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We should first judge the book, not the author

Did you understand what the fuss about the withdrawal of Dr. Seuss’s books last month was about?

I have to say it meant very little to me because Dr. Seuss was not part of my reading when I was a child. His stories are a mostly American phenomenon and I had no idea that some of his books contained racist images.


However, I did grow up on the books of Enid Blyton who has faced a more sustained attack than Dr. Seuss.  The biggest problem with Blyton’s work is a character called Golly who inhabits Toyland and is clearly a racist caricature. I grew up too on Mark Twain in whose books the n word is liberally used and actually forms part of the name of one character. What about Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where the Oompa Loompas are African pygmies who are enslaved in Willy Wonka’s factory?


   What about If, that stirring poem that schoolboys are taught? It is written by Rudyard Kipling who we now accept had contempt for the idea that Indians could rule themselves. And if all that is not enough, there is now a campaign to ‘cancel’ JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, because she is allegedly against transgender people.


   Is all this political correctness gone mad? Examples of the now all-pervasive ‘cancel culture’? Or are the objections valid and reasonable?


   There is no clear, single answer and each case seems different. In the case of Enid Blyton, we need to accept that she was writing at a time where golliwogs were common children’s toys.  As late as 2002, the popular food brand Robertson’s still sold jams (in the UK) whose mascot was a golliwog. So perhaps it was understandable that Blyton’s Toyland included golliwogs.


   On the other hand, as far back as 1966, the British newspaper The Guardian wrote an editorial criticising Blyton’s book The Little Black Doll featuring a toy doll who is ostracised for its ‘ugly black face’.  When the toy is scrubbed pink, it is welcomed back.


   So yes, she probably was racist. So it is with Roald Dahl and his Oompa Loompas. Dahl was (at the very least) an anti-Semite and his estate has had to apologise for his prejudiced views.


"Sadly, all too often we deliberately confuse the need to protect children from racial and religious stereotypes with a mandate to censor content consumed by adults."

   On the other hand, Mark Twain was not a racist and fought against slavery. As for Kipling, he believed Indians were unfit to govern themselves. But he created sympathetic and memorable Indian characters such as Mowgli. And as for JK Rowling, whatever her views on transgender people, her books are clearly not racist or prejudiced.


   So should that matter?  Should we deny children the joy of reading Malory Towers or The Secret Seven or even the Noddy books because the author was racist? And is it okay for them to read Tom Sawyer because Mark Twain was not a racist?


   The short answer is that we should first judge the book, not the author. The golliwogs in the Noddy books clearly perpetrate a racial stereotype so they should go. The use of the ‘N’ word in Twain’s books should end --- and indeed it has been excised from recent editions. On the Oompa Loompas, as far back as 1971, the first film version of Dahl’s book, changed the race of the Oompa Loompas and dispensed with the nonsense about them being from Africa. It made no difference to the book or the movie and children continued to enjoy it. As for Kipling, we may disagree with his views on Indians and our capacity for self-governance, but If is still an inspiring poem for children to read.


   The key issue here is the ability of stories to poison children’s minds. A child who grows up reading about black people as golliwogs, pygmy slaves or ‘n words’ is likely have his world view, well,  coloured. To object to those portrayals is not political correctness. It is common sense.


   Once you talk about adult fiction however, it gets more complicated. Was The Satanic Verses anti-Islamic? Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. Adults should be allowed to read it for themselves and decide.


   Is The Merchant of Venice anti-Semitic? I don’t think it is but every time the play is staged in America, Jewish groups picket the theatre or protest. They are entitled to that view. But every theatre-goer is entitled to make up his or her mind.


   Sadly, in India these days, we have surrendered the right to decide for ourselves and handed it over to the mob. So Tandav is called ‘anti-Hindu.’ Scenes should be cut or the makers will go to jail. Why is there a Bhagwat Geeta in Bombay Begums? That’s ‘anti-Hindu’ too. And so on.


   Much of the criticism of the cancel culture stems from this kind of excess. There is no fundamental right to not be offended. But we act as if it exists.


   There is however a right to free speech which, if it is to mean anything, must include the right to offend others.


   Sadly, all too often we deliberately confuse the need to protect children from racial and religious stereotypes with a mandate to censor content consumed by adults.


   Bottom line: Children need to be protected. Adults need to be free.



Posted On: 17 Apr 2021 10:53 AM
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