Student Opinion: Please Don’t Cancel Dr. Seuss

Source: ABC News

By Jacob Derin

Dr. Seuss Enterprises has decided to cease the publication of six of his books over their racial imagery. The books have been subject to criticism centered on their portrayal of Black and Asian characters. This is an example of an increasingly worrying censorious streak in literary and popular culture circles. As the political orthodoxy of the day changes, so do the opinions and depictions deemed acceptable. We must fight this trend.

Dr. Seuss is only the latest public figure to come under the microscope for running afoul of this orthodoxy. JK Rowling drew the ire of Twitter and many of the “Harry Potter” movie actors for her discussion of transgender issues. “Mandalorian” actress Gina Carano was fired over supposedly antisemitic and anti-trans statements. Even Abraham Lincoln’s name is now considered too controversial to appear in the titles of San Francisco public schools. And these are just the most visible examples.

I remember watching a Ted Talk several years ago about the toxicity of Twitter shaming. It told the story of Justine Sacco, a woman who, while waiting for an international flight to Africa, wrote a tweet that made a tasteless joke about AIDS. By the time she landed, she had become front-page news, received death threats and was the target of an internet-wide frenzy. She knew none of this until she was able to check her phone upon landing. Ultimately, she was fired, shunned and experienced severe mental health consequences. Her life was effectively destroyed.

These are the real people being affected by what has come to be known as “cancel culture.” People like JK Rowling are protected, to some degree, by their wealth and public image. But people like Justine Sacco have no such protection.

There’s a particular irony to the literary manifestations of cancel culture. It used to be (and certainly still is) the case that books were banned or censored by the conservative establishment for moral or religious reasons. “Catcher In The Rye” still appears on many banned book lists. “The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part Time Indian” joins it there for its frank portrayal of a Native American teenager’s first experiences of sexuality. Even James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was subjected to an obscenity trial. Now it seems that we’ve simply shifted the taboo from sexuality and profanity to race.

Race, sexuality and profanity are all complex topics but ones that we need to think about. These are aspects of the human condition. When we allow people to think about them publicly, there will be missteps, misunderstandings and even outright bigotry. Theodor Geisel wrote the Dr. Seuss books in a very different time when the conversations around race in the United States looked very different than they do now. It would be surprising for his treatment of the topic to align perfectly with our political moment in 2021.

To remove his work from circulation, however, robs us of the chance to notice these differences. To make progress on difficult questions like race relations and how we think about human sexuality or transgender issues we need to allow people to be offensive.

The Civil Rights Movement itself was offensive to the political orthodoxy of its time. It forced many difficult and uncomfortable conversations. Those conversations were necessary, and they could never have happened if we hadn’t afforded people like Martin Luther King and John Lewis the opportunity to say politically unpopular things.

This is how democracies make progress, and it’s why the right to freedom of speech was placed at the forefront of the Bill of Rights.

Jacob Derin is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.

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  1. Alan Miller

    To make progress on difficult questions like race relations and how we think about human sexuality or transgender issues we need to allow people to be offensive.

    Yes :-}

    This is an extremely well written and spot-on piece. I thank the author for writing it.  I will pay particular attention to reading future pieces from Jacob Derin.

    “Name a single time in history when the group fighting to censor speech and ban books were the good guys.” – Kevin Sorbo

    1. Bill Marshall

      “Name a single time in history when the group fighting to censor speech and ban books were the good guys.”

      If you include restricting books/writings from the public, and censoring speech, calling it “blasphemy” be careful in that quote… some who feel they were “good guys”, also did it as well… a human condition thingy…

      Bibles, Talmud, Qu’ran have been banned from schools… Hindu, Buddhist, other ‘sacred texts’ as well… “Origin of Spieces” was banned, as well as Penrod, some of Thurber’s works, etc., etc, etc… Mein Kampf is banned… works of Marx/Engels… some writings of Samuel Clemens…

      No “guys” or “gals” have ‘clean hands’… no culture, nor ‘race’ has been free from that, over ‘history’… guess that means, “… no good guys”…, nor others… human condition…

    2. David Greenwald

      I don’t agree Alan. How does allowing people to be offensive move us forward on race relations? While I don’t favor “banning” books there has to somehow be a recognition that what was acceptable at one time can be completely offensive now. I remember my mother reading Dr. Doolittle to me when I was a child and having to stop reading to me because the racism was so offensive.

      1. Alan Miller

        Your mother did her job.  Good for her.

        How does allowing people to be offensive move us forward on race relations?

        How can people have real and effective interactions without the possibility of someone being offended?

        1. David Greenwald

          So it seems to me that there is a middle ground missing in this discussion – you can’t avoid people being offended, on the other hand clearly there is material that was appropriate in the past (or maybe tolerated in the past) that no longer does so. As I have said elsewhere, I view removal of books a lot differently than the removal of things like confederate flags from state houses.

    3. Richard_McCann

      First, the “good guys” effectively took “Birth of a Nation”, a pro-KKK film, out of circulation, only to be shown in the context of how it promoted racial stereotypes and reinforced Jim Crow laws.

      Second, there’s a very real difference between having adults read offensive material and understand the context and how misleading something might be (and even then as we can see spreading false material has led to the brink of losing our democracy, as has happened numerous times before), and having it in children’s books. Children are just learning context and meaning–are you saying that we should count on every parent being able to express that to every child? Forget that notion. While those who are intellectually inclined might grasp and explain the nuances, that’s really a very small part of the population. We can use various mechanisms to enforce social norms, most importantly tolerance. Tolerance is exactly what the First Amendment is about. These few Seuss books reinforce intolerance. It’s fine to leave them in a section of the library that includes texts like Mein Kampf to show what intolerant literature looks like–it’s very important to have those examples available. But no one should be distributing these to children anymore.


  2. Don Shor

    Dr. Seuss’ widow (disclosure: we were acquainted) zealously guarded his reputation. Note how few movies have ever been made from his books; that was her doing. I have little doubt that this decision reflects her standards and is in keeping with the Seuss foundation’s goal of preserving his legacy by being responsive to modern sensibilities. His books aren’t being banned from schools. It’s the estate and the publisher making the decision that the author’s reputation could be harmed. You can still buy the books. They just are choosing not to continue to profit from images that are clearly offensive by modern standards. 

  3. Keith Olsen

    Kimmel is sounding a warning to his left-wing friends in Congress and in the culture: Stop with the radical stuff like canceling “Dr. Seuss” or Trump (and Republicans) are going to come roaring back into power.

    I wonder if Kimmel is now changing his tune because he’s worrying about himself getting cancelled being there are few to no black late night talk show hosts.

    1. David Greenwald

      That brings up an interesting question – I don’t recall any push to cancel Dr. Seuss for lack of a better term.

      The Guardian reports: ” the controversy left many perplexed, since the decision was made by Dr Seuss Enterprises and not as a result of public pressure that has preceded other such decisions.”

      So how is Kimmel even correct?

      The Guardian also reports: “Geisel died in 1991. Later in life, he made efforts to tone down racial stereotypes in some of his books. Such revisions “were imperfect but will-intentioned efforts that softened but did not erase the stereotyping”, Nel said, noting that Geisel also made a joke of the changes, “which served only to trivialise the importance of the alterations”.”

      He also did some racist cartoons in the 40s which he later admitted he was embarrassed about.

      Also, they have basically just taken the books out of print – which happens a lot to books.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Also, they have basically just taken the books out of print – which happens a lot to books.

        They have seen what happens to other companies which don’t capitulate.

        Ironically, this will probably turn those books into collector items.  Might even temporarily increase all of Dr. Seuss’ books, temporarily.  Reminds me of New Coke / Classic Coke “controversy”.

        There’s a reason that “incorrect” shows such as Family Guy are popular.  Of course, it’s really poking fun at racism/bias, itself – head-on.

        We’ve seen this type of self-censorship before, with cartoons from earlier ages. However, they never totally “disappear”.

        You’d think that parents could guide their children, rather than depending upon companies to do it for them. If one thinks it’s harmful – don’t buy it, and don’t watch it.

        Similar efforts periodically arise regarding violence in media.

        1. Tia Will

          “you would think parents could guide their children”

          Yes, I would think that. However, the fact that I was personally attacked during the same episode as being both “racist” by a nurse of color and a “traitor to my race” by a patient who demanded I write an order that only whites could participate in her care, is instructive of the fact that we do not all see race matters the same way.Each of these women was presumably “raised by parents”. So which set of parents should prevail?

          Another point has been made before but bears stressing. This is not government censorship. It is not huge corporations pressuring another into their preferred action. This is a private company deciding what action to take. Not so different from a blog participant writing a post, and then deciding to take it down because it no longer expressed their view.

        2. Ron Oertel

          Maybe it’s not necessarily parents – maybe it’s (some) kids who are dumb-arses.  🙂

          You’d think that depictions in a cartoon wouldn’t cause the incidents you describe.  At least, not for normal people.

          Then again, some people think that The Three Stooges cause violence.  (Maybe true for some, up to a certain age.)

          Regardless, I have another question.  Semi-humorous, semi-serious:

          What “color” is the Grinch?  Given that he inflicted punishment on a lily-white (European?) town?

          Regardless, Dr. Seuss was talented.

        3. Ron Oertel

          Thought I’d look it up:  Apparently, the Grinch was “white”.

          What a relief, given his bad-guy status until the end when his heart-size inexplicably increased. 

          (But, still doesn’t explain why the Tin Man was so kind – without any heart at all. For what it’s worth, I suspect that the Tin Man was white, as well.)

          But since you’re a doctor, should I ask you if a suddenly and drastically-enlarged heart is something that’s extremely dangerous?


      2. Keith Olsen

        After complaints from teachers and academics, Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to cease publishing six books, including And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry StreetandScrambled Eggs Super!, accused of having racist and insensitive imagery.

        In 2019, Learning for Justice released an article by the name of, It’s Time To Talk About Dr Seuss, which analyzes the heavily stereotyped characters he included in his books.
        Out of 50 Dr Seuss books, researchers found only 2 percent of the entire cast of characters were of color.
        The 2019 study, The Cat Is Out Of The Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy In Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books, also drew similar conclusions.
        It said: “White supremacy is seen through the centering of Whiteness and White characters, who comprise 98% (2,195 characters) of all characters.
        “Notably, every character of color is male. Males of color are only presented in subservient, exotified, or dehumanized roles. This also remains true in their relation to White characters.
        “Most startling is the complete invisibility and absence of women and girls of color across Seuss’ entire children’s book collection.
        “In addition, some of Dr Seuss’ most iconic books feature animal or non-human characters that transmit Orientalist, anti-Black, and White supremacist messaging through allegories and symbolism.”

        BTW, Theodor Geisel, the Dr. Seuss author, was an ardent Democrat.


        1. Ron Oertel

          Out of 50 Dr Seuss books, researchers found only 2 percent of the entire cast of characters were of color.

          I’d like to know how the researchers determined the skin color of a lot of those characters.

          Starting with the Cat (but don’t ask me to name any other characters, without looking them up). 

          I suspect that “too many” of them might have been “suspected males”, as well.


        2. David Greenwald

          Seems like there are conflicting accounts on that. The foundation said they made the decison on their own, not because of any pressure.

          “Theodor Geisel, the Dr. Seuss author, was an ardent Democrat.”

          Which means what exactly?

          NYT: “Before he became a giant of children’s literature, Mr. Geisel drew political cartoons for a New York-based newspaper, PM, from 1941 to 1943, including some that used harmful stereotypes to caricature Japanese and Japanese-Americans. Decades later, he said he was embarrassed by the cartoons, which he said were “full of snap judgments that every political cartoonist has to make.””

        3. Keith Olsen

          “Theodor Geisel, the Dr. Seuss author, was an ardent Democrat.”
          Which means what exactly?

          I’m just presenting some facts as we all know would’ve been pasted all over the news if Geisel was a Republican.

          1. David Greenwald

            BTW, can you cite a single article published in the year prior to the decision calling for the depublication of the Dr. Suess books?

        4. Tia Will


          I cannot help but note that one of the instructions given in every writing class I ever took, which was quite a few, was to write about what you know. I do not find it at all strange that an author would choose to stress ( or over represent depending on your point of view)  characters with whom he was most familiar. Even trying to include those foreign to oneself is likely to end in misrepresentation and stereotyping regardless of intent.

        5. Alan Miller

          “White supremacy is seen through the centering of Whiteness and White characters, who comprise 98% (2,195 characters) of all characters.

          Similar things have been said of “Friends” and “Fraser”.  Is it necessary that every single book, series, movie and show display all forms of diversity?

        6. Keith Olsen

          Similar things have been said of “Friends” and “Fraser”.  Is it necessary that every single book, series, movie and show display all forms of diversity?

          If that was ever the case then there would be several all black television series that would need to cast some actors of different races.

          Have you noticed how television commercials have taken a recent turn towards putting forth much more black people than their actual percentage of the U.S. population?  I wonder how actors of different races besides black are feeling about this?

        7. Jacob Derin

          BTW, can you cite a single article published in the year prior to the decision calling for the depublication of the Dr. Suess books?

          The books have been subject to criticism centered on their portrayal of Black and Asian characters.

          I realize that I’ve committed the cardinal sin of using the passive voice here, but there’s a reason for that. I’m not sure whose criticism was behind the decision to stop publishing these books. It doesn’t matter so much, though, in my view. Even if the criticism was internal to the company, self-censorship is still an insidious thing. Fundamentally, publishers are businesses, they make decisions based on what they think will net them profit. Somebody must have thought that the backlash against these books was reaching the critical threshold to make this decision economically wise.

          1. David Greenwald

            There is another possibility. The family has zealously guarded his legacy and perhaps they view this as detrimental to his legacy. I don’t know that. Just throwing it out as another possibility.

        8. Eric Gelber

          … self-censorship is still an insidious thing.

          Is it? Self-censorship out of fear of governmental sanction is on thing. But self-censorship to avoid angering or offending potential purchasers or readers is something that publishers, writers, artists, etc. do all the time to protect their reputations or financial interests. The decision here to discontinue publication was clearly of the latter type.

  4. NJ Mvondo

    The points that I believe to be missing here are that:
    1) the article never really mentions the impacts of some cancelled books on children’s mental health (when said books are in circulation), especially Native and kids of color, which is a big reason why some books, like A FINE DESSERT or A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON, are removed from publication;
    2) the issue of Twitter shaming of authors or people who post tweets and are being ganged up upon is different from what happened with Dr. Seuss’s books. These six books’ cancellation was years in the making in terms of protests from scholars, educators, parents, etc., and not an overnight outcry that led to a removal from publication;
    3) Deciding a book won’t be published anymore doesn’t mean it won’t be available altogether. I agree that such books are essential as teaching tools, and I personally believe that both school and public libraries should consider making them available (as opposed to not carrying them anymore)…

    Re: Don Shor. I appreciate your comment. Indeed, the books aren’t banned from schools and are still available for purchase.

    1. Jacob Derin

      I don’t know the state of the evidence for or against the assertion that such books are detrimental to children’s mental health, but it seems unlikely that they have any significant impact in that regard. Whatever effects exist have to be balanced against the negative impact censorship itself has, (and, betraying my bias a little, I have to say that I find it to be an inherent wrong anyway). I’m not trying to conflate what happened to these books with the actions of the Twitter mob, but it seems to me that the same ethos and ideology is behind the decision to stop publishing these books. In the internet age, it’s pretty much impossible to destroy information that’s already out there, so I have no fear that these books will disappear entirely. The principle of artistic freedom is what’s at stake, not that.

      1. Morgan Poindexter

        “Artistic freedom”? Freedom to do what? Promote/reinforce racism and xenophobia? If that’s what you need to make your “art” then I don’t think your “art” has any place in modern society.

        It seems to me that the majority of the commenters on this article need to become better acquainted with the paradox of tolerance – and why this isn’t a free speech/censorship issue (for a number of reasons).

        1. Jacob Derin

          Who gets to decide what “promoting racism” means? It’s no easy thing to define. Racist language and behavior, for instance, was included in To Kill A Mockingbird, yet to call it a racist book would be absurd. 12 Years A Slave was criticized for its inclusion of racial slurs. But to depict American slavery without the dehumanization and violence would be to efface a critical aspect of American history.

          Even if we were to work out a coherent definition (maybe based on intent rather than content, though that would almost certainly exclude the Seuss books, since I doubt Geisel had racist intent in writing them) there would still be the problem of freedom of speech. People have the right to say offensive things, and they should have that right. The act of formulating speech is itself a process of thought. They’re inextricably tied up, and we need to be able to think freely in order to understand ourselves and the world properly.

          I’m very aware of the Paradox Of Tolerance. It’s often invoked in this context, and done so speciously. Popper himself said, in a quote cited in the article you’re linking to “In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise.” What Popper is worried about is, for instance, the Weimar government’s tolerance of the Nazi movement even after the Beer Hall Putsch. Violent action, and the planning of insurrection and violence, can’t be tolerated. The mere expression of hateful ideas must be tolerated by a free society.

  5. Ron Oertel

    Seems to me that these types of discussions often focus on one (controversial) aspect of a story, and ignore the remainder.

    Throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    I don’t need disclaimers to tell me that Gone With The Wind depicts a particular point of view. Birth of a Nation, as well. (Though I barely recall the latter, having seen it in a film lit class as I recall.)

    If the publisher owns the rights to the Dr. Seuss books, it is likely that no one else can publish them, either.

    Find something better to do, than worry about what someone else wrote decades ago, when social mores were different.  Or, better yet – write something better, yourself.

    And I, for one – might still watch Cosby (reference to Alan M’s comment), had I had found it entertaining the first time.  🙂

    The guy who wrote Ren and Stimpy was also caught up in some kind of controversy, but it’s still good work. Excellent work, actually. And of course, Ren and Stimpy were controversial, itself – though no racial overtones that I recall.

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