Now something weird happened, and I think I will vent my frustration and my preoccupation here.
Sorry to use you guys as a lightning rod, but sometimes blogs are also useful as safety valves.
The thing goes like this.
I am told that many of the ills of our current culture depend on the fact that we grew up with the Classics, that are basically books written by misogynistic, racist white heterosexual males, and therefore we all turned out—well, bad.
Having enjoyed the works of, say, Charles Dickens, I am obviously a misogynist with little or no respect for other cultures1.
The thing, in all honesty, reminded me of the old George Orwell warning, that any kid growing up with Tarzan would turn into an animal-killing big game enthusiast.
Is it possible?
Indeed it is.
Is it a given? Thank goodness no.
Like that guy said
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
Most of our old classics were penned by people we would not like to have at our table. You can find sexist jokes in Shakespeare, Odysseus is very bad to women, and yes, Charlie Dickens had a penchant for male heterosexual protagonists. So did Ray Chandler.
And yes, you can actually pick up bad habits and bad ways of thinking from the classics – but you are not fated to do so, always and every time.
The thing that upsets me, about this whole thing is not the objection to certain contents in books that are indeed a foundation of our culture (or somebody else’s culture), but the idea that as humans we have no control.
No control at all.
Read Mein Kamppf, and you will turn into a Nazi.
Read Tarzan of the Apes and you’ll book a safari to kill a few lions.
Read Bleak House, and you’ll treat women like dirt.
And you can say “hey no, not me!”, but that’s not enough.
First, because you are obviously biased and are defending your biases.
Second, because even if you do not, somebody will.
So we must—
Here is where apparently my position is unpopular.
Because I say that the only way to do it, the only way to make sure that any damage that an old book can do to our society is minimized if not eliminated, is to teach people to think critically. By expanding the curriculum and enriching the bibliography, by adding authors from different cultures, by promoting debate and criticism.
And we should also have a modicum of faith in the human being, in Homo sapiens sapiens’ ability to learn from errors, and to be in control of his own intellectual development, and not just a vessel waiting to be filled with prejudices by any cultural artifact that comes at hand.
We are a little better than that.
We can be a little better than that.
Once you start burning or banning books, you are on a bad track.
- let’s ignore for the time being the fact that Dickens is, to me, “another culture”, just as Dumas, Cervantes, Wu Cheng-En, and Poe and Muhammad Husain Jah, and Mark Twain are – my culture should be Ariosto and Tasso and Calvino and Eco… but OK, let’s forget about that. ↩