ’Course.”
“And ain’t it natural and right for a cat and a cow to talk different from us?”
“Why, mos’ sholy it is.”
“Well, then, why ain’t it natural and right for a Frenchman to talk different from us? — you answer me that.”
“Is a cat a man, Huck?”
“Well, den, dey ain’t no sense in a cat talkin’ like a man. Is a cow a man? — er is a cow a cat?”
“No, she ain’t either of them.”
“Well, den, she ain’t got no business to talk like either one er the yuther of ’em. Is a Frenchman a man?”
Well, den! Dad blame it, why doan’ he talk like a man? — you answer me dat!”
I see it warn’t no use wasting words — you can’t learn a nigger to argue. So I quit.
Huck is right, of course, that Jim fails to grasp a basic piece of knowledge: the existence of multiple human languages. But the genius of this passage lies in how Jim, in refuting that it is “natural and right” to think that a Frenchman is different from an American in the same way a cow is, actually expresses a much deeper truth that Huck fails to grasp. Moreover, the passage conveys this truth not just in spite of Huck being our narrator, but through the way Huck reveals his ignorance and Jim does not. Huck dismisses Jim’s argument using an epithet that asserts that a black man is less than a man, when of course Jim, a black man, has just shown a truth deeper than differences of language or understanding: a man is a man. Jim’s point is both argument and — in showing Jim’s intellect — demonstration of what is wrong with the epithet. (This is true despite the fact that Jim himself continues to use the epithet, and appears on some level to believe it.)

The motivation behind replacing the “n-word” with the word “slave” is understandable: I feel uncomfortable even repeating it in the excerpt here. But the power of this passage, and other similar ones in the novel, would be completely lost if the word were changed to “slave.” Huck would seem to be dismissing Jim’s argument based on his terrible lot in life — which deprived him, perhaps, of Huck’s educational opportunities — rather than based on the idea that Jim’s race makes him subhuman.

This change has the advantage of appealing to our modern understanding of why Jim seems ignorant in many respects. But the central purposes of passages like this one are then lost: the meaning of Jim’s point itself, its significance in relationship to Huck’s dismissal of it, and the fact that Jim’s ability to even have such an insight is evidence itself of how wrong and cruel are Huck’s use of that term. Writing thirty years ago in the New York Times about efforts to ban the book, Russell Baker noted:
The people [whom Huck and Jim] encounter are drunkards, murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynchers, thieves, liars, frauds, child abusers, numbskulls, hypocrites, windbags and traders in human flesh. All are white. The one man of honor in this phantasmagoria is black Jim, the runaway slave. “Nigger Jim,” as Twain called him to emphasize the irony of a society in which the only true gentleman was held beneath contempt.
As Twain wrote the book, Jim is a living refutation, through his evident sensitivity, intelligence, and honor, of that terrible term Huck uses to dismiss him. But in the reformulation, many of those qualities become less evident, so that ironically, “Slave Jim” seems much more like a minstrel-show caricature than does “Nigger Jim.” Worse still, the irony of Jim’s name is lost too, so that where Twain’s book shows how wrong it is to think of Jim as subhuman — and suggests why the source of our equality was still of pressing importance to the book’s readers in 1885 — the new version instead brings us to see Jim as merely an object of pity.

Transhumanists coopt civil rightsrhetoric, warping it in the process.Photo via flickr/ThinkVegan.
I hope the meaning of this passage, and others like it from Huck Finn — particularly the astonishing chapter after the one cited above, in which Huck plays a cruel trick on Jim — will survive. And I believe that transhumanist theorists and activists could learn a thing or two about rights, equality, persons, and (if they are interested) human beings by revisiting Twain’s great book. One transhumanist group, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, recently announced a program to promote the idea of the “Non-Human Person.” I strongly support efforts to better our treatment of animals and the environment, and to reevaluate our historical attitude towards both as mere matter for manipulation, devoid of any moral status. But the IEET’s new program, in stating that “the general thrust of human history is toward the progressive inclusion of previously marginalized individuals and groups,” continues the transhumanist trope of claiming that the movement is carrying on the work that freed the slaves and brought civil rights to minorities — and so it would do well to acknowledge the historical facts about how civil rights advanced, and about where our equality has been understood to come from.

Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968. Photo copyright Richard L. Copley.

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