Saturday, 15 January 2011

Social mores change with time

Brave New World (The Star)
13 January 2011

Children’s literature has to be carefully examined as many books written decades ago are blatantly racist, something certainly not acceptable in this day and age.


PAUL Theroux really annoys me. His most famous book is arguably The Great Railway Bazaar. It is undoubtedly well written and his style is gripping, but he sounds like an arrogant, whiny American throughout, which is very irritating.
What I find most grating is how he casually passes judgment on entire communities and societies from the few moments he observes them while sitting in his train carriage.
My home state Penang was reduced to little more than a bordello for foreign sailors. This conclusion was arrived at after looking out his train window during a short stop in Butterworth train station on route to Kuala Lumpur from Thailand.
What a plonker.
I won’t burn his books though. In fact, I won’t burn any book. No matter how offensive. Neither would I ban any book. No matter how offensive. Instead, to paraphrase John Stuart Mills, one kills off bad ideas by debunking them.
In this light, the recent furore over a secondary literature text has raised many disturbing questions. First off, the book burning episode is to be criticised as crude and an affront to the freedom of expression.
But if one were to criticise this deed, then one must also be willing to criticise other forms of assault on the written word, namely the act of book banning.
If one were to defend Interlok as a work of literature, then one must be equally willing to defend The Satanic Verses. Both are literary works and their value, or lack of, should be judged on those grounds, as literary works.
So, as offensive as I find the burning of this book, I find the lack of intellectual honesty as well as hypocrisy in the criticism by some quarters of the book burning, equally offensive.
Going back to the crux of the mater, the content of Interlok, there is clearly a need to examine the book to assess its suitability as a school text book. But this assessment must be made by level heads and their reasoning must be made open for public debate.
Times change and it is possible that what is deemed acceptable in the past is not so acceptable today. Children’s literature in particular has to be carefully examined. There are many books written decades ago which are blatantly racist, and surely such a viewpoint is not acceptable in this day and age.
Neither should the standing of the author be part of the decision making. A work should be judged purely on its merits.
George Bernard Shaw may have had some grotesque views on the “benefit” of the killing of “unproductive” members of society, but his Nobel winning works ought to be judged as they stand.
However, as I stated earlier, such an assessment has to be made in a reasonable, clear minded and transparent manner. Dramatic outbursts from either side of the debate serve no purpose except to reveal a childish streak in the debaters.
Besides, if we are talking about instilling good race relations among school children, the problem is far deeper than any literature text.
In a school system where children are told to give one greeting for Malay teachers and another greeting to those from other ethnic groups, it is obvious that the removal or the continued use of one piece of fiction is hardly going to make any real difference.