Wednesday 1 April 2015

Clean Reader: Because it's obscene

Clean Reader is software which does a search-and-replace on supposedly naughty words in e-books. Upon release, it encountered a well-deserved combination of fury, derision and hilarity; and now it is being withdrawn. I find myself with moderate dislike for Clean Reader, and absolute horror at its creators.

The town of Springfield had something much worse than Clean Reader.
Source: This is 912

(Unlike Dirty Reader, this is not an April Fool post; Clean Reader is very real.)

Clean Reader makes predictable mistakes. A child of unmarried parents changes from a "bastard" to "the jerk son of Ned Stark". Breast-feeding becomes "chest-feeding", which somehow is far more creepy. Vagina, clitoris and anus all become "bottom", which is what we computer scientists would call a loss of information.

Clean Reader is profoundly stupid and insulting.

The stupidity is obvious. Clean Reader assumes two different words are as alike as two concrete blocks, and can be substituted with no loss of function. This is very far from the truth, and produces errors like the ones lampooned above.

Moreover, Clean Reader embraces ignorance and fear. If we replace "fuck" and its derivatives with some euphemism like "smeg", it is childish but relatively harmless. By obscuring the correct medical terms for parts of the human body, Clean Reader implies they are somehow "dirty." It seems the Clean Readerites are frightened of their own bodies, and wish to pass that fear on to others.

The insult comes from the crude, unauthorised tampering with a work of art. The text of a novel represents thousands of hours of work by the author and editors. Every word is part of a greater structure, chosen with a specific purpose. Claiming that Clean Reader improves it is an act of extreme disrespect.

I understand the visceral outrage from authors. But I think Joanne Harris goes too far in her blog post, Why I am saying "fuck you" to Clean Reader:
The Nazis burnt countless works of art judged to be “degenerate”; including an estimated 45% of all existing Polish artwork. 
ISIS are currently destroying antiquities and historical sites in the Middle East, including the ancient city of Nimrud, the walls of Nineveh and statues up to 8000 years old.
The Victorians bowdlerized and rewrote Classical myths and literature out of all recognition (they also converted hundreds of thousands of Egyptian mummies into fertilizer, having judged them of “no historical value”). 
And all in the name of purity, morality and good taste.
[Emphasis in original]

Egyptian mummies and the ruins of Nimrud are irreplaceable artifacts. Once destroyed, they can never be recovered.

Clean Reader is stupid -- I want to be very clear on that point -- but it is not destructive. By definition, its targets have already been published in unexpurgated form. The unaltered text remains available to the user of Clean Reader. The original publisher continues to offer the e-book for download.

The lists of "dirty" words have been drawn up by the makers of Clean Reader, but the choice to use the software rests with individual readers. No coercion is being employed -- except perhaps by parents towards their children. But if your parents think Clean Reader is a great idea, being unable to read the word "fuck" is the least of your problems.

Imagine for a moment you are a religious fundamentalist, and wish to indoctrinate your children. Books such as The Origin of Species and The Communist Manifesto are unscathed by Clean Reader, and present a far greater threat to your ideology than a few vulgar words. Clean Reader is almost incidental to real issues of indoctrination and abusive upbringing. It would be most useful to prissy adults, who simply can't stand to read Game of Thrones with words like "bastard" left in.

The whole thing is a far cry from censorship by the state. It is disappointing that Harris feels the need to invoke the Nazis. Until such time as Clean Readerites turn violent, let us dispense with comparisons to Hitler. I prefer Cory Doctorow's more sanguine view; he dislikes Clean Reader, but defends it as an exercise of free speech.

Bowdlerisation is not censorship. It has a long and ignominious history; it is named for Thomas Bowdler, who published The Family Shakespeare in 1807. Bowdler's edition excised material he considered unsuitable for children, but it never seriously threatened the original works. Two hundred years later, Shakespeare is quite safe, and Bowdler has become a footnote to history.

Bowdler claimed to have been inspired by his father, who would read Shakespeare aloud to his family and change it on the fly. Something similar happens in The Princess Bride: In the novel, the grandfather omits tedious political commentary from the book-within-a-book, while in the film, the grandson asks to skip the "kissing parts." A parent recently made The Hobbit more interesting for a little girl, by changing Bilbo's gender from male to female.

I don't think this justifies any great outrage on behalf of Tolkien, let alone S. Morgenstern, the fictional author in The Princess Bride. Bespoke changes while reading aloud seem harmless, even endearing. I think much of the fury against Clean Reader stems from the crudity of its approach. It's a blind slash-and-burn, not a deliberate filleting. It's the insult, not the injury.

Insults cause real hurt, and it's fine to be angry about them, but we should be clear about what is at stake. Clean Reader is no more and no less than an update of bowdlerisation for the modern age. It is best met with laughter, rather than panic.

The most horrifying part of Clean Reader is not its effect on the reading public, which will be modest. It is the underlying attitude of its creators. This is illustrated by a remark from a Clean Reader spokesperson (h/t Charles Stross):

I'm currently reading American Sniper. It seems to have at least one F-word on every page and sometimes multiple per page. It's frankly a little over the top. Otherwise the book is fantastic and entertaining. 

What. The. Fuck?

American Sniper? American fucking Sniper?

I haven't read the book, or seen the film adaptation, but its full title is a helpful précis: "American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History."

It was written by Chris Kyle, a US Navy Seal who served four tours of duty in Iraq and had one hundred and sixty confirmed kills.

Let's put aside the bogus reasons for invading Iraq in the first place. Let's put aside the hideously botched occupation and continuing violence in Iraq, with civilian casualties between 2003 and 2013 exceeding 112,000. Let's put aside the implausibility that Kyle, fighting guerrillas among a civilian population, never shot anyone but enemy combatants.

The fact remains, this is a book about killing real people. The insurgents shot by Kyle were not orcs, zombies, or other fictional cannon fodder. They were living, breathing human beings in the real world.

They had friends and families, favourite foods and hobbies. Maybe they enjoyed football or playing the guitar. They decided to take up arms against a foreign occupier in their homeland; that made them Kyle's enemies, but it doesn't make them monsters. Was each one a being of pure evil, completely without humanity? I think not.

The spokesperson read this account by a highly successful killer of human beings, and was disturbed by the presence of the word "fuck."

To the makers of Clean Reader, firing a bullet through a human skull is "clean", not to mention "fantastic and entertaining".

I find that far more horrifying than all the vulgar language in Trainspotting.

To quote Kurtz in Apocalypse Now:

We train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won't allow them to write "fuck" on their airplanes, because it's obscene!

Even a deranged fictional character, being worshipped as a god in the Cambodian jungle, knew the Clean Reader attitude was severely fucked up.

On a personal level, I will declare an interest: The most viewed post on this blog, by a long way, is a rant about Facebook including the phrase "go fuck yourself".

I used those words very deliberately. I would not be pleased if some prissy software replaced them with "go fornicate yourself" or "go away"; but in this specific case, the essential point does not depend on the word "fuck". I would rather someone read a bowdlerised version than not at all. If it was a piece on sexual health, turned into gibberish by obfuscating the names for body parts, I'm sure I would feel differently.

Fortunately, I live in a society where Clean Reader is not imposed on me. That is the important principle to defend here. If a handful of puritans deface their own personal reading matter, that is of much less consequence.

1 comment:

  1. Back when I was involved in animal welfare policy, I used to have tremendous trouble with my work e-mail filter blocking all external e-mail about puppy farms. Because people in the puppy farming business didn't talk about breeding from lady doggesses