I had planned on posting this last week, but when I realized last Wednesday was April 1st, I decided to push the post back a week in favor of a post about the ten year anniversary of my grandmother’s death. Then I ended up working 12 hours yesterday, and didn’t much feel like spending more time in front of the computer screen after that. But even if I’m a bit late to the party, I wanted to share my thoughts on the Clean Reader kerfuffle.
A few years ago, my mother scolded my brother for swearing at the dinner table. She rarely does that anymore, seeing as my thirty-plus-year-old brother is probably a lost cause, but for whatever reason, she scolded him that day and she trotted out the old adage about swearing being a sign of poor vocabulary. I vehemently disagree with that statement, so I informed her that I sometimes swear as well. Did she think that I have a poor vocabulary? After all I’ve made my living as a freelance translator for several years, and I’ve never met a language teacher who didn’t love me. She looked at me like I had grown a second and a third head.
It’s safe to say that a lot of what I write would be unaffected by Clean Reader. But sometimes I do include some choice language. When I do, I would very much like that choice to be respected. I understand that some people object to swearing and that’s their right. If I am speaking to someone whom I know does not approve of swearing, I will be considerate of that and not swear in front of them. However, despite not letting f-bombs fly at every moment, I am not against swearing, and I feel that is my right.
Some say that readers should be allowed to consume the books they have purchased any way they please. Clean Reader is simply an advanced way of going through a book and sharpie-ing out the bad words. They say this as if they are assuming that I’m okay with a person doing that. I’m not. Not really, though I recognize that it’s perfectly legal, not to mention that it’s utterly futile to try and stop it. Still, I aim to say something with the stories I tell, and if my words are changed and watered down to support the moral agenda of someone else, it’s no longer my story. Maybe my themes get muddled. Maybe my characterization suffers. Maybe it completely destroys my message. Whatever changes are made, there’s a good chance they interfere with my original intent. That’s true whether you do it with a sharpie or with Clean Reader, but at least the sharpie method is cumbersome and impossible to utilize on a large scale. Clean Reader, on the other hand, provides censorship at the click of a button.
Many balk at that big word, censorship. Surely editing out a few cuss words isn’t censorship? They bleep out words on TV all the time*. What’s the big deal? In my mind, censorship is exactly what it is though. I chose my words carefully, then someone else came along and changed them to suit them and their beliefs. What is that, if not censorship? How can it be anything but censorship? Am I not allowed to choose words that suit me and my beliefs? I hardly think that Clean Reader is the top of a slippery slope that ends in book burning and the demise of civilization, but it’s bad enough in itself.
The file isn’t being edited, the creators of Clean Reader say. The original file is still there, in all its uncouth glory. Semantics, I say. Clean Reader may technically be legal, but there are a lot of things that are technically legal that I don’t agree with. It’s a loophole. Actually editing the file is illegal. Making it appear edited is not. But the end result of editing and making the text appear edited is much the same. The bottom line remains that Clean Reader takes a person’s words and allows a reader to make them more palatable, regardless of the author’s intent. I’m certainly not saying that every writer weighs their every ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ carefully; sometimes swearing is just swearing. But the writer has a right to use those words, and nobody should get to put other words in his or her mouth. You don’t like it, nobody is forcing you to keep on reading, and nobody is stopping you from never again picking up a book by the same author.
But people who dislike swearing want great books too! Why should they miss out on all those great books, just because there’s language they don’t agree with? To that I ask, why shouldn’t they? If they make the choice to avoid swearing, good for them, but that choice comes with a sacrifice. Most choices do. Not everyone has to accommodate them. There are plenty of books out there that have little to no swearing. They’re not missing out on all great books, just the ones that don’t conform to their idea of morality. If authors could opt in, then sure. I’m not against so-called “clean” books, and I have nothing against people who do not want to be exposed to swearing. I just don’t want my beliefs to come second to theirs.
Let’s not forget that there would likely be quite a lot of noise made if the tables were turned and someone created a similar app to turn “clean” books into dirtier versions, or to replace all mentions of God with Allah. If one author doesn’t want his or her “fricks” and “shoots” to be turned into “fucks” and “shits”, is it so hard to understand that another author might not want their “fucks” and “shits” turned into “fricks” and “shoots”?
Let’s also discuss some of the choices the creators of Clean Reader made when creating their filters. Is vagina considered profanity? Do women only have “bottoms” below the belt? Is breast a dirty word? I for one struggle to think of a less profane word for female genitalia than vagina, and “breast” is about as innocent as you get as well. In fact, I cannot for the life of me understand how “chest” is less profane than “breast”. I can see why you would blank out many words referring to the human anatomy (even though I obviously disagree with blanking out any words at all), but those? It makes it abundantly clear that the creators consider the human body to be profane in general, and I have absolutely no wish to further that belief in any way. Clean Reader would have forced me to do just that, and the creators of the app would have made money from it to boot.
The fact of the matter is that the words Clean Reader blanks out are heavily biased towards a specific belief system, which I happen to not share. I’m aware that Clean Reader can’t reach into my mind and stop me from writing anything profane. I can still use the words I feel are appropriate for the occasion, and those words will still be there underneath the filter. But if the reader can choose to brush aside my views, my choices, my beliefs with the click of a button, what does that matter?
*I don’t, in fact, agree with bleeping out words on TV either.