The last time I had any direct connection to this show was during academic year 2002-3 when I designed lights for it in Hoey and while I was serving as the quasi-official Director of Theatre at Western. Anyway, during one performance, a matinee as I remember it, I was accosted in the lobby by an extremely upset woman, older than the typical college student but not appearing to be what I would have called an “Elder,” who demanded (loudly) to know if I had anything to do with the production. When I admitted that I did, I was informed that she was going to contact the University authorities regarding how the Musical Theatre program was “contributing to the spread of RAPE culture by producing this piece of trash,” or words very much to that effect.
I confess that once I got her calmed down and out of the lobby, I never heard anything more about this incident, so I do NOT know if she in fact followed through on her threats. I feel quite confident, however, that they were precipitated by the song “It Depends on What You Pay” and what is known as ‘The Rape Ballet,” which ends Act I. It IS true that this section of the show has been rewritten to minimize the use of the word “rape.” The song has been rewritten as “Abductions,” the dance is now labelled as “The Abduction,” etc., and the libretto, as rented for productions, contains, I believe, both versions. I even have some sympathy for the “lady’s” concern. Yes, rape is an act of extreme violence and, as the father of two daughters, I have quite strong feelings about such matters.
However, I find it impossible to accept that anyone with more than two brain cells could construe the references to “rape” in this musical to be anything which could to be taken as encouragement of actual, physical, sexual rape by anyone else with two, or more, brain cells. It’s quite evident, in my opinion, that the woman making this charge was incapable of rational thought regarding this word.
To explain: Wikipedia’s entry on the etymology of the word “Rape” says:
I confess that I was quite bitterly amused when, at a later date, I told this story to an actress friend whom I knew had played Louisa (the “raped” daughter) and she informed me that she had actually been raped (sexually assaulted) a few years before, but had had no difficulty playing the part because: 1.) it was clearly acting [and not intended to be of a particularly realistic nature]; and 2.) it was so obvious what was intended in the circumstances.
All of which is preface to my real topic with begins with the note that Banned Books Week for 2021 is September 26 - October 2. As I post this, that’s NEXT WEEK! I suppose that I bring this up as the grandson of an English Professor and the son of his daughter, a librarian. The right to access ideas, materials, books, and thoughts which may be controversial is inherent to any idea of freedom. That’s why the first thing which totalitarian regimes always do is to try to control the flow of information through control of the press, publication, control of education and censorship in libraries.
I agree VERY strongly with Peter Stone’s character, Stephen Hopkins, in 1776, who, when asked if he felt the Continental Congress should consider separation from England, says: “In all my years, I never seen, heard nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn't be talked about.” I would suggest that if one refuses to consider ideas other than one’s own, it’s probably because one has little faith in his convictions. Listening to an idea doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, just that you will accept that others have a right to their own beliefs. Or, as Voltaire is supposed to have said, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
How is it possible to attack ideas about which nothing is known? If I wish to refute the ideas of Socialism, for example, it only makes sense to have some idea as to what is generally accepted that the term means. Or, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan is quoted as saying, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” This, of course, suggests that not all opinions should be equally valued. It may be undemocratic, but I have no problem accepting this. Having been raised as a scholar of sorts and with an engineer as a father, I have a strong belief that one should have more than just a partiality for ideas and beliefs which they support as important, they should have some evidentiary support for those ideas, especially if they are going to assert their “truth,” as opposed to a simple preference. Or, to revert to theatre-related ideas which, I believe, apply to “real” life, as Laurence Olivier said, “ Have a very good reason for everything you do.” Now, Lord Olivier was discussing choices in acting at the time, but it doesn’t seem to me to be a bad idea to apply this principle to all of life’s questions.
This seems to fly in the face of much cable “news” and so-called “internet” and “social media” information. Here, all too often, there doesn’t appear to be what I was taught to think of as actual sources for statements which claim to be of fact. It appears that much of the time opinion and rumor seems to be relied on as if it was fact. So, what do I mean by a “fact?” I would suggest, along with dictionaries, Wikipedia, etc. that a fact is “an event or thing known to have happened or existed.” That it is “a truth verifiable from experience or observation.”
To use a recent case in point, (sorry if this gets political, but the example seems obvious), when I watch (on several TV channels [ABC, NBC, CNN, PBS, BBC, etc.]) footage of people wearing Trump paraphernalia and carrying various types of weapons, smash windows, break through barricades, beat people over the head and, through the use of violence, disrupt the Congress’ ability to act on certifying the electoral votes from the states and officially declaring the winner of the Presidential election during the properly called congressional session intended to do that. I would argue that these events certainly appear to be events or things “known to have happened.” This being the case, I find it impossible (even irrational) to accept the statements of certain members of Congress, who were (verifiably) present during these events, that this was “just another group of tourists” and nothing like an attempted coup. I’m forced to wonder where these people were while the Capital Police were conducting the Vice President and other members of Congress to “safe locations?”
I do not pretend to be some sort of an expert, but I do know what I have seen from a variety of sources. I could be incorrect. But I see no reason to reject the witness of my eyes without at least some evidence to contradict what I saw. I’m not quite ready to go as far as Bert (see below) with his proposed amendment to the first amendment, but I like the general idea of it.
This is, of course, an all too lengthy way of getting around to censorship and book banning. We humans have a lengthy and well-established practice of wanting to support our ideas by denying others access to ideas with which we disagree. I am not going to extend this by including a list of books which have been frequently challenged as being “Improper” to include on library shelves. However, such a list isn’t hard to find, nor are the reasons for their being “challenged.” They are pretty easy to find if one starts at “ala.org.” People object to racial references, sexual references, religious references, political references, you name it, somebody has probably tried to use it as an excuse to object to allowing the circulation of it. In other words, to censor it. Mark Twain’s best-known books use the word “nigger,” as did many people at that time, especially not well-educated little boys, so we can’t allow those books to be read. The Harry Potter series is about “witches and wizards,” so get rid of it. The Hunger Games books have been called “anti-ethnic, anti-family, and filled with insensitivity, offensive language, occult/satanic content, and violence” so we shouldn’t allow them to be read. And Heaven forbid that those “Fifty Shades” books be allowed to sully the shelves of a library where people might actually be able to read them!
I think censorship is stupid, except the censorship of the marketplace. If, after consideration, I find that I have little interest in spending my time and/or money reading a specific work, I don’t buy the book, watch the movie or TV show, attend the meeting, etc. Of course, that suggests that I have to give this decision some thought to begin with. And being of somewhat limited means in terms of time, money, shelf space, and energy, there are many ideas, books, TV shows, movies, theatrical works, etc., about which I will probably remain ignorant of unless something comes along which leads me to look into them more deeply.
Those “Fifty Shades” books, for example, have been promoted for their “scandalous” sexual content. Okay, I have other things which interest me more, so I haven’t read any of them, and I probably won’t. That doesn’t (I believe) allow me to suggest that YOU can’t read them if you wish to, just that I’m not particularly interested. As Robert A. Heinlein wrote in The Man Who Sold the Moon, “The whole principle [of censorship] is wrong. It's like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can't have steak.” If those books are your steak, that’s your choice and I think you should have the right to read them, although I would (in all cases) request that you give some consideration as to whom you share them with. They may not be the best choices for small children, although I suspect that, left to their own devices, kids would not find them of great interest.
I think one should have a right to expect that people will give some consideration to sensitivities, especially to controversial content and especially with children. I think a child may need to have it explained that “Nigger Jim” in Huckleberry Finn is the way Jim, might well have been referred to at the time but that we don’t consider that acceptable today. In other words, it’s just “bad” slang, like so many other examples we could come up with quite easily, but which were not uncommon, even in fairly “polite” society at one time. In other words, while I don’t really buy the idea of “age appropriateness,” I don’t think it’s a bad idea to consider whether some material could be upsetting to a specific child, or whether a given child will understand some specific idea without some sort of guidance. I guess that means that adults are expected to behave like adults and CARE for children.
I have always felt that democracy was a means to resolve issues based on discussion of the different ideas which are supported by the facts available. It does NOT mean that we all have to agree on everything except for the basic facts of the case. In fact, it probably suggests that we won’t, but that we will at least try to come up with a solution which is acceptable to all, given what we all agree is the situation. In other words, democracy is pragmatic and impermanent, except in insisting on knowing the facts as best we can at the time a decision must be made. I like the statement of Ben Franklin that “If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.” I think it carries a sympathy for the notion that people can have different ideas, but still manage to get along.
Anyway, in celebration of “Banned Books Week,” read a book next week, maybe even a “banned” one. I won’t suggest anything in particular, after all, even the Holy Bible (as well as other “sacred” texts) are frequently challenged by various groups for various reasons. But, read a book, enjoy your right to ideas. It may be more precious than you think.
P.S. If you don’t have a library card, shame on you. Public libraries are, in my opinion, the last, best hope against tyranny. RSB