Oh, the thinks you can think! Dr Seuss and the ‘cancel culture’ argument

Posted by Ian

When Dr Seuss Enterprises, “working with a panel of experts, including educators” recently reviewed their catalogue and decided to stop publishing and licensing six Dr Seuss books, the uproar was immediate and vociferous.

Seuss: a home collection.

The discontinued books included his very first, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street”.  The public outcry was not against the decision to stop publishing per se (many better books are out of print, as we at Book Fossils lament) but that the decision was based on an ideological assessment that “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong”.

With some irony, conservative forces in the USA derided this as emblematic of the liberal “cancel culture” and political correctness (even though Dr Seuss was, during his lifetime, regarded as a liberal). We saw headlines such as:

“Cancel Culture Comes for Dr. Seuss”

On the other hand, US liberals eager to protect children from stereotypes that are “hurtful and wrong” defended the actions of Seuss Enterprises in articles with headlines such as…

“Dr. Seuss did not get canceled. But if you think he did, you have a bigger problem.”

What exactly was the fuss about? In a piece for Esquire Magazine by Adrienne Westenfeld, expert Seuss deconstructionist Dr Phillip Nel explains:

“In And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, published in 1937, we see a man who eats with sticks; he is coloured yellow. He has a triangular, conical hat, a long pigtail, and of course, slanted eyes…”.

He goes on to explain that Dr Seuss (Theodore “Ted” Geisel) revised the illustration in 1978, removing the pigtail and the skin colour, but that Geisel’s joking about it at the time “diminishes the importance of that change, and the seriousness of making the change.”  He acknowledges that such caricatures were not made maliciously, but implies that simply providing a stereotypical caricature of a racial or ethnic group is an “egregious” matter.

The relevant spread in ‘And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry St

The transgressions in the other five books are similar in nature. Some may debate to what extent these representations are egregious. A stereotypic depiction, of itself, may be a trope without being a “racist trope”. But even if one regards them this way, it’s not surprising that Dr Seuss, in common with other authors writing in 1937, will have included words and images that would not be viewed kindly in a book to be newly published in 2021. On the other hand, I feel we should recall that the violent, misogynistic and often deliberately offensive movies, language, music, literature, theatre, art and video games which are readily available to children today, would have been far less acceptable in 1937 than Mulberry St is today. Dr Seuss’s “egregious” failures of sensitivity seem rather innocent by comparison.

Poor old Dr Seuss; a sensitive nerve is being touched. Clearly Dr Seuss is falling foul of a much broader program of censorship in western liberal democracies, a program which has been going now for many decades.

What the…?

Let me say up front that I believe that the wording of the press release of Seuss Enterprises contributed a great deal to the problem. The statement “these books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong” is phrased as an absolute. There is no qualification, no nuance; the books are bad, and that’s that.  The clear implication of this absoluteness is that that Dr Seuss himself, as the author and illustrator, was a racist bigot.  Actually, it goes deeper; those who have long enjoyed the unexpurgated Dr Seuss books may draw the implication that by their enjoyment, they also are being regarded as racist bigots.  As Dr Seuss is a much-loved author, the natural emotional response is to defend his work, and thereby to defend oneself also, against that more subtle implication.  Consider, too, the tone of the announcement. The condemnation of Mulberry St and its stablemates by Seuss Enterprises can be construed as being delivered to the hoi polloi from the high moral ground. Even if this were unintended, few things produce outrage like the presumption of moral superiority.  Finally, Dr Seuss, who is now dead, cannot defend his reputation against the likes of Dr Nel.

Leaving aside the question of the objective offensiveness of the books concerned, could things have been better handled? Let’s suppose Seuss Enterprises had released a very slightly modified statement that “These books portray people in ways that are now widely recognised as hurtful and wrong”. The implication here is that in the past, we in general failed to realise the potentially hurtful nature of these texts, but now that our sensitivities have been properly attuned, we see that we could do better. Immediately we find ourselves on a level moral playing field (Dr Seuss included).  There is no looking down on anyone (least of all Dr Seuss).

Is that the end of the matter? Is it just a matter of a poorly worded press release that has caused all these problems? Is this a storm in a teacup? No, I don’t believe so. For one thing, we haven’t yet decided what to do about books such as these, that have become problematic. Should they no longer be published? Should they be collected and burned (“withdrawn”)? Quietly removed from the library shelves? Should they be updated (running the risk of bowdlerisation)? Should they simply be let alone, and “better” books provided for contrast?  And what about the inevitable dating of all books that happens with time? Many wonderful books of the 1960s and 1970s would be unable to find a publisher today, if only because of their lack of multicultural representation and their unenlightened attitudes to women’s roles in society, for example.  The authors of such books cannot really be blamed for failing to anticipate the social milieu and mores of 2020, so what is to be done?

The issue is particularly emotional because the literature concerned is children’s literature. Unlike adult literature, where by and large, publishers will find a market for almost anything, and where a “live and let live” approach is tolerated with occasional grumbling, the world of children’s books is an ideological battlefield.  Much of this stems from the inability of adults to avoid using children’s books as pedagogical tools.  Whether it’s 17th century scaremongering, Victorian indoctrination into the values of the British Empire, or 21st century progressive liberal ideals, adults persist in forcing books upon children which are laden with ideology, while removing the books of previous generations, with the avowed intention of “protecting” them. It seems to me that the true aim is more to ensure that children grow up having “correct thoughts”, whatever one conceives those to be.

There is an influential contemporary movement among some of the gatekeepers of children’s literature, at least in Australia, to purge children’s books of offensiveness and issues of sensitivity, and to ensure that they meet a checklist of important social issues to be assessed prior to publication.  This movement may exist only as a loose consensus of well-meaning attitudes, but it exists nonetheless. The question in my mind is whether this stifles genuinely creative voices outside that mainstream consensus, and whether it represents a form of unjustified censorship.  Now I don’t mind a well written book which espouses such views, but I similarly don’t mind a well written book which lacks them. And I would rather a book be entertaining than well meaning, if one had to choose.

We are not amused

“Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information. This may be done on the basis that such material is considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or “inconvenient.”” (Wikipedia)

Ironically, the mid-20th century battle to release literature – in general – from conservative censorship, whether political or sexual, was effectively won in the 1950s, at just about the time that a new form of liberal censorship (an oxymoron?) was emerging. Equally ideological in nature, the post-colonial makeover of western liberal societies is now ubiquitous. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing. In many respects it has been tremendously valuable, bringing broader Australian society to reconsider the experiences of ethnic minorities, indigenous groups, immigrants, women, and the marginalised.  The emotions engendered by such issues are real, and the problems thereby identified require action (though not necessarily literary action as the main form of reparation, even if it is easier to implement). As a consequence, the new social sensitivity to these issues is profound, and any text older than a couple of decades, which necessarily reflects the society with which it was contemporaneous, is bound to transgress current attitudes. Those looking at such texts, and feeling offended today, are simply recognising how society has changed.  But since it is clear that even the most progressive people of former times did not themselves – indeed, often could not – recognise such sensitivities, before those issues were identified and renegotiated by society as a whole, it is a poor choice of language to imply that such a text is objectively “offensive”. Rather, I would say that it reflects the outdated attitudes of its time of publication. This is particularly the case where new terms and language have been invented by some social consensus, and somehow voted to be the “correct” terms in which to express such new ideas. What author could use inclusive language before the “correct” inclusive terms had been invented or negotiated?

To what extent then, is the offensiveness we so easily identify inherent in the text, in contrast to the mind of the reader?  And importantly for children’s literature, could the text be harmful for the delicate minds of children? Should children’s books therefore be removed, updated or replaced, with a greater urgency than books for adults?

The damage done

This is where I feel that those well-meaning gatekeepers, whether parents, teachers, authors or publishers, lose sight of the reality of children as literate beings.  According to Dr Nel, “Children understand more than they can articulate…If you inflict racist images on them before they can express what they’re articulating they may endure a harm they cannot process.”

I have to disagree, and I suspect that the “harm” to which Dr Nel refers is simply the possibility that children may think different thoughts to those he would like them to think. But I don’t think he has anything to fear. In my experience, children are far more likely to be influenced in their morals and attitudes by the opinions of those they trust – their family, friends and (especially) their peers – than by the books they read. Fortunately, even when they perceive that the attitudes expressed in a book may differ from those of their social milieu, children are capable of realising that different people do see things in different ways. And because children like to read books for the same reasons as adults – namely to be excited, entertained, moved, and intrigued – good children’s books need to embody those virtues, and hang the politics. Perhaps it’s a wicked pleasure, but children will read entertaining books even when those books are “bad books”. At ten, I loved Biggles, even when it was clear to me that W.E. Johns’ British Empire was long gone (and let’s face it, from an adult perspective Biggles isn’t “good literature”).  When I read how Biggles fought the “black savages” in the Northern Territory of Australia, I didn’t change my opinion of the indigenous people with whom I was acquainted. When he warned his compatriots against the “Japanese villain whose smiling face concealed a savage alien intellect”, I didn’t stop sympathising with Sadako, folding her paper cranes. When Biggles’ German nemesis, von Stalhein, was predictably dastardly, I didn’t take a set against the Germans. Somehow, I was able to enjoy Biggles’ adventures without turning into an imperialist demagogue, working to reinstate the Empire.  And I must also admit to reading, seemingly without permanent harm, one of the most banned books of the 20th Century, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by that well known dead white male, Samuel Clemens.

The past is a foreign country

So yes, we should – in most cases – simply leave those older books alone; leave them on the library shelves. There may be rare times when “updating” is justifiable. But surely this is only when such editing enables children to better enjoy a book, by reducing any jarring of sensibilities that would break the willing suspension of disbelief; in other words, simply to keep books enjoyable, and not to make them more “teachable”. But even there, it often does children good to have to confront the clash of civilisations; the present vs the past. Of course, commercial publishing decisions are out of our control, as are school library purchasing decisions. There is no way to force publishers to keep books in print, but I think it’s sad if books are withdrawn or prevented from publication purely for ideological reasons.

By all means, also provide children with newer books that are as entertaining and moving as the older ones. But older books are important for children too, and often become the best historical books, by virtue of their genuine origins in the time of history they depict. Encountering such books may confer important insights into the attitudes of the past. So let the Ransome children play pirates on Lake Windemere. Let Laura Ingalls tell of her childhood experiences with the “Indians”. Let a thousand flowers bloom.  I have little concern that the minds of children will be corrupted by the depiction of Chinese people in Mulberry St; I suspect that the attitudes towards Chinese people presented by our news outlets, our governments, and our neighbours will be far more influential than Dr Seuss in setting up bias and prejudice in the minds of our children.

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