Thursday, April 12, 2012

Naked History: Sanitized for Your Protection

In George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 the “futuristic” book opens with the main character working in a branch of government whose job is to delete all references to any persons no longer favored by said government.  He carefully arranges to airbrush these disfavored people from pictures in newspaper archives and cuts out their names too.

In reality, the most controversial aspects of history often don’t make it into the textbooks in the first place.  And it seems you can’t get much more “controversial” than the naked human body. 
Take the ancient Olympic Games, for example.  Spend more than a cursory amount of time researching the Games and you will learn that they were played in the nude for hundreds of years.  Many Greek athletes trained in the nude also.  Yet if you picked up most children’s books about the Games in a school library, you would likely find those ancient Greeks running around in toga-like apparel.  We can’t have little Johnny or Suzie seeing illustrations of naked people---even if it’s the truth. Books with naked people might not sell well.

In literature the censorship goes even further at times, deleting mere words about nakedness.  Not many years ago the New York Board of Regents’ exam given to high school students included a reading comprehension passage from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.  In typical Twain fashion, the original passage described the experience of a boy traveling down the river on a raft, including the statement that he and his traveling companion were usually naked, “whenever the flies” would let them be.  But in the Regents’ passage all references to the word “naked” were removed… without so much as a …. Or [edited] marking!

In his best-selling book Lies My Teacher Told Me   Professor James Loewen notes that history is often censored and he argues that this censorship makes it more boring for students to study, as well as removing powerful life lessons.  Loewen’s book doesn’t dwell on the subject of nudity, but does note that nudity is usually a big no-no in any study. 

He presents the famous Vietnam War photograph of a young girl running down the street naked after her body and clothing had been burned when her village was napalmed.  Interesting that this powerful image helped stir feelings against the war and helped change the direction of US policy, yet would have virtually no chance of making it into a high school curriculum because of the girl’s nudity.

Sanitized for our protection, of course.

04/30/13 Update: The nation of Qatar preferred to return two statutes with male nudity back to Greece (from which they were on loan), rather than display them without coverings and risk offending female visitors to an archaeological exhibit about the ancient Olympic games.  Read details HERE 

4/30/12 Update:  Another example -"The Dirty Cowboy," a picture book about a cowboy who takes a bath and then can't get his dog to give back his clothes because it doesn't recognize his scent, was removed from a Pennsylvania school library by an 8-0 vote.  Officials said the cowboy's nudity would "groom" kids to accept pornography: