Keeping it Clean

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When I was kid in the 1980s I spent my summers in Louisiana with my father and step-mother. While they were at work I went to the Boy’s Club or summer camp at the local YMCA. Occasionally, those programs would be closed but my parents would still have to work. On those days they would drop me off at the local library with lunch and a little pocket money.

Those were my favorite days because I had the entire library’s collection to myself. I could read whatever I wanted. I quickly upgraded my child card to an adult one even though I was only about 10 years old.cleanapp1-001

During those days I would go through whole swaths of books considered inappropriate for someone that age today. Scary Stephen King books? Check. Sword and Fantasy books awash in sex and violence? Check. Did you know Judy Blume didn’t just write books for children? I found out that summer.

When I take my seven-year-old daughter to the library these days I follow the same attitude as my parents: If you want to read it, go for it. And while she has not currently expressed any interest in checking out the adult books, when she does I will happily point her to the stacks and say go have a blast.

I was reminded of this by a discussion of a new app that strips out curse words in e-books you buy from them called Clean App on Metafilter.com, a site that aggregates news and information from a variety of sources and lets people discuss the content. Clean App uses three filters: clean, cleaner and squeaky clean. As the makers describe it on their site, “The ‘Clean’ setting only blocks major swear words from display.  This includes all uses of the F-word we could find.  The ‘Cleaner’ setting blocks everything that ‘Clean’ blocks plus more.  ‘Squeaky Clean’ is the most restrictive setting and will block the most profanity from a book including some hurtful racial terms.”

The app is made by a couple and originated when their oldest daughter came home complaining that a book she really liked had too many curse words in it.

Let’s state up front that what they’re doing appears to be legal. The app doesn’t actually remove the words from the book, it just covers them up on your screen. On top of that, you have to choose to download and install it. In addition, you can turn it off any time you want.

People have been fighting over what kids can and cannot read for many years. From banning to outright burning, books have always faced a fight. To this day, people still argue over whether or not Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn should have the word “nigger” taken out of it to protect young reader’s sensibilities.

And it’s not just books. People have sought to sanitize or ban everything from rap music, movies that were too sexually explicit, or violent, or depicted religion in a way they did not feel was respectful enough. This was made somewhat easier in 2005 with the passage of the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act which, among other things, allowed companies to sell products that clean up potentially offensive content in DVDs. Today there are companies such as ClearPlay and VidAngel that are dedicated to this business model.

There are even filters for web sites such as Facebook that can block everything from curse words to political opinions you disagree with. And while I would never use a product that changed the author’s intent in a book, song, or film, I have blocked people on Facebook and Twitter whose opinion on politics, religion, or even video games I find tiresome. It is not just people I disagree with. Some people I follow are particularly passionate about certain topics and while I agree with them, sometimes I don’t want to read several diatribes on it.

What do you think? Would you use a product that censors words for yourself or your child? Let me know at kamauhigh@yahoo.com.

Kamau High is a journalist living in Baltimore. He has written for publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Billboard and The Baltimore Sun. He can be reached at kamauhigh@yahoo.com.}