If you follow children’s books at all (or even just the news in general), you likely saw the story yesterday on the decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to stop publishing 6 Dr. Seuss books due to racist imagery contained in them. In a nutshell, the publisher decided those 6 books crossed a line it was no longer comfortable crossing, and so they’ve voluntarily stopped publishing those titles.
First, it should be noted that this is a sort of self-censorship. No one asked the company to stop publishing the titles. The government didn’t require them to do this. True, you could argue the company decided simply to preemptively censor itself because it was concerned about what the fallout would be if it chose to keep the status quo, but at that point, you might as well start complaining when fast food chains stop offering fare that isn’t as popular or is causing financial headaches for it. Also, it’s important to note this was a decision the Dr. Seuss folks came up with on their own. Random House didn’t force them into it.
That said, is Dr. Seuss being canceled, as so many people have started to claim? And should this move have been made? First, seeing how popular Dr. Seuss books are, and how this is a fraction of the books in his catalog (less than 10%), I think you’d be hard pressed to say he was being canceled. Because of the announcement, Seuss books rocketed to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, taking up half of the top 20, for example. I don’t think anyone should really worry about Seuss suddenly disappearing from the shelves of bookstores.
Should the decision have been made? The books in question contain blatant stereotypes, and they’re aimed squarely at very young children. If you’d like to stop perpetuating those stereotypes, a good way to begin is by doing your best to have children stop being exposed to them at an early age. That said, if they hadn’t been stopped being printed, I also wouldn’t have been calling for their elimination. I would have just . . . not bought them.
But then again, I’m pretty agnostic when it comes to what should and shouldn’t be published. Calling for any one thing to stop being printed is a good way to put other things you want printed at risk. In other words, censoring things you don’t like might feel good at first, but then it starts spreading into people censoring things you do like, and it’s all downhill from there. I don’t think Huck Finn should be banned. I don’t think Dr. Seuss needs to be banned. But this isn’t a banning of Dr. Seuss. This is a decision by Seuss folks to stop publishing some Seuss books. Does that make it sound better?
I wonder if all the people clamoring against it would be clamoring quite so hard if the item being cut were something else they already didn’t like . . . I think of all the furor over books like And Tango Makes Three, for example. It’s hard to make the argument that a book about gay penguins can’t be put in front of impressionable young minds while also saying that a book containing blatantly racist caricatures can, though the reverse of that is also true. The key difference here is that it’s a publisher and the entity in charge of Seuss’s books making the decision, not a library or a school or the government.
All of that said, this does highlight once again the simple fact that people are human, regardless of their professional or public role. Theodore Geisel made some flagrantly racist political cartoons. He also wrote a slew of beloved books for children. If we start to limit what we’ll watch, read, or listen to based solely on a purity-of-the-artist test, I tend to think we’ll end up with nothing to watch, read, or listen to. But sometimes there are cases where the art itself is questionable. We always have the option to not watch, read, or listen to it, whether it’s about gay penguins or kids running a circus. Likewise, a company has the option of deciding not to print it, just like an artist can decide not to create it.
This is fairly easily translated over to other areas of pop culture. If a person is making inflammatory remarks on Twitter, the person’s employer can choose to stop employing that person, especially if they work in a position where image is key. That’s not canceling. That’s a business decision. That person is free to go find someone else to employ them, and if enough people want to hear what that person has to say, they’ll still find a platform to say it.
But the more I write on this topic, the more something’s feeling offf to me. I read this piece in the Deseret News this morning that essentially calls out both sides for creating an environment where people feel unsafe to question anything that might deviate from the popular norm. I’m still not sure what my thoughts are around it. For a long time, it seemed like censorship was a favored tool of conservatives and right. McCarthyism comes to mind, and the fear that went along with it. I said earlier in this post that what the Seuss Foundation was doing was self-censorship, and Bari Weiss, the author of that article I just linked to, cited self-censorship frequently as well.
If people refuse to speak because they’re terrified that they’ll say the wrong thing, how is that different from not being allowed to speak in the first place? There are nuances there, true, but is the end result the same? I’m sure there are some on the left who say people should self-censor. That there are things that no one should say, because they’re wrong-headed, out-dated, or whatever.
To me, the more I think about it, the more this sort of self-censorship is dangerous ground to walk on and encourage. As long as it’s in line with what you don’t agree with, then it might feel appropriate or warranted, but once that path is well-worn, it becomes much easier for things you want to protect to be deemed worthy of self-censorship as well.
Is “cancel culture” a new phrase for “censorship”? When they’re both viewed in that light, do we see any similarities between the two that make us uncomfortable?
I guess for me the conclusion (as it’s always been for me in the past) is “it’s complicated.” And anyone trying to reduce it to a simple black and white issue is being overly reductive. Hopefully this post has shown that I’m still stuck in the middle on this topic. I’d really love to hear some other points of view, though I ask that they remain cordial. (Am I asking people to self-censor? If that’s what it takes for people to treat each other kindly, then yes.)
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