Excuse Me While I Drive My Face Into My Palm

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on March 18, 2012

So, some people are thinking of removing Dante’s Divine Comedy from schools because it propagates stereotypes that are offensive to modern sensibilities. Political correctness strikes again!

Of course, we have run through this kind of controversy so many times in the past that we have almost lost count. But to play out the argument again: Writers in the past did not have the sensibilities that we do at present. As a consequence, they have written a host of things that we would find offensive and outrageous. That does not mean that we ought to censor their works, especially when their works are so fundamental to the Western canon that they have significantly helped in shaping that canon.

To state that Dante has played a key role in shaping the Western canon is to understate things. To claim that his work ought to be censored and kept away from students is therefore ridiculous on its face. Doing so would prevent students from learning important and valuable things about Western civilization in general, and about Western literature in particular.

Now, there can be no denying that Dante wrote things which we now consider bigoted. But far from thinking that exposure to the controversial aspects of Dante’s writings would irredeemably harm students, I happen to have enough faith in the intelligence and common sense of students to believe that an intelligent and respectful discussion about those aspects of the Divine Comedy would do students far more good than would an effort to keep students away from that discussion. Certainly, we shouldn’t operate on the premise that the entire Divine Comedy is so “offensive and discriminatory” as to seemingly warrant no discussion whatsoever. I imagine that some younger students may not be ready for Dante, which means that any school curriculum ought to take the age and the maturity of students into account before making the decision to expose them to Dante. But that is a far different thing from reading Dante entirely out of a school curriculum.

Otherwise, where are we? In a spot where we have to recommend that no one see The Merchant of Venice, lest they are subject to anti-Semitic themes? Being Jewish, I am the last person to want to propagate anti-Semitism, but again, I would like to think that readers and observers of the play will be mature enough to deal with the issue in a thoughtful and intelligent manner. I would also like to think that if one reads Huckleberry Finn, one might be able to deal with repeated uses of the n-word in a thoughtful, mature, and intelligent manner–especially given the fact that the use of the n-word is a pedagogical tool deliberately used and designed to hammer home to the reader the racism of the times. Surely, we are not going to exorcise the n-word out of Huckleberry Finn merely because some people might not be emotionally and intellectually prepared to read the book, are we? I mean, no one could possibly come up with such a silly idea. Right?

You will notice a lot of repetition of arguments in that last link. You will also notice an anticipation of the controversy surrounding Dante. Normally, I am proud of my powers of prognostication, but today, I lament the fact that certain predictions and expectations have come true.

  • alanhenderson

    I’m surprised that unscrupulous trial lawyers haven’t complained about The Merchant of Venice for its depiction of frivolous lawsuits.

    (In the real world, somebody would have noticed early on that the contract wasn’t legally enforceable.)

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