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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

The fragility of our digital record

Some examples of currently available emoji.

Some examples of currently available emoji. Credit: Rachel Senatore

If you are reading this on an Apple device, I can only hope the electronics company hasn’t put its foot down about my egregious use of the word snugglebunnies or the expression “heaving calves.” If Apple has decreed such expressions are bad for society, God only knows what the screen says now. If the term God is even still OK. That word could someday appear on iPhones as “spirit warrior.” Or “Most Exalted Hillary.” Because Apple is now editing our thoughts, starting with emojis.

Emojis, the pictures that appear on our devices, started with smiley faces. Now there are images for angry faces and sad faces and hearts and animals and objects and a bewildering array of mostly fattening foods, from drumsticks to cakes to pizza.

And there is a handgun next to a cartoony bomb, crossed swords and a cigarette. But not for long. The company has announced that under its soon-to-be-released new operating system, the revolver will be replaced with a water gun.

Apple is making the move at a time when gun violence, both actual and threatened, is a huge issue. It’s a pointless change that won’t help curb that gun violence or the threat of it, unless hoodlums are getting so lazy that they’d give up on crime rather than bother to type, “I’m going to shoot you.” But replacing the emoji so it can’t be used in a new message also doesn’t infringe on anyone’s intellectual freedom: Having a one-keystroke shortcut for the expression “handgun” is not a right.

Apple should add the water gun to give people options, but keep the handgun emoji so people can express themselves. The fact that this is not the plan is not a huge moral issue.

The huge moral issue is in the old texts and messages that include the handgun emoji. Because once users of Apple devices download the new operating system, every past text or communication on their devices that included the handgun emoji will show the water gun. Apple will significantly alter the meaning of past communications.

That’s an extraordinary violation of intellectual freedom and honesty. Imagine a son keeping a text from a recently passed father that used a revolver emoticon to reminisce about target shooting together. Now imagine that text is altered. And in this age of trigger warnings and pleas to criminalize “hate speech” and jeremiads against offensive ideas and language, will it stop there?

Many people consider “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” the greatest American novel. Yet teachers and professors who assign the book come under fire, partly because it contains so many uses of a racist word for black people that I can’t repeat here. It’s now generally considered unacceptable to use that word even in a purely intellectual capacity.

That we cannot use the word in this column is a small, defining truth of the present, just as the constant use of the word was a defining truth of Mark Twain’s time. To change such a word in an existing work would be a lie and a revision of history. And it would serve racists by allowing them to pretend that the slave South was less ugly than it was.

But if Apple is banning the handgun, why would it let such a horrid racial slur, or any hurtful term, appear on its products? Nasty words for Hispanics, Jews, Italians or women all could be altered. Changing terms like “tramp” or “@#$%¢” or “fat four-eyed hack newspaper columnist” into more benign expressions couldn’t be done with exactly the same technological changes that will morph old handgun emojis into water guns, but it could be done.

This is a terrible precedent. It’s going mostly unreported and unnoticed by people who ought to care very much. And that makes me so mad I could sunshine smile rainbow a Mother’s Day puppy right up Apple’s flower bouquet of joy.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.