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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