Food For Careful Thought

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photo by Carol Duff

Heath Editor’s Note: This thoughtfully written article was sent to me and I find its message important.  I would wish to share William Reese Hamilton’s thoughts and words with you. William Reese Hamilton, former WWII prisoner and author of Wonks, asks this question in a new article titled “Let’s Not Obscure History’s Lessons By Eliminating Insensitive Words”. In it, he draws on his recent experience getting caught up in this debate due to his novel’s historically accurate but socially insensitive language, and explains what may be lost if we remove all insensitive references from books and literature that are set in the past.….Carol

Let’s Not Obscure History’s Lessons By Eliminating Insensitive Words

By William Reese Hamilton

In March of this year, president Donald Trump signed an executive order protecting freedom of speech on college campuses. But there was an unwritten clause to this order: political correctness has gone too far, and that is the real boogeyman threatening freedom of speech.

The polemic is complex.  Where, indeed, do we draw the line between protecting all speech and protecting hate speech? At what point does paying careful attention to how we speak – to how we refer to certain events, groups and sentiments – cross the boundary between being simply “politically correct” and being downright censorship?

This question becomes all the more poignant when we consider that confusion over the treatment of speech doesn’t only include what’s going on now, today. It reaches into symbols and speech from our past. Over the course of its existence, To Kill A Mockingbird has been banned from school districts and libraries over thirteen times according to the American Library Association, and just in the last year we have seen Huckleberry Finn being pulled from the bookshelves of American schools.

I recently became caught up in the debate over the treatment of speech in history when I was booked for a TV interview about my novel, Wonks, based upon my experience as a prisoner for over three years in Japanese Internment Camp Number One at Santo Tomas University, Manila, during WWII. At the last minute, the station decided the interview could be too controversial if misinterpreted and cancelled it.

Why? The novel’s narrator and protagonist, 15-year-old Johnny Oldfield, speaks in the language of his day.  That includes using the word, “Jap.” The producer decided that the reference to “Japs” might be taken out of context and misused on the internet against both the author and the station.

Of course, it would be wrong and insensitive to use the term “Jap” for today’s Japanese population, whether American or native. But within the context of the book, where a boy is referring to his captors and enemy in the 1940s, “Jap” is historically accurate. Its elimination on the book’s pages would be tantamount to historical revisionism. The use of the word — like the use of “Kraut,” “Red,” “Gringo,” and “Nazi” when referring to the entire German population — was a tactic for dehumanizing the enemy.  These words were powerful propaganda tools in their time.

Wonks is a fictional interpretation of my very real and difficult experience witnessing brutal treatment, starvation, execution and the destruction of Manila, once called “The Pearl of the Orient,” where 100,000 Filipinos were slaughtered in the one month of February 1945, all at the hands of the Japanese.


The victims – myself included – were angry, bewildered, in pain and resentful.  We were trapped.  We experienced starvation.  We witnessed beatings and executions on a regular basis. Using words such as “Jap” afforded us a tiny shred of empowerment and a way to express the toxic cocktail of our emotions. This historic fact should not be eliminated or glazed over.  My character’s language is insensitive because I, like my fellow prisoners, were utterly disenfranchised and had no weapons other than our words.

Moreover, we must ask: does erasing hateful words from the past truly redeem us from hatred, discrimination and historic wrongdoings?  What do we gain by doing so – and at what cost?

If we were to revise the past to fit with the present, we would lose the entirety of Shakespeare’s Othello and his many other works borne of political, social and racial tension. But there’s a more important potential loss than that of art and culture (most of which would not be immune), and it is this: if we were to cleanse language born from the experience of conflict that reflects the complex feelings that come with being a helpless victim in the “out” crowd, of being the other, or captive, of doing whatever you can to quietly get by under an oppressive regime, we would lose these breadcrumbs of tension.  And we may then lose our way when tracing paths to its resolution.

This is not to argue that the people who coined terms such as “Japs” had the right perspectives in their time. Simply, it is to say that it is human to messily grapple with social tensions. But if we are to deconstruct the past, and void it of all the hateful, biased influences that have carried us to a brighter and brighter present, then we might in fact lose sight altogether of the mistakes we must still learn from.


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