The complex issues of sensitivity, censorship, expression, art and history splashed down on the front page of the New York Times this week in a pair of articles.
One piece examined the legal case brought by Quebec artist Sam Kerson, formerly of Vermont.
In 1993, Kerson installed two murals titled “Vermont, The Underground Railroad” and “Vermont and the Fugitive Slave” at Vermont Law and Graduate School (VLGS) in South Royalton, VT. I was an administrator at VLGS at the time and played an instrumental role in facilitating the project. After recent complaints from students, describing the depiction of slaves as crude caricatures, VLGS covered the murals. Kerson sued, VLGS prevailed, Kerson appealed, and the appeal was heard in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City on January 27th. The Times article describes the somewhat arcane law that Kerson cites in the appeal to protect his creation.
The second article reported the rewrites of several works by Roald Dahl. The Times reports that the rewrites were “. . . an effort to make them less offensive and more inclusive, according to a representative from the author’s estate.” Changes included such things as removing “fat” and using more inclusive terms for race, gender and parenting.
It is a humorous coincidence that the Puffin Foundation supported the murals, and Puffin Books sanitized the novels. The Puffins are not related, although Wikipedia says this about the Foundation. “The Puffin Foundation, with more than $14 million in assets split between two independent entities, was seeded with the fortune Perry Rosenstein made in the Allen screw business. He got into the fasteners industry as a salesman. As he made the rounds on his accounts, he found several buyers who wanted diversity in Allen screws.”
All these years later, “diversity” and “screwing” are flashpoints!
A critical distinction: Sam Kerson is a passionate anti-racist activist, and no person questions his motives, which were to remind us of both cruelty and heroism. Roald Dahl, by contrast, was known as a nasty anti-semite and anti-feminist.
Particularly in these contentious times, it is important to adhere to principles, whether one prefers the outcome or not. One ought not fiercely defend only the rights or expression that coincide with personal values or beliefs. We can neither understand nor learn from the past if we are constantly tinkering with its representation. That doesn’t mean that any literary or artistic product has total impunity. It is our right – our obligation – to interpret, to critique and to engage in debate. Without discomfort, growth is stunted.
In the Dahl instance, there seems little nuance. Editing books to cleanse them of discomfort is indefensible. Dahl’s language tells us about the era, the context, and the author’s implicit and explicit biases. We need all of it to understand the books and the man. No one is forced to read them. And, of course, any good teacher can use student discomfort to provide valuable lessons on social injustice, misogyny, bigotry and more. Even Puffin Books could reprint with a publisher’s note, citing the examples of language they find offensive and stimulating debate as to why.
I intend no false equivalence, but the outcry over actions like the Florida erasure of the truth of racial injustice rings hollow if rewriting Dahl’s books is easily accepted.
As to VLGS murals, it is important to recognize that they are not like framed paintings, where displays are often rotated and there is no presumption of permanence. The nature of a mural is to be fixed and ongoing. They are Kerson’s creations. The Times writes, “The case turns on language in the federal law that says artists can seek to prevent modification of their work if the change would harm their honor or reputation.’” Kerson claims, as seems self-evident, that removal or covering is a “modification,” and that his honor and reputation are at stake.
I also have sympathy for students and others who find the murals difficult. But like Dahl’s language, the murals can be a topic for critical analysis and rich debate. As a matter of principle, Kerson’s impeccable bona fides are not dispositive. But as a matter of context, his intent does matter.
I am in no position to obligate Kerson to anything, but my guess is that he might welcome a chance to go to VLGS and engage in discussion. Perhaps they could persuade his good heart to their viewpoint. Or perhaps not. But hiding or removing the murals just capitulates to a dangerous trend toward censoring discomfort.
A law school should be reluctant to be part of that trend, however emotionally powerful the concerns may be.