In case you've been living under a rock for the last few weeks, it was announced by Dr. Seuss Enterprises that they had decided to cease production of 6 books deemed to contain racist/culturally insensitive imagery. The firestorm of backlash on this decision from certain outlets (mainly conservative, and mainly, let's be honest, being used as a distraction tactic while the current Administration passes the much-needed relief bill) gave me pause to consider what was actually going on. Are we, as a society, descending into authoritarian rule where thoughts can't be expressed for fear of censorship? Are a beloved children's author's First Amendment Rights being ruthlessly trampled on? Is Dr. Seuss another victim of "Cancel Culture"? Dear God, where does it end?!?!?!?!
I'll take those last two first. Uh...No. I mean, duh, right? The pragmatic answer is, of course, that a) this was a decision made by the very foundation whose mission is to "preserve the legacy of Dr. Seuss" and b) the government had nothing to do with it (which is the very definition of the First Amendment, i.e. "Congress shall make no law infringing upon...blah, blah, blah"). Dr. Seuss Enterprises, after over a year of consideration, research, and consultations with experts, made the decision - feeling that this was the best way to uphold the legacy of Theodore Geisel in these modern times - to cease publication of those 6 books (which, I might remind you, are not exactly among his top sellers. Sure, Mulberry Street is referenced in Oh The Places You'll Go but other than that I hadn't heard of or read any of the others. Despite what certain government officials will have you believe, Green Eggs and Ham, isn't going anywhere, folks!). Also, note they said they will cease publication and sales. Guess what? Despite the rhetoric of certain dissenters, there will not be a mass confiscation and ritualistic burning of all previously published copies of these books. So don't worry, if you really feel the need to "exercise your free speech" and show your toddlers those dated caricatures of Chinese and African people, there's still Amazon.
So that's the Seuss issue in a nutshell, but what about the claim that this is "just the tip of the iceberg [for what the "radical left" want]" or "now that we've cancelled Dr. Seuss, who's next?" Well, to my mind, these questions that typify this situation reach down to a much deeper issue. And that is: Are we allowed, either as authors, writers, or, even more broadly, as society in general, to change our minds about things, especially things we ourselves have created? Are we allowed to grow and progress in our thinking, embracing new ideas and leaving behind others? Let's take, for example, perhaps one of the most controversial books in American Literature, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There are, to my mind, two schools of thought on this book. Some literary scholars would argue that, knowing Mark Twain's views on slavery and given that the rest of the novel satirizes the parts of society around him that he found absurd, he employed the use of N-word as much as he did to point out the absurdity of white people conferring that sort of title on a black man. Others would simply point out that he was using language of an archaic time that has no place being taught in the modern classroom. (For the record, 20 years ago, when I read it in my high school English class, the first school of though was taught and for the most part are class did not have a problem with this explanation. I personally, at the time as now, despise that word and am very uncomfortable saying it - often mumbling it when it was my turn to read out loud in class. That word along with a certain derogatory for a woman beginning with C are two words a cannot force myself to say aloud in any circumstance). Still, no matter what your stance, you'd have to agree that the book is polarizing to say the least, and I would accept the notion that we don't need to teach it in the classroom anymore. Despite all the controversy of one book, though, Mark Twain is still a giant of Literature and has never been anything but respected for his talent as a writer, and, for the time period in which he lived anyway, a fairly progressive thinker.
So maybe that's the answer. Maybe intent is the key. Maybe if we argue that if certain words and images that, as we as a society grow more attuned and empathetic to the feelings of others, are deemed offensive, racist, misogynistic, etc, are used with the intent by the creator of an artistic media to draw attention to and critique elements of society that they find unacceptable or abhorrent, that they can remain in the zeitgeist while the works containing the same words and images which were created to demonize and disparage those to whom they are targeted or whip up sentiment against said people (think Mein Kampf) can (and should) be removed from polite society. And, maybe, just maybe, in the case where, like here with Dr. Seuss, the artist (or those representing the artist in terms of legacy) have themselves grown to have a deeper understanding of the evolving nature of the world and decides to self-censor some of their past works in the name of progress and a feeling of moral obligation to themselves and others, we can all just shut up and let them manufacture their work as they see fit. The distillation of a few works does not constitute the expulsion of the whole. After all, the Seuss Enterprise took it upon themselves several years ago to paint over a long-standing mural at the Seuss Museum in Springfield due to its portrayal of a negative Asian stereotype and yet, the American Library Association still names their yearly award for the book deemed "the most distinguished American book for beginning readers" the Geisel Award. As for DSE themselves, all you have to do is read directly from their official statement regarding the closing of publication on the certain books to understand their intent, stating it is "committed to listening and learning and will continue to review our portfolio."
The real point is this: No one who is raising arguments against Dr. Seuss Enterprises is actually concerned about the "integrity" of the work itself. What they are concerned about is they see this as another threat to their authority and power within our society. It's about using the right words to whip up a large enough segment of society to hopefully hold back the tide of progress that the next generation is threatening to sweep them away with and keep our country firmly planted in 1981. Any pretensions otherwise are disingenuous to say the least.
There is plenty more that could be said but I'll close by posing the following questions. Should artists be able to alter or erase their work as they see fit? And if the minds and sentiments of a society as a whole are shifting in a different direction, is it really detrimental for artists to adjust previously completed works as well? Or, are the conservatives right and are we becoming too soft and if you can't take certain words and images, you're simply a weak-minded, overly-sensitive person and need to "get over it"? I think it's fairly obvious where I stand, but I'd like to hear from you. Comment below.
I don't just write novels. I just like to write. This blog will not be polished, it won't be edited closely. There will be spelling and grammar errors and it might drag on in places. But it will be fun, off the cuff, genuine, and hopefully interesting to read!