Apparently, Ursula Le Guin’s son has knuckled under to the forces of political correctness. He has consented to a few editorial changes in her children’s books. (You can read his explanation here.) The words “lame” and “queer” are being excised in favor of words that won’t make ladies clutch their pearls and blanch.
It’s true that words change their meanings. A hundred years ago, the word “gay” still had its original meaning. It meant “happy” or “festive.” You just plain can’t use it that way if you’re writing a book today. But that doesn’t mean we ought to go back through the works of Dickens and change it. A lot of people are seriously disturbed (or claim to be) by Mark Twain’s use of the word “nigger” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. To these people I say, “Fuck you. Shut up. Go away.” This word was used occasionally by other writers as recently as the 1920s. Some of them were racist, some of them weren’t.
If kids are confused by the words in books, let their parents explain to them that the meanings of words sometimes change. Part of educating your kids is explaining the world to them.
Let’s be clear: The reason people feel a need to change the language in books is because they fear that certain words will hurt other people’s feelings. They may not express it that way, but that’s the justification. And what a pathetic justification it is! Do we really want to live in a world where no book ever gives rise to painful feelings? What sort of world would that be?
But because I try to be honest, I’m wondering whether I would apply the same argument to those Confederate statues. They hurt people’s feelings, and they were erected in a historical period that is different from our own. Is it right and appropriate to pull the statues down, or should they be let stand?
I will put forward, tentatively, a couple of suggestions as to why this is not an exactly parallel situation. First, the statues are typically on government property. They are owned by the public. This is not the case with books, which are typically published by private businesses. Arguably, a statue about which a significant segment of the public has negative feelings ought not to be allowed to remain on public land. Second, a statue is visible from the street. You will see it every day when you go by, whether you want to or not. This is a different situation from a book. Nobody insists that you read a particular book if you don’t want to.
If I were a sculptor, I might feel differently about the statues. Maybe some of them are fine works of sculpture, and ought to remain on display in a private museum somewhere. But I’m a writer. I purely hate it when people think they have not only a right but a responsibility to get in and fuck with a writer’s words.