Recently, a Facebook friend shared a quote attributed to — but not proven to be — by Mark Twain: “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.” I wrote back that I could make neither heads nor tails of this remark. The young woman replied by way of explanation:
I think it’s a fair analogy. Often censorship is championed by those who simply don’t have the maturity to handle the material. To stick with the analogy, if you don’t have the teeth, then don’t eat the steak. But don’t tell anyone else what they can or can’t eat.
Her explanation might be nearer the mark if censure had been used instead of censorship. Censorship means to cut out offending parts as when segments of a book or a film are edited. Hence, the sentence as it stand reads: “To cut something out is telling a man he can’t have a steak because a baby can’t chew it.” Censure is nearer the interpretation as it means to criticize, judge, to object to…” I’m guessing the sentence is meant to say: To censure a man for eating steak because a baby can’t chew it, is wrong.
Unfortunately, the structure of the sentence adds to the confusion. It frames the idea as a definition. Censorship = telling a man he can’t have steak, which, of course, it isn’t.
If I’m being too much a grammarian, I plead guilty. I know language needs to be fluid and as an example of my tolerance, I’ve swallowed and smiled through countless violations of the subjunctive: “I wish I were,” is the correct form in the wish tense, even though the subject is singular and the verb is plural. “I wish I was,” is common in today’s vernacular but it’s grammatically incorrect. Words do have meaning and if used improperly they become gibberish. A little respect for our language, please.
As for the original question that started this Facebook discussion — whether or not Mark Twain wrote the offending quote — I know where I’d put my money. Mark Twain was one of America’s greatest master of words. I’ll give odds he never said or wrote the sentence.