Saturday, January 17, 2015

Of Pigs and Publishing: The Controversy That Wasn’t

The Charlie Hebdo killings spawned a lot of useful dialogue about the place of satire in political discourse and the extent to which provocative and even “hate” speech ought or ought not to be regulated. Predictably, however, they also gave rise to untold posturing (witness the presence at the Paris rally of heads of state from places that actively discourage free expression); to calls for more restrictions on civil liberties; to knee-jerk bleatings from gun fetishists despite ample evidence that the victims would have been just as dead had an “armed civilian” been present; to wildly inaccurate descriptions of, for example, Birmingham, UK, as “totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in” (there’s a larger Muslim population in Brum than there was when Curmie lived there in the late ‘70s, but it’s still only about 20% of the population). I wrote last time about the darkly ironic decision by an Israeli newspaper to photoshop women out of the image of world leaders in attendance at the Paris rally for freedom of expression.

President Obama was rightly pilloried for not attending (or at least sending a higher-ranking dignitary than the Ambassador to France, especially since Eric Holder was already in the city), although many if not most of the right-leaning press so exercised by his absence can be counted on to have equally (or, indeed, even more) full-throatedly bellowed had he attended: spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money on a purely symbolic display that turned out to be little more than a cynical photo op. And OMG, what would have happened had Obama (or Vice President Biden or Secretary Kerry or Attorney General Holder or whoever) been positioned—purely by chance—next to Mahmoud Abbas and a few feet farther away from Bibi Netanyahu?

One more result of the events in Paris has been a sadly predictable flurry of crappy journalism about creeping Islamism. Curmie has probably seen the words “Sharia” and “halal” more in 2015 already than in all of 2014. And then there’s nonsense like the false furor over the Oxford University Press.

This book is indeed available from the Oxford UP.

The fracas seems to have originated during a BBC4 radio program. I turn here to the article in the International Business Times:
Presenter Jim Naughtie said: “I've got a letter here that was sent out by OUP to an author doing something for young people.

“Among the things prohibited in the text that was commissioned by OUP was the following: Pigs plus sausages, or anything else which could be perceived as pork.

“Now, if a respectable publisher, tied to an academic institution, is saying you’ve got to write a book in which you cannot mention pigs because some people might be offended, it’s just ludicrous. It is just a joke.”

The guidance issue was also condemned as “ludicrous” by Muslim Labour MP Khalid Mahmood.

He added: “That’s absolute, utter nonsense and when people go too far that actually brings the whole discussion into disrepute.”
By the time this red flag had been waved on this side of the Atlantic, by the even less credible Washington Times, it became “Oxford University,” not the Press, which “warned” authors to avoid porcine references; also, whereas the original headline cited the potential for “offending Muslims or Jews,” the Times seems to have forgotten the “Jews” part and blamed only Muslims. Imagine Curmie’s surprise.

Even so, the suggestion that one of the world’s most reputable presses would issue such an edict is troubling… or, rather, it would be if there were any truth to it. The OUP is not strong-arming academics into avoiding the mention of pigs or pork. Their academic wing—the one most of us associate with them—is completely unaffected by a long-standing corporate decision to (wait for it) try to maximize revenues by avoiding topics in their children’s books that might prevent sales in certain parts of the world.

This isn’t the same as removing Israel from a map of the Middle East. It isn’t transforming the best friend of the title character in Charlotte’s Web into a lamb. It isn’t turning the bad guys in Animal Farm into goats. It doesn’t change reality; it doesn’t infringe on academic freedom. It’s a business decision founded on the idea that maybe if it doesn’t matter whether a character has bacon or bagels for breakfast, maybe she eats the latter if it will sell more books.

Is there a potential for too much pandering? Of course. And it seems clear that some writers chafe a little under guidelines which seem to run throughout the industry and are by no means either new or restricted to the OUP. There’s even apparently an acronym for topics to be avoided: PARSNIP, i.e. politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms (communism for example) and pork. Whether all of these topics ought really to be excluded is a matter for debate, but the suggestion that authors ought to be able to put anything they want into a children’s book and have their publisher market it for them is just dumb. There are plenty of topics and words you’re never going to see in a children’s book EVER. We can, of course, argue about the details, but I see nothing wrong with the general concept that a society de facto establishes guidelines for what our children do or do not see. Take movie ratings, for example… or the fact that to get to this page you had to click on a button to acknowledge that some of the content here is appropriate only to adults. (Curmie made the choice to include that buffer freely and proactively, by the way.)

Jane Harley clarifies the OUP’s position:
OUP does not have a blanket ban on pork products in its titles, and we do still publish books about pigs….

To address children’s learning needs, it is important that they also reflect the cultural context in which children are learning. In the UK, we take it for granted that we would not include references to sex, violence, or alcohol in our textbooks; to do so would be considered inappropriate and offensive to many. In order to make an impact around the world, there are other sensitivities that, although not necessarily obvious to some of us, are nonetheless extremely important to others.

While we should be mindful of these cultural sensitivities, a healthy dose of common sense is also required. Cultural taboos must never get in the way of learning needs, which will always be our primary focus. So, for example, a definition of a pig would not be excluded from a dictionary, and we wouldn’t dream of editing out a “pig” character from an historical work of fiction. We also maintain entirely separate guidelines for our academic titles which are relevant to scholarly rather than educational discourse….

Managing cultural sensitivities isn’t about reducing educational quality, pandering to minority views, restricting freedom of speech or self-censorship. It’s about ensuring the educational value of our publishing is able to navigate the maze of cultural norms for the benefit of students around the world. We want to ensure we can make the widest possible impact.
It may well be that the OUP should loosen their restrictions on potentially “culturally sensitive” topics, but the frothing-at-the-mouth Islamophobia of the International Business Times and especially the Washington Times isn’t going to take us to a genuine discussion of where one reasonably draws the line between recognizing cultural differences and being ruled by them. No, those two publications are interested only in dividing us, in imagining PC capitulations where none exist, in ginning up a confirmation-biased uproar from their biased and under-informed readerships. It is they, not the OUP, who deserve our scorn.

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