The price of revisionism

Are we sticking our heads in the sand with revisionism of cultural treasures that have become controversial?

A friendly dog - but he's hurt a lot of people.

Who the hell are you, if not the sum of who you were and what you did?

If there’s anything that qualifies as a classic science-fiction theme by now, it’s the revision of memory. Altering one’s perception of past events has been treated of at length by Philip K. Dick (most famously in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, the loose basis of Blade Runner, and also in the dazzling short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, from which sprang Total Recall) ; with some prescient innovation and ingenuity by John Franklin Bardin (in his cult novel The Deadly Percheron); in recent Hollywood fare such as Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Vanilla Sky; and – in a cultural sense – by George Orwell in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, where protagonist Winston Smith passes his working days rewriting history to order at the Ministry Of Truth.

Little enough is yet understood about the holistic and individual function and physiology of memory in the human brain, and most of us can’t realistically hope for access to a Sony memory-editor (don’t forget to back up, folks) in our lifetimes. There are certainly some moments I’d like to splice out of my timeline, such as the day I went into an Italian hardware shop and asked for an ‘arse’ instead of a ‘broom-handle’ (almost the same word in Italian!).

But that experience forms some part of who I am, and excising it is at best an attempted (and at worst a successful) act of murder upon my present self. It’s like treading on a butterfly in stories of prehistoric time-travel and returning to your own time to find it unexpectedly ruled by the lizard-people.

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Would we use such technology judiciously? The very same worthwhile techniques that restore quality of life to victims of accidents and genetic deformity have ended up creating expensive 70” breasts and that distinctive ‘cat-people’ look of those who go ‘a tuck too far’.

What would the equivalent be in terms of psycho-surgery? Forget that you were just dumped, for instance? What if you were to ask that same person out again? Hey dude, leave it – I think you two were already an item once. And you’d shrug it off, since the person in question meant nothing real to you anyway. Such events would take on a precognitive mantle, despite having more to do with the past than the future.

If a woman who phoned in sick to your office with a broken ankle suddenly turns up with bigger breasts, you smell a rat and roll your eyes. In a world where memory-editing is a reality, perhaps instead she’d turn up from sick-leave in an unaccountably different mood, no longer chastened or defined by a snipped-out set of inhibiting memories. And perhaps she’ll have to retread the very same mistakes that she spent so much money having removed. That’s karma.

But that assumes such excisions are feasible: just as both your little toe and your ear contain your entire genome, there is some scientific evidence to suggest that vast tracts of memory are recoverable from areas of the brain that are not supposed to be in charge of such things; which would make custom-edits of your past problematic. This accords with the general psychological principle that repression of unpleasant events is equivalent to letting the dishes pile up – sooner or later, you’re going to have to face them.

Once unpleasant past events, attitudes or thoughts are exposed – integrated and contributing to one’s current perception of oneself – their power to damage, humiliate, limit or even cripple us is radically diminished.

I therefore wonder if it’s healthy for society as a whole to practise what the medical state-of-the-art cannot currently deliver to the individual: the ability to rewrite the ‘inconvenient’, Winston Smith-style.

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It’s no surprise, for instance, that the true-life name of Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s black Labrador in The Dambusters (1955) has caused increasing controversy over the years. The dog is called ‘nigger’. That’s just about the most offensive word the English-speaking world currently has to offer, but it bespoke ignorance rather than hatred in the period in which The Dambusters is set – an era where only the military and the rich ever stepped foot off an almost exclusively Christian-caucasian island.

The US networks’ decision to substitute ‘trigger’, which has been in place for some years, followed ITV’s decision in 2001 to completely cut out the dog’s name from the film – a problem, since one of the bombing runs is also named after the pooch, who was run down in an accident shortly before the bombers took off.

Cuts of this nature are a two-edged sword; they relieve us of awkward shared viewing moments but also obviate debate about who we are, where we have come from…and where we are going. Ironically, the ‘cut’ ITV version of The Dambusters presents a more favourable image of late-imperial Britain than the unaltered original, which has a secondary – and now diminished – function as a historical document recounting more than just the war it was concerned with.

Another case in point is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, an absolutely shocking read (in its unedited form) to a modern sensibility, and ranked by the American Library Association as the fifth most ban-requested book in the United States in the 1990s; also the work of an enlightened and liberal mind who could only effectively address the bigotry he hated in the literary coin of his characters and the world they lived in.

The politically-incorrect smoking and depiction of ‘Mama Two Shoes’ in the Tom and Jerry cartoons have also been the subject of repeated redubbing, cuts and controversy since the 1980s, as have various versions of Dickens’ Fagin and Shakespeare’s Shylock. These works were not written in – or for – our time or our culture. Removing problematic content from archive material is akin to skipping dinner and going straight for dessert: if the entertainment of the past is no longer fit for consumption as entertainment, serve it up in a historical context – or withhold it entirely and let’s fight over the point openly.

But re-presenting it as what it was not is both cynical and dangerous. It’s akin to intellectual ‘colorization’ [sic]; these movies were neither politically correct by modern standards, nor were they filmed in colour.

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Dead ideas will influence no-one, however dangerous they once were, and we can safely peruse works which treat of them. The trouble is not that the contentious words or images remain, but rather that the ideas behind them are still alive. This means that we’re not yet where we need to be. This means we still have work to do, and that this work must be done in the painful light of the most accurate view of history that we can get.

We need the whole picture of our collective as well as our individual selves, in order to know who we are, and the more we edit our cultural archives to accommodate the sensibilities of today, the further we are from laughing about the frequent folly of our ancestors – together.

Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column every Friday at Den Of Geek.