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When Words are Redefined

Updated: Aug 31

By Dave McGuire, Editor CU


"The Uncle Tom we know is an insult. As an old man he’s meek, submissive, and doesn't stick up for himself. That really isn't who the person in the novel.” – Kathleen Husler


In the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Uncle Tom was shown to be physically strong, brave and an inspiration for other slaves. In other words, Uncle Tom was anything but an “Uncle Tom.”

In her 1852 novel, meant to publicize the evils of slavery, author Harriet Beecher Stowe paints Uncle Tom as "spiritually and morally superior" to the three white men who own him. The book further describes Tom as “a large, broad-chested, powerfully-made man” with a “self-respecting and dignified” look that indicates “grave and steady good sense. A highly spiritual man” He was believed to be a man around forty years of age with a wife and three children and high morality highlighted by his protective nature of fellow slaves at his own consequence. Tom turns down multiple escape opportunities from his Kentucky plantation because he does not want fellow slaves to be harmed or punished, after his own escape was confirmed. At the same time, he knowingly assists slaves wanting to leave for a free life. Throughout the book, we are continually reminded Tom “felt strong in God to meet his death, rather than betray the helpless.” The final plantation owner, Simon Legree, regards Tom as a troublemaker that’s reprehensible because he is unflinching: “Had not this man braved him, – steadily, powerfully, resistlessly, ever since he bought him?” Legree admires Tom's diligence but time and again is frustrated by Tom’s refusal to do his bidding. In Chapter 33, Legree orders Tom to whip a young slave girl and Tom refuses only to receive the beating himself.

As the story winds, two young female slaves escape and Legree threatens Tom with death unless he tells where they’ve gone. Tom refuses Legree while saying he knows their location but will not tell Legree. As a result, Tom is fatally beaten.

This confusion of true meaning is a perfect example of the word manipulation found in today’s political and media world. The original “slur” of calling someone an Uncle Tom was linked to individuals sympathetic to the Confederate States causes. The “Uncle Tom” insult was directed towards disagreeable African Americans. Onlookers heard those slurs without understanding the context, and repeated them often enough, without understanding the history. It’s an all too common occurrence in society. Ever read the theory of Dunning Kruger Effect? If not, it’s worth your time.

When Abraham Lincoln met the author, Mrs. Stowe, one year into the civil war, he greeted her by saying: "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war." But the novel's impact was viewed in a global context rather than national. Among those who hailed it as a masterpiece were Ivan Turgenev, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, and George Eliot. The British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, read it three times and admired it more so "for the statesmanship of it". The reason it was received so well internationally. Because the ugly story of slavery has impacted every country and race at one time or another.


There’s a very recent example of the same form of manipulation (or just turn on cable TV). Not that ethics in societal experimentation has ever been clear cut, but the internet has made things even muddier.


Not too long ago most people learned of a Facebook scandal, where Facebook manipulated the content seen by more than 600k users in an attempt to affect their emotional state. They skewed the number of positive or negative items on random users’ news feeds and then analyzed these individual’s future postings. The result? Yes, Facebook can manipulate your emotions.


It’s all out there for your review and nothing is new. You can buy the book for as little as a $1 for download or $4 on paperback. Take some personal time, read the book for yourself and then quietly make your own assessment the next time someone is referred to as an “Uncle Tom”.

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