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The Enlightenment was premised on the broad idea that people were rational and that, once education became widespread, reason would eventually stamp out superstition and other evils and would cause humanity to want to promote and defend liberty. This thinking broadly underlies the idea that we are continuing to progress as a species and will ultimately learn to solve the problems that historically have beset us.

This sort of episode should serve to remind us that passion and prejudice are ever at-the-ready to spring up and override reason.

On the side of reason:

1. You have a classic work of literature that is widely recognized as an important indictment of totalitarian societies, something that young people in a free society should presumably regard as a staple of their learning.

2. You have a significant historical work that is a product of its times, which sound learning should suggest ought to be taken on its own terms, notwithstanding that society has changed since then in what it regards as acceptable cultural references. Again, even if regressive, one would think those raised in a free society would encourage its study, if nothing else than to understand why the older cultural references existed and why people accepted and later rejected them (if that is indeed what happened).

3. You have reasonable arguments that the references to "savages," taken in context, were not intended to be demeaning at all but were essentially a literary device used to promote the themes of the work. Again, in a free society, one would think these would be topics that ought to be debated as part of coming to grips with a classic work.

On the side of passion and prejudice:

1. You have public school systems that are charged with developing strong young minds and yet willingly succumb to the premise that some forms of expression ought to be censored or circumscribed at the whims of pressure groups in the community.

2. You have serious subjects being resolved by supposedly responsible public officials at the level of pure emotion.

3. You have what amounts to open demagoguery holding sway over that which scholars would widely if not unanimously oppose.

The stunning thing here is how one-sided this all was, with cravenly officials scarcely even putting up resistance. The next thing you know, they will be banning books that use the word "niggardly." Based on the logic on display here, that is surely next in line.

The next thing you know, they will be banning books that use the word "niggardly."

Worth pointing out, because when I saw this word while reading Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf recently I did a double-take, that niggardly has absolutely nothing to do with "niggers".

Niggardly means "miserly" or "stingy". It is based on "niggard", not "nigger", which means the same - a miser, a stingy person. The roots of this word are:

Derived from the Old Norse verb nigla, meaning "to fuss about small matters". Cognate to the English word "niggle", which retains the original Norse meaning.

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/niggard has further information:

This word, along with its adverbial form niggardly, should be used with caution. Owing to the sound similarity to the highly inflammatory racial epithet nigger, these words can cause unnecessary confusion and unintentional offense. The word is not related to the word nigger (a corruption of the Spanish word negro, meaning "black"), though someone unfamiliar with the word niggardly might take offense due to the phonetic similarity between the words.

Talk about an unhelpful coincidence. I wonder how many words fall out of disuse not because of their meaning but because of their phonetic similarity to words considered offensive.

I guess the philosopher Kant would have had some problems with his name in English. (In German Kant just sounds very similar to the name for edge Kante, and not female anatomy.)

But I guess you get around that impasse by just pronouncing it wrong. (German pronunciation: [ɪˈmaːnu̯eːl ˈkant])

I've had philosophical discussions with Germans that ended abruptly because one party suddenly exclaimed 'Kant!'

Could be me. I'm not a friend of Kant's philosophy.

Did you mean Khaaaaaant! ?

A great many I would imagine.

Homonyms are also overtaken by many an overbearing counterpart or outright co-option as slang (i.e. queer, gay, faggot, et al) Language is a fascinating thing to me. It's dynamism is rooted in it's ties to self expression and may only be second to the web itself.

Sadly, it doesn't FEEL like we live in particularly enlightened times... Although, objectively, we are probably simply living in amplified times - more people, more connections, more communication will lead to more progress than at any other time, but also to more situations like this.

I think the problem, as is often the case, comes down to incentives. School officials have few incentives to make decisions on the side of reason, which may be difficult or unpopular, and many incentives to make "popular" decisions, which tend to err on the side of passion and prejudice. Exploring why that is the case is a true rabbit hole...

We live in a time where a book being removed from curriculum (not even "banned" outright) at some random Seattle high school is a story we're all here talking about.

That's not bad. Could be a whole lot worse.

Yes, but will someone do something to prevent it?

At least I have the convenient excuse I live in Brazil. ;-)

On your point #2 on the side of reason, you seem to be saying that the references to savages are understandable as a product of their times, which is frankly false.

The references to savages are a timeless indictment of imperial powers like those referenced in the book. The woman in question clearly has not read it, as it is really on her side.

There's already been a war on the word niggardly:


4. A brave new world is set in LONDON, UK. Not that many native Americans in that neighborhood.

It's true that the book is set in London, but I believe that the 'native reservation' that the characters visit is in fact in the US.

Or was it South America? I should read that book again.

Interestingly one German translation is set in Berlin, and uses the names of German capitalists.

The reservation is in New Mexico

It's a single world state and the Savage Reservation where John was born is in New Mexico.

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