I have tried to stay out of this conversation for quite a while, but the conversation came to me this week in my classroom. One of my students stumbled into an argument about the recent statement by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to cease publication of six of his lesser known children’s books. My student was serving in a local restaurant, and he unintentionally upset a patron after another customer asked his opinion about the movement to “cancel Dr. Seuss.” From our conversation in class the next day, he seemed to give a pretty thoughtful opinion, expressing that he was concerned that over time more things might be “canceled” which could lead to erasing or rewriting history.
For almost a year, people around the globe have been pushing for racist, xenophobic, misogynist, and otherwise distasteful images and ideas to be removed from public view as a way of sanitizing history and popular culture. Some have been seeking to scrub our past so that we do not have to be concerned about offending people in the present. This has included removing confederate flags from public places, dismantling statues erected to memorialize confederate generals and other national figures who had ideologies that are in contrast to today’s views of equality for all. These movements have led to some very serious and concerning protests around the world and the fear that if we begin removing images from our past that are offensive that it may lead to erasing anything that might be deemed “inappropriate” in the future. It seems that many of these fears are based on book burning crusades in Germany in the 1930s and Ray Bradbury’s warnings of censorship in Fahrenheit 451.
As a literary scholar, I usually become concerned when anyone begins talking about changing or erasing our past, especially through literature. For example, in 2011, New South Books published a “sanitized” edition of Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as a way to try to make the novel more palatable for educators and students studying the novel. This included replacing the 219 instances of the “n word” with the word slave. The CBS news show 60 Minutes produced a thoughtful insight into the issue, featuring interviews from students, teachers, and professors who expressed their points of view on teaching only the original text vs. teaching a more appropriate and less offensive version. At the time of the interview, I was teaching the novel and found the 60 Minutes video as an opportunity to discuss the issue with my students. Unfortunately, the perspective of my students was not very diverse because I was teaching in Southwest Virginia at a school that was predominately white. Looking at this issue ten years later, I wonder if more students would see the value of “sanitizing” a novel like Huck Finn so that it could still be used in a high school classroom without being offensive.
This past summer, the cancel culture issue came a little closer to home after The New Yorker published Paul Elie’s article, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” which clearly proclaimed that O’Connor was a racist. The article was published in the midst of social unrest throughout the United States (and around the world) due to the murder of George Floyd and continued police brutality in the United States. As an O’Connor scholar, I feel that Elie took advantage of the opportunity to publish his views of O’Connor’s racism while people were pointing fingers at the history of racism in the United States. No one who studies O’Connor would deny her racism; however, her views of race were changing as her life came to an end in 1964. This change is evident in a few of her final short stories, including the classic “Revelation” in which O’Connor directly attacks the hierarchy of social class evident in the South in the 1960s. As a result of Elie’s June 22 article, Loyola University Maryland removed Flannery O’Connor’s name from one of its buildings, and the university president stated that she does not “reflect Loyola’s Jesuit values.”
One of Maya Angelou’s most famous quotes was referenced in an interview with Oprah Winfrey and has at times been misquoted. She stated, when talking about her past, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” In reaction to the recent movement to “cancel Dr. Seuss” and other offensive materials, I would argue that because we know better in 2021, we should do better. We are able to recognize racially offensive material, and we should not subject children to those images or ideas. The six Seuss books that have been pulled from publication have offensive images about Asians, Africans, and Arabs. Other than concerns that this movement may lead to the movement to “cancel” other authors, I’m not sure why people around the world have reacted so viscerally to the idea of ceasing publication of books that clearly present racist points of view for no discernible purpose. I have yet to see, read, or hear a clear argument defending these specific books and their literary or educational value for children around the world. This movement has led to yet another knee jerk reaction from those who are terrified to move into the 21st century where we respect and celebrate diversity and those who want to protect tradition and the past.
In the midst of the cancel culture movement, I would suggest that we strategically consider what needs to be cancelled, erased, or sanitized in order to prevent unnecessary offense today and in the future. If we know better, we need to do better. If we know that something is obviously racist or demeaning to women or overtly offensive, we might want to consider shielding sensitive populations from viewing or reading it. This means that children should not be exposed to racist imagery or stereotypical views of men or women. This view might not be popular amongst some in society, but I would argue that exposing children to these images and ideas does more damage than harm. So, do better.
Doing this is not simple. Most things that are crucial to the development of society are not simple. I would argue that many people who push for canceling certain aspects of culture do not always understand all of the facets of a historical figure, work of literature, or pop culture icon. They follow along with the crowd without taking the time to find out all of the information for themselves. We live in an “either/or” society which leads people to think that there are only two points of view about any issue. This is not just simple minded; it is also incredibly dangerous. Polarized thinking always leads to book burning, erasing or rewriting of history, and trying to sanitize the past. Just read 1984.
Understand that there can be a balance between preventing offense in the future and addressing potentially hurtful ideas and images in culture. Without the opportunity to read some of the most notoriously banned books, we would not be presented with the opportunity to discuss euthanasia, racism, prejudice, misogyny, political unrest, the Holocaust, religious persecution, drug abuse, violence, slavery, and the list goes on. We can have both: preventing our children from experiencing unnecessary offense and opening conversations about difficult issues. When we know better, let’s do better.