A lazy Tuesday, full of little and carefree tasks, was interrupted a little while ago when I read a newspaper article about Dante. Inquisition, here we go again.
The only English language website with this piece of news was catholic.com, so I’ll avoid mentioning their one-sided view. A translation of Il Corriere della Sera reads:
The Divine Comedy has to be removed from school curricula: too much of its content is anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, racist and homophobic. The surprising request is from “Gherush92” organization of researchers and practitioners who enjoys the status of Special Advisor to the Economic and Social Council of United Nations.
I had to read it a few times, do some research, and fact-check a few things before I could finally realize this was not fake. Worse, the head of the organization is Italian, Valentina Sereni. Non-Italian schools, in the luckiest case, offer bits and crumbs of Dante’s Commedia, whereas Italian high schools have a three-year curriculum on his verses. A masterpiece that was defined “Divine” after its completion, because it both talked about and neared perfection, of the holiest kind. This piece, along with a few contemporary examples, contributed to the codification of the Italian language vis-a-vis the ecclesiastic Latin, incomprehensible to the many and used as a class weapon by aristocrats. Dante took what was vulgar, the language of the peasants, of the craftsmen, and made it lyric. Dante was also an anti-clerical, a proto-nationalist, and a white-supremacist without even realizing it. But it was the Thirteenth century, for Middle Ages’ sake!
Dante’s legacy is one of rebellion against the status quo. Just look at who’s placed in which circle in hell. It’s full of popes, noble kinds, personal enemies, and mythological characters. He saves nobody from an alleged God’s judgement, which, in fact is his own. His sharp critique of costumes and behaviors remains unmatched, to a point where Italians still cite him whenever they want to serve a witty offense to their opponent. Inappropriate and outspoken, everybody’s favorite is the Inferno. I also enjoyed the Purgatorio, where politics and medieval fights took the lion’s share. The Paradiso was too cheesy and heavenly to capture my unsettled teenager heart, so I’ll suspend my judgement until a more mature read.
Wait! If they allow me! What this ECOSOC “Special Advisor” is trying to tell the UN is that we shouldn’t read Dante, precisely because of his inappropriate language towards Jews, Mores, and gays. Failing to understand “what’s inappropriate, when”, Gherush92 bans entire chapters (Canti, oh how it sounds better!). Before stepping out and remind those people who banned or burned books in the past, we should first reason on the notion of “appropriateness” and “political correctness”. Because words have and gain meanings and I find no reason why we should also artificially impose constrictions on language.
Grammar and etymology are very dear to me. I treasure what I read and try to replicate my thoughts as precisely as possible by employing the most accurate words and structures. It is no secret that I speak and write slowly, and this is the main reason. Be inaccurate with your words and you’ll be read and heard, or, worse, classified and tagged in a way that is far from your true character. I don’t think there’s anything worse that ending up in this cul-de-sac. It’s not necessary to “brand” oneself as different all the time, but it’s healthy to define one’s characteristics with precise word choices. This choice is “political” in every sense, therefore, I loathe the pursuit of what is “politically correct”.
You can’t say “negro” in the year 2000 and you should probably bleep all the mentions of that word in radio shows, books, and articles from the past 200 years. You can’t say Jew with a derogatory tone, in any language, and therefore, you should erase, obliterate any literature that mentions that word, that way. So, dominant cultures choose to grant a dictionary salvation to “formerly” oppressed people by making words “illegal” or just inappropriate. Such practice devoids our vocabularies of words that have defined us in the past, thus impoverishing the way in which we speak and define each other in the present.
For hours, days, weeks, I had passionate and tough arguments with my loved one about censorship. It is always fun and interesting to have such arguments with a person whose opinions you care that much. She argued for no censorship whatsoever and I was more of a “politically correct”, or better “appropriately correct”, type. Today, Dante made me realize that she was right from the start. While I still think that it is very important to use words that properly (rather than appropriately) define the sought meaning, there’s no use for censorship. Cutting, bleeping, and erasing are tools in the hand of the powerful, used to constrict the dispossessed’s free speech. Appropriate talk is generally less free than its inappropriate sister. Ex post censorship, as in today’s case with Dante, represents a clear design to downgrade culture as a servant to the will of the sovereign politeness. Just a few months ago, “Shit so and so say” YouTube videos were trending. People laughed at them because they often found themselves falling in the stereotypes that such videos overemphasized. I find it inappropriate to generalize people so categorically, it underestimates differences among individuals with same gender, background, or lifestyle. However, it is key to understand that the politeness with which popular commentaries are banned is a sign of censorship. If I make a racist or homophobic comment, I would like to be defined racist or homophobic. What society should not do is to prevent people from saying what they believe in. Giordano Bruno, among others, was burned alive for putting into words his inappropriate thoughts. Dante’s Commedia was banned for many years. Galileo had to negate himself in front of a jury to save his life from the gallows pole, although what he said proved to be right (following Gherush92’s stance, we should also ban Dante for being “anti-science”, because he wrote that the world is flat).
Voltaire put into words what I think should be the maxim for illuminated people: “I don’t agree with your opinion, but I would die to defend your right to voice it.” I’m going out to buy a few copies of the Commedia now. I won’t tell you where I will hide them, so that I can sneak a few copies to young kids when darker ages of censorship and ignorance come.
note: My loved one, again, makes me realize that I didn’t mention an important fact: I do not agree with almost anything Dante has ever written. I like how he wrote and the courage he put in his writings, but I do not stand on his side on any issue (be it nationalistic, religious, or anthropological). This is not a defense of Dante for his viewpoints (that’s what catholic.com does). Rather, this tries to be a way to define censorship for what it is: bullshit.