This is the novelist Janet Burroway, writing about her experience making a fifth edition of a textbook for creative writing classes:
Unusually, this time around my publisher asked for no refreshing of my ideas, no major swaths of rewriting, only that I conform to the new sensibility. I was asked to change the binary “he/she,” for example, and to substitute they as a neutral nonbinary, or to refashion the sentence so that the plural made sense. The latter was often easy. The former not so much.
My instructions suggested that even if I was positing a hypothetical stage scene, I should not designate an actor as male or female. I was asked not to say “pregnant woman” since trans men can sometimes give birth. I was asked to substitute “home” where I had said “house,” on the grounds that some people don’t have houses. (What of those who have a house but no home?) I was to add “or caregiver” to every mention of mother, father, or parents. “Heroine” and “hero” are out. “God” should not be referenced, since different people have different gods, or none. Likewise, “Him” should not be capitalized. Noah’s Ark should not be mentioned, since non-Bible-savvy students might not know the story. “First year” must be used instead of the sexist “freshman.” “Foreign” and “foreigners” are offensive in any context. “Nerd,” “tribal,” “naïve,” “’hood,” “ugliness,” and “race” should not be said. Don’t mention shame, straitjacket, suicide, Donald Trump, or Kevin Spacey!
To virtually all of these admonitions, even when I thought them misguided or silly, I agreed. My own prose was not after all sacred. But when it came to the imaginative prose of other writers, trouble began.
Trouble began because whenever those authors — many of whom are racial or sexual minorities — had written, or simply had made their characters say, something deemed offensive, then Burroway was instructed to delete that example of their writing and find another example, one that could not possibly offend any member of any protected group. The previous edition of her textbook had quoted one memoirist describing the nasty names he was called as a child, so she was asked to remove that quotation and choose another (properly sanitized) one that avoids potential harm to an imaginary reader.
Burroway doesn’t say this, but these principles, consistently followed, would prevent people who have suffered racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and any other form of trauma from writing honestly about their experience, since such honest writing might perpetuate the effects of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. etc. Every offense is The Offense That Dare Not Speak Its Content.
Problems usually arise for the makers of children’s Bibles not because they are uncertain how to interpret a story, but rather because they do not know how bluntly they dare relate that story. No one questions the evil of David’s adultery with Bathsheba; but how do you explain that adultery to children who may not yet know anything about human sexuality? Some writers, Bottigheimer shows, said that David “took another’s wife,” leaving the concept of “taking” ambiguous. Others (especially in the nineteenth century) made no reference whatsoever to the sexual nature of the sin: David committed “a shocking offense,” one said, while another noted still more vaguely that “he grew tyrannical and began to sin.”
But those were Bibles for small children. Burroway’s publisher (like many others) thinks that university students are children; maybe that we all are.
I happened to read Burroway’s depressing account immediately after reading a wonderful essay by Witold Rybczynski on ornament in architecture. Rybczynski describes
a lecture given in Vienna on January 21, 1910. The venue was the Akademischer Verband für Literatur und Musik, an association of university students and their friends that organized avant-garde concerts by the likes of Arnold Schoenberg and exhibits by young firebrands such as Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. The lecturer that January evening was not so young, a 39-year-old Moravian-born architect named Adolf Loos, but he was definitely a firebrand. He titled his talk “Ornament und Verbrechen” (Ornament and Crime), and his theme, encapsulated in the title, was that ornamentation was both uneconomical and morally wrong; therein lay the crime. The lecture, which was actually more like an extended harangue, consisted of stirring if unproven pronouncements: “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from objects of everyday use” — an assertion difficult to prove, since in 1910 both machine tools and steam locomotives often incorporated ornament. Nevertheless, to Loos, ornament was a throwback to a primitive time and had no place in the modern world. “Ornament is wasted labor and hence wasted breath,” he declared. “That’s how it has always been.” One can hear the outrage in his voice.
What do Adolf Loos and Janet Burroway’s publisher have in common? The belief that one can achieve virtue through omission and excision. This is the belief shared by all forms of purity culture — and purity culture always leads to katharsis culture, that is, the practice of cleansing yourself, restoring your purity, by casting out the unclean thing.
But what if that’s not how virtue works? What if after having cast out every unclean thing you can find you just end up in the foul rag and bone shop of your own heart? What then?
That’s why these periods of desperate and manic katharsis always burn themselves out — why Robespierre ends by executing the executioner. And when they’ve done all they can do, they are succeeded by a bacchanal, an era of pseudo-festive delight in transgression. Our culture oscillates between “cast out the unclean thing” and “let us sin the more that grace may abound” — that is, between legalism and antinomianism, the very pairing that St. Paul in his letters is always trying to subvert.
Paul is the greatest of psychologists: he knows that human beings perfectly well understand legalism, which they rename “justice,” and perfectly well understand antinomianism, which they rename “freedom.” What we can’t understand is the grace of God.
So we keep turning our simple wheel. Today it’s justice prized and freedom despised; tomorrow will be the opposite. The bacchanal is coming. Get ready.