First off, before I get into a rather lengthy rant about Halloween that transforms into a bit of a rant of political correctness, I want to wish you all a safe and happy Halloween! Be safe, don’t eat already-opened candy, and egg any houses that give you pennies instead of delicious sweet treats. ;)
Halloween has long been one of my favorite holidays. One of my first truly vivid memories is of a Halloween party when I was three or four where my parents dressed me up as Dracula. It was a wonderfully fun time and in the years since (and I’ve dressed up almost every year, save the last couple) I’ve come to appreciate it more and more as a holiday. Not once have I ever seen it as a pagan or satanic type thing. In fact I genuinely feel sorry for kids who have parents that are so hypersensitive about religion as to treat Halloween like some evil, horrible, devil worshiping holiday and thus forbid their children from engaging in the fun.
I don’t really care about the history attached to Halloween (though I’m well aware of it, you can read more about it here), in modern usage Halloween is a time to let your imagination run wild and dress up as the scariest, funniest, craziest, and in some cases raunchiest thing you can imagine. The kids go around and get candy from the rest of the neighborhood (if for no other reason than to foster a sense of community within a neighborhood, I think Halloween trick’or’treating should be encouraged rather than dying out as it seems to be around here), the adults go have drinks with each other while dressed up, etc. The vast majority of people don’t in any serious way link Halloween to Satan as a lot of hardcore Christians try to, it seems.
Not to say I don’t think they have every right to feel uncomfortable with their children participating. They’re the parents, the decision should be theirs. If they’d rather their child attend a (very poorly named) Jesusween event or any of a myriad of “fall festivals” in lieu of celebrating Halloween, more power to them. But don’t attack others as godless heathens because they disagree with you. The free and open exchange of ideas is a cornerstone of this nation, and one I believe in very strongly as a writer. The marketplace of ideas is where I want to make my living, and if that marketplace is choked off by bigotry, incivility, and general hatred then we are all the poorer for it.
Political correctness is, to me, just as dangerous as hate speech. If we’re not allowed to refer to things in any manner but euphemism, we can’t ever really deal with those problems. It genuinely angered me, for example, when there was talk of removing “nigger” from Mark Twain’s works, replacing it with the more innocuous “slave.” Not because I have anything against African-Americans, quite the contrary. If we decide to (forgive the term) whitewash our history and go back and sanitize older works (particularly Twain’s, which were in large part meant to skewer the racist attitudes of the reconstruction-era south), how in the hell are we ever going to learn from our mistakes or see just how far we’ve progressed?
150 years ago black people were considered property in much of the nation and today we have a half-black man as president. That is a wonderful thing, whether you agree with his politics or not. Should we just ignore all the struggles in between that made his rise possible? I don’t think so. Our nation has a pretty ugly history with regard race relations; trying to go back and pretend that never happened by revising classic literature dealing with the issue is, in my opinion, far more offensive to African Americans than the usage of “nigger” in the text of his work. Of course I say this as a white man, so take the statement with a grain of salt I suppose.
And don’t think I’m simply fixating on African Americans. We treated the Native Americans horribly as well, we interred the Japanese during WWII (Jamie Ford can tell you all about that in his wonderful novel), we distrust Hispanics and even go as far as calling them invaders simply because some come here seeking a better life for themselves, and as far as I’m concerned being gay in America today is pretty close to being black in America in the 1950s: tacit acceptance in places, but with a heap of bigotry and intolerance being spewed all over the place. I can’t help but think we NEED those old, “non-PC” texts, even disregarding their vast literary merit, simply as a reminder of our own screwed up past.
But the reason I come back to racism/slavery specifically with regard to African Americans is because of an article making the rounds about hockey player Raffi Torres going to a Halloween party as Jay-Z. There are people calling him intolerant and bigoted. In the article linked a blogger named Thomas Drance went so far as to say such a costume is entirely off-limits. I hate to break it to Mr. Drance, but nothing should be off-limits. When you start making things off-limits, you degrade society and choke off the marketplace of ideas.
For the record, here is a picture of the “offending” costume:
I’m sorry, but I don’t see that as anything approaching the Vaudevillian “black face” that triggered such hubbub and stands as a throwback example of racism. If you want to see REAL “black face” in a Halloween costume, take a look at this picture of my own family from 39 Halloweens ago. It was Savannah, GA and a different time so I can’t take them to task too harshly for it, though I did tell my mother–who isn’t one of the two children in black face here and, indeed, based on her facial expression it looks like she wasn’t having the best of times (she’s the tallest one in the picture)–how terribly inappropriate that costume was when I found the picture.
That is inappropriate. That is offensive. That is in bad taste. But even that shouldn’t be OFF-LIMITS. If someone chooses to do something like that, they should simply face the consequences of their action. Scorn them, tell them they’re ignorant, but don’t try to deny them their right of free choice. Because as soon as you tell one person it is illegal to have a certain opinion or dress up a certain way, you open up a Pandora’s box that cannot be closed.
And ultimately as a writer, I think the most important thing we have is the ability to express ourselves freely without worry of legal backlash. We can be sued for the things we write, sure, but we should never be censored or banned (the fact that book bans are still so prevalent in our supposedly free nation drives me up a wall, but that is a topic for another day). The good and righteous ideas will rise to the top, the hate-filled and ignorant ones will fall to the bottom.