Thought Police

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Penguin Modern Classics, 27/01/2003

About a month ago, my friends and I were talking about a recent trend of rewriting classics to meet our current politically correct reality. I have to say, I hate the need to have political correctness in our everyday life. The discussion was derived by the initiative of a scholar who wanted to stop Huckleberry Finn from hitting the banned books list all the time. Mark Twain‘s book has been rewritten with the omission of the word “niger” – which appears 219 times in the manuscript – replacing it with “slave”. He also changes the villain in Tom Sawyer from “Injun Joe” to “Indian Joe” and “half-breed” becomes “half-blood”. Here is the article on The Sunday Gazette-Mail.

My immediate reaction was to be outraged by this blatant attempt to distort a classic tale; I wanted to write about it then and there, but I stopped myself, I wanted to gain some perspective and cool off. So now I’m thinking that I really don’t know how I would feel if I read something really offensive about my race, or if I was forced to hate a literary masterpiece because of its poor choice of language. That’s not the case though, cause in the context of the story that particular word belonged there.

This led me to think about 1984, the thought police, and the practice of rewriting every work (literary or otherwise) in order to keep the people docile. This is where I get a bit paranoid: how do we know that what we read is the true original form? We rely on the publisher’s discretion to inform us in the front of the book that something has been altered. But what if they didn’t do that? I remember some old editions from the ’80s of translated classics in Greek, where there would be not the slightest information about the original edition, the author, the publisher, nothing. I read the Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky and it was chopped up, ruined even, by the translator (whose name wasn’t even mentioned). And for many years I didn’t know that the Raven by Edgar Allan Poe was a poem, because the translator had changed it into a short story.

What I’m trying to say is, what if you don’t know and never will find out if something was changed? What if Orwell was right and every proof of alteration was eradicated? Will future readers look into what they’re reading, or won’t there be a reason enough to search for the truth?

I dream of a state of mind where you don’t give or take offence by simple words, where the axiom “politically correct” doesn’t mean anything – as in we don’t need it anymore -, where being black, gay, a woman doesn’t transform you into a minority and you just be.

What do you think?


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