Leonard Pitts Jr.: When making people uncomfortable is the point
It “makes some people uncomfortable.”
That was the explanation Kenny Holloway, a school board official in Biloxi, Mississippi, gave the Sun Herald newspaper last week, for the board’s decision to remove from its eighth-grade curriculum a Pulitzer Prize-winning American classic, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable,” said Holloway. He said this like it was a bad thing.
In a nation where some educational institutions now deem it their duty to offer “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to protect their students from vexatious language or behavior like cartons protect eggs and bubble wrap protects china, maybe it is. So I beg your pardon for the heresy that follows.
Because, with pure hearts and noble intentions, these educators are doing nothing less than presiding over what I will call the stupidification and wimpification of this country. Having liberated the American mind from the tyranny of facts, we now seek to liberate it from the bother of contending with difficult words or ideas.
It “makes some people uncomfortable,” he says.
By which he means the word “n—-r.” And yes, it is offensive. Indeed, if you are not African American, you may have trouble appreciating just how obnoxious the word is.
But it is also wholly appropriate to Lee’s moralistic tale, set during the Great Depression, of a 6-year-old white girl in the deep South, watching her attorney father defend a black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman. When one of the locals tries without success to goad her father into a brawl, should the dialogue read: “Too proud to fight, you African-American-lovin’ b—-d?”
Let’s be serious.
I am reminded of recent email exchanges with readers angry over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial oppression. These readers argued that protest should not make anyone — here’s that word again — uncomfortable. One man said protest should “unify” and “educate.”
Maybe that makes sense in a color-coordinated Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner, but it has nothing to do with reality. Did the civil-rights marchers seek to “unify” with Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham? Did the colonists seek to “educate” when they committed the anti-government vandalism called the Boston Tea Party?
No, they were raising their voices, poking a stick in the eye of their oppressors. They were making them … uncomfortable. We should be grateful they did.
And we should ask those uncomfortable people in Biloxi and elsewhere: Where did you get the idea you should be sheltered from history? What made you think you had an expectation of being shielded from truth? Who told you you had a right never to be made ill at ease?
Yes, I recognize the possibility — in fact, the probability — that some of those discomfited by Lee’s book are African American. It makes no difference.
In literature, as in protest, the audience’s discomfort is often a sign the message is being received. It can offer an invaluable opportunity to consider, reconsider, debate, teach, learn, reflect, and grow.
Or it can be an excuse to run and hide. In a nation where ignorance masquerades as authenticity, and the ability to think deeply and critically on difficult subjects has been mollycoddled into near oblivion, it is too often the latter. So I have no sympathy for those delicate folks in Biloxi.
“Mockingbird” is a seminal text of the American experience. Yes, it “makes some people uncomfortable.”
That’s the whole point.