06 March 2021

Some ruminations on books, statues, and canceling

As pretty much everyone now knows, Dr Seuss Enterprises recently ceased publication of six of the popular author's books because they contained mildly-racist imagery.  I'm not going to launch a lengthy explication of my own views about this, which long-time readers can probably guess anyway.  Blogger Wordifull Melanie has a post up which presents the broader issue pretty well, and Nan's Notebook hosts a discussion (now up to 70 comments) which is worthwhile.  Instead I'm going to look at a more specific related question -- how is "canceling" books or art deemed "offensive" different from removing Confederate statues?  If we reject the one act so as to preserve free expression, don't we need to reject the other?

The obvious difference is intent.  Most of the Confederate statues were put up three or four decades after the Civil War, as explicit celebration and assertion of the restoration of white supremacy and the crushing of what rights blacks had won after the end of slavery.  That is, they're willful expressions of racism, not casual or accidental depictions of it.

That doesn't get to the root of the distinction, though.  Some books are also willful expressions of racism.  As I mentioned at Melanie's post, I myself have Mein Kampf and have read it, and that book is at least as deliberately racist and hateful as a Confederate statue.  Yet no one (except those with a genuinely totalitarian mind-set) would say Mein Kampf should be banned or otherwise made unavailable.

A more useful dividing line is government endorsement of viewpoints.  Most Confederate statues are on public property or otherwise displayed in ways which imply government approval.  It's clearly intolerable for government to endorse racism -- we wouldn't accept the government publishing racist print propaganda either, even though private individuals obviously have a free-expression right to do so.

But what about a Confederate statue on private property but publicly visible?  If a private individual has the right to express and publish racist opinions, wouldn't the statue be acceptable as well?

Here, I think, we're in one of those awkward situations where a difference of degree really is decisive, and it's hard to be sure where to draw the line.  A person's right to do whatever he wants on his own property does not extend to things which unambiguously violate the rights of others -- playing loud music which disturbs neighbors, for example, or storing large quantities of explosives which would endanger neighbors if they went off.  The question is how bad the danger or nuisance factor has to be to override the individual's right to do what he wants.  That's where a hard line is difficult to draw.

It absolutely can't be offensiveness.  If a "right" to avoid being offended is recognized, any semblance of a free society vanishes, because nearly anything could be offensive to somebody, and almost all controversial expression -- the very thing the First Amendment is specifically needed to protect -- is seriously offensive to substantial numbers of people.  The fraction of the population that was sincerely offended by the gay liberation movement fifty years ago may well have been larger than the fraction offended by Confederate statues today.  And, as always with questions of censorship, don't assume that you or people like you would be the ones who get to decide what's too offensive to be allowed.  Truly robust protection for free expression must be viewpoint-neutral.  In order to protect things you say that offend your enemies, it also has to protect the things they say that offend you.

Even people who would reluctantly accept a Confederate statue on private property might well draw the line at somebody displaying a swastika flag in his front yard.  It's a symbol whose shocking nature is much more widely agreed upon.  Yet it's hard to make a serious argument that the two cases are dissimilar in any fundamental way.  And what about the crosses displayed on churches everywhere?  Aren't they just as insulting and offensive given Christianity's centuries of persecution of gays, Jews, and unbelievers?

Pornography presents an analogous problem.  On the consumption of pornography in private, I'm pretty much an anti-censorship absolutist (the exception would be photographs or video of actual rape or child molestation, not because of the offensiveness of the final product, but because violent crimes against persons would be necessary to produce it).  But I wouldn't much care to see explicit pornography on display everywhere, even though in general the re-sexualization of the public space is an important part of the de-Christianization of Western culture.  Like the swastika flag in the front yard, public displays of actual porn would create a distraction-and-disturbance problem pushing close to the same territory as the neighbor's loud music.

So there are some genuine grey areas here.  However, it's abundantly obvious that the pendulum has in fact swung way, way too far in the direction of suppression, and that some robust mockery of idiocies like pulling the Dr Seuss books is not just a right but practically a duty.

Please do watch this.  "Cancel culture" is a very real problem, and it threatens people of every political leaning.  The fact that the right wing is trying to appropriate the term does not change this.  People are getting fired, humiliated, or hounded into cringing apologies over a careless word or a figment of somebody's imagination.  We all need to stand up to this, and to support those who refuse to back down when set upon by the "woke" mob.  Because any one of us, no matter how careful we think we are, could suddenly become a target at some point.


Blogger Kay said...

A blogger named northierthanthou wrote a comment on my blog that I liked:
"Discontinuing these titles makes sense. Adults can still find them, but children won't be exposed to these stereotypes long before they achieve the critical thinking skills necessary to see past them."

06 March, 2021 18:16  
Blogger Mike said...

From the meme world...
I never heard anybody complaining about "cancel culture" when the Dixie Chicks had their careers shot down for criticizing Bush.

06 March, 2021 18:54  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Kay: It should be the responsibility of parents to limit what their children read, if that's necessary at all. I would hate to have a world where anything that was inappropriate for children was pulled from publication and doing so justified by saying that adults still could find it if they really tried.

Mike: The term "cancel culture" hadn't been invented yet at that time, but it was the same thing, and yes, some people complained.

07 March, 2021 05:26  
Anonymous Annie said...

This is such a thoughtful examination of a topic whose seriousness I acknowledge I haven’t fully reacted to because of the pain several Black friends have expressed about the drip,drip, drip of racist comments they live with every day. I think the upheaval in our society as we confront systemic racism at last is perhaps leading to contortions that are unhealthy for all. I appreciated your discussion of the removal of Confederate statues for its clarity, but I agree there are gray areas—and the fact that the right has taken this topic as its own simply complicates matters further. They’re using the “culture wars” to divide and conquer: if you care about racist speech, you’re one of “them.” The fact that CPAC was devoted to Dr Seuss and Mr and Mrs Potato Head tells me they think they have a winning issue to cover their total absence of ideas.

I don’t know how we move beyond this unsettling trend without creating further divisiveness when we need greater unity of purpose so desperately. But I do think essays such as this one, which is written with awareness of the sensitivities inherent in the problem, may open some minds.

07 March, 2021 12:19  
Anonymous Elizabeth Beyer said...

Let me preface this by saying I am autistic.

Perhaps you are aware of the controversy over the new movie, "Music." It repeatedly shows restraint used on a character going through a meltdown, and presents restraint in a positive light.

Restraints have killed over twenty children in recent years.

Well-meaning people are going to see the movie, see the restraints, and use them to try to calm people like me, not knowing that they can be fatal.

In short, that movie is going to kill people, which is a bit more severe than being offensive.

Which is worse - making a movie that will kill people, or protesting its release? According to the "cancel culture" crowd, the protests are worse. If protesting is wrong, just what are we supposed to do?

07 March, 2021 12:38  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Annie: Thank you. Nobody is saying we shouldn't fight back against actual racism. But the correct response to bad speech is speech in response to it, not censorship. I also think that cancel culture is actually damaging the fight against real racism by associating that fight with ridiculous over-reactions to trivia like politically-incorrect Halloween costumes. It's in the racists' interest for anti-racism to become linked in the public mind with censorship and firing people over innocent hand gestures.

I'd like to recommend this video I posted a couple of years ago, which further explores the issue. Note the figures he cites near the end, that minorities even more than whites consider political correctness and the "woke" mentality to be a problem. I suspect this is because people who have real problems don't have patience with fake ones -- if you have to worry about being shot by the police for no reason during a traffic stop, you aren't going to get very worked up about people dressing as a mariachi band for Halloween.

07 March, 2021 13:08  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Elizabeth: This is a straw-man argument and has nothing to do with what I'm talking about. Protest anything you want -- the fight against cancel culture isn't about that. It's about banning or withdrawing books and firing or ostracizing people over trivial or imaginary offenses. My post made this very clear.

Protesting things is an appropriate response. It's responding to bad speech with speech in response to it, as I said in the comment above. Cancel culture does the opposite, trying to ban or remove things and people it disapproves of.

And no, that movie is not "going to kill people". At worst, it's going to very marginally contribute to the legitimization of behavior which sometimes kills people, and yes, that's a bad thing, but the responsibility still lies with the people who actually commit the behavior, and you damage your own cause by using absurdly hyperbolic language.

07 March, 2021 13:16  
Blogger run75441 said...


Excellent post. Comments were good also.

I am never quite as good on these topics as compared to what I read elsewhere. I guess if I was Dr. Seuss Enterprises, I would quietly cancel the publication of the books if offended. And if I was offended by them, what would I gain by going public with my perceived prejudices? Maybe there was a hope of coming out ahead? Or perhaps, since they thought it was offensive they may find others also and have a better basis for discontinuing.

Saw a bit of J.S. Mill in your dialogue. Off to read then others.

08 March, 2021 17:37  

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