Clean Reader, censorship, and political correctness

The big news of the week has been Clean Reader, which, despite the rumours, is still an app. Essentially, it’s an ereader that disguises what the creators of the app see as profanity.

There have been two camps among writers. One would rather their work not be read at all rather than have it read in an altered form, particularly when the alterations were made without the author’s consent. If the reader doesn’t like what the author writes, they have the right not to purchase or read it.

The other writerly camp concede that once the work is out in the world readers can and often do what they wish with it and as long as the author’s work is still being read and they are still being compensated for it, they’re okay with it (despite how repugnant they might find the practice of altering the work without consulting the author).

Here are some of the posts that have made it across my social media streams this week. (They’ll all appear again in my Tipsday post, BTW.)

As I mentioned on Facebook, on which I shared most of these, I’ll let you read through and decide what you think about Clean Reader for yourselves.

I will, however, share with you, why Clean Reader disturbs me.

It is censorship. No bones about it.

But censorship happens all the time in all of the arts, you say. This is true.

Profanity in television and movies is *bleeped* or dubbed when these shows are televised on network television during hours when impressionable young people might be watching.

There is a rating system for movies and while cinema employees may not strictly enforce it, they do have the right to turn away patrons if they are deemed too young to watch the movie.

Trigger warnings are plastered on music in various formats and there are usually “clean” versions of songs released for radio play.

Books are routinely banned because they are considered profane.

It was just a matter of time before categories for books (adult fiction, YA, children’s, etc.) became insufficient for some readers, or their parents.

I assume that Clean Reader is using the same conventions that allow the bleeping or dubbing of profanity in movies and music to justify the alteration of the ebooks they provide their readers.

It’s a choice and it’s a validated approach as much as I might disagree with it.

You might get the idea that I’m one of those writers in the first camp (above). You’d be right. If people don’t like what I write, they don’t have to read it. Not that every other word I write is a swear word, but I do write about sex, and body parts are also words that the creators of Clean Reader are not comfortable with.

It also smacks of political correctness (to me). It’s like some thought experiment. If we change the words, we protect those who might be harmed by them. If we change the words, we’ll prevent our children from becoming violent or otherwise behaving in a way we find unacceptable.

Big Brother, anyone? Maybe that’s overstating the issue, but I’ve always thought that common courtesy and thoughtfulness were more effective than political correctness.

Why does this concern me? Political correctness is another form of censorship. It all comes from the same, admittedly well-meaning, place, but truthfully, it doesn’t help anyone.

Those of you who have young children will know what happens when they learn their first swear word. Even if it’s something merely socially unacceptable like poopy-head or fart-face (kids often return from daycare or kindergarten with words like these) is it ever effective to forbid them from saying it?

If you’ve tried that strategy, you may have had a wee tyke running through your house shouting poopy-head at the top of her or his lungs. They do that.

More often, parents will have (sometimes repeated) discussions with their children to let them know that their words may make other people feel uncomfortable or hurt and that these words are not ones we should say without thinking about them and about the consequences of saying hurtful words to others.

Parents teach their children respect and courtesy. They teach their children to think before they speak. They teach their children about context and about human failings (you might hear Mommy or Daddy say a bad word when we’re really upset, but sometimes even we forget we shouldn’t say these things).

These early lessons can be the groundwork for more important issues that need to be discussed as children grow older. From bullying to bigotry, sexism to sexuality, words that some people find offensive are essential to these discussions.

We need to use our words, all of them, to provide our children with the tools that will help them mature into courteous and respectful people. We need to use sexually explicit terms to discuss the facts of life as well as alternative sexualities and the respect we all should have for them.

We can’t pretend vulgarity doesn’t exist. We can’t ignore bullying, discrimination, misogyny, or homophobia, and hope they’ll go away just because we don’t use “those words” anymore.

We need to teach people to be wise about their use of words.

I think that’s why Clean Reader disturbs me so much. It’s a dumbing down of language. Censorship of this kind is for people who think reading profanity will corrupt them. Censorship is for people who can’t or don’t want to trust their own judgement.

We can’t engage in meaningful discussion without words, and yes, that includes the bad ones.

It’s only my opinion, but I think my life would be diminished by the disappearance of profanity. If I’d never discovered the Shakespearean Insult Generator (and this is only one of many such sites) or Rogers Profanisaurus (they have an app now too), I would have laughed a lot less and my vocabulary would be significantly limited. Mind you, my sense of humour is distinctly scatological 🙂

I wouldn’t want to read, or write, in a world without profanity.

There are some books I’ve read and enjoyed very much that would not be affected at all by the censoring of profanity, but I couldn’t imagine enjoying Diana Gabaldon’s books (for example) half as much without it, nor would I appreciate someone editing out all the profanity in them.

If someone feels, however, that they want this service and that they can’t read books without it, I support their right to choose Clean Reader. I also pity them for feeling that Clean Reader was the only choice they could make.

Nerdmaste, my writerly peeps.


7 thoughts on “Clean Reader, censorship, and political correctness

  1. Agreed. Certain demographic groups such as the military and the construction industry would be left mute without profanity. My father, an ex-sailor and truck driver was an artist with profanity, but I learned from him when, where, and in front of whom it was not to be used. My mother, who was Irish and 1/4 Blackfoot wasn’t too shabby in her use of profanity herself, but she had to be provoked, and when she cut loose, it got everybody’s attention, which was her intent.

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  2. I actually don’t have a problem with Clean Reader. I don’t like reading swear words in books. I hate hearing it in movies too and if a movie (or a book) has a lot of swearing in it, it diminishes my enjoyment of it. When I’m reading a book and a swear word pops up I will beep it out in my head. But that’s just me. I think if someone wants to buy the app then it’s their business. It’s my understanding that the app just covers the word over and can provide a less offensive word if the reader wishes, and the reader can turn it on and off at will. So to me that’s not censorship – or more like just personal censorship, which we do all the time in the choices we make. Now it would be a different story if this was being thrust upon everyone and people were told they had to buy it, or that it was in built into every ereader and you didn’t have a choice. But it’s not. It’s a consumer choice and the consumer has the right to make that choice.
    I do agree about what you were saying about body parts. I don’t find proper names of body parts offensive and do not consider it bad language.

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    • I see your point and agree with it to a degree. If CR actually spent the person hours editing the text to retain the spirit of the original (again, with consent), I would have no problem with the app. They don’t, however. The last of the posts I shared is by a romance novelist. Read that one at least. I understand Mr. Wendig’s swearage is not to everyone’s taste 😉 Essentially, CR uses a simple find and replace to flag potentially objectionable words and replace them with what its creators deem to be a suitable word. Breast becomes chest. Any part of the female anatomy below the waist becomes bottom. Any word that might refer to the male genetalia becomes groin. Thus, in a romance novel with a steamy scene, we might have the heroine asking her romantic interest to put his groin in her bottom. In a completely innocent context, we might have any character cooking chicken chest, commentiing on seeing a robin red-chest, or feeling the groin of a needle. In a historical novel, we might have an illegitimate child refered to as a jerk rather than a bastard. I hope you can understand my concern with such bowdlerizing. It can change the whole intent of the passage. If CR is willing to invest the time and energy to artfully edit novels, and again, I would say that this should not happen without the express consent of the author and with approval of the resulting text, then I might be willing to revise my estimation of the app.


      • I personally wouldn’t buy the app, even though I don’t like swearing, as I said, I can filter the words easily myself by bleeping them out in my head. I dare say a lot of the readers who don’t like reading swear words won’t be reading steamy romance novels. If there is too much of something a reader doesn’t like in a book, they won’t buy it anyway. Changing the words is a concern, but I still think a person has the right to blank out a swear word if they want. And if they can’t stand breast being called a breast then they shouldn’t be reading novels filled with sex, there are plenty of ‘clean’ books out there.

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