Can We Please Stop Talking About Cancel Culture?

The Dr. Seuss debacle is a case study in the right-wing grievance industry reframing normal, age-old processes as sinister suppression.
"On Beyond Zebra" is one of six books that Dr. Seuss Enterprises recently announced would no longer be published due to offensive content.
"On Beyond Zebra" is one of six books that Dr. Seuss Enterprises recently announced would no longer be published due to offensive content.
Scott Olson/Getty

Dr. Seuss, many Americans learned this week, has been canceled. Headlines and chyrons on conservative websites and cable-TV shows agree: Cancel culture has really gone too far this time. Silencing the beloved, whimsical voice behind “Green Eggs and Ham” and “The Cat in the Hat”? Unconscionable.

Dr. Seuss, the pen name of Theodor Geisel, has been sanctified as something of a children’s lit deity in American culture. His most beloved titles — such as “The Lorax” and “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” — are go-to gifts for new parents and graduates; his March 2 birthday is celebrated as National Read Across America Day, which schools often observe with Seuss-themed events and costumes. His books have been lauded for instilling kids with good values: self-esteem, open-mindedness, kindness and acceptance, environmentalism.

Geisel also wrote and illustrated work for both children and adults that contained grotesquely racist imagery and ideas. Much of this work appeared early in his career, when he worked as a political cartoonist as well as a children’s author. His earlier oeuvre, especially, is a muddied mix of xenophobic and racist messages alongside calls for tolerance and equality. The latter values mostly won out over the course of his career, and in his later years he even made amendments to some of the more egregious pages of his kids’ books. And yet, in 2021, a parent might pick up a copy of “If I Ran the Zoo” at a library or bookstore, sit down to read it to their child, and turn the page to a jaw-droppingly offensive illustration of African people wearing grass skirts and depicted with exaggerated features reminiscent of blackface. This particular book is one of six that Dr. Seuss Enterprises has decided to withdraw from publication because of such content.

What does it mean to describe this decision as cancel culture? What is cancel culture and how does it work? A recent HuffPost/YouGov poll found that only about half of Americans have even heard the term, though two-thirds of that group are frightened of it. Even those who have heard of it might be hard-pressed to define it.

In a 2018 investigation in The New York Times, Jonah Engel Bromwich rather archly argues, “If you announce that someone is canceled, they’re canceled.” This is essentially how the anti-cancel-culture brigade treats the concept, which explains their constant state of alarm: It’s remarkably easy to cancel someone, when all you have to do is declare it aloud. No wonder there’s such an epidemic!

But this is akin to declaring an epidemic of people having opinions: It’s neither new nor particularly terrifying that we can each decide, at any moment, that we never want to pay to see an Armie Hammer movie again. Without the label of cancel culture, this would just be called a drop in box-office clout.

“Cancel culture” serves mostly to gesture away from what actually happened in a given scenario — usually a normal, benign or unexceptional event that did not break in favor of conservative interests — and toward a generalized sense of right-wing grievance. “Cancel culture comes for Dr. Seuss” has a far more sinister ring to it than “Seuss estate decides, after a long review and consultation process, to no longer publish six of his many books due to shockingly racist content.”

Here are some events and situations that have been assailed as “cancel culture” in recent months:

These are all wildly different things, and they’re also things that have always happened. They are the decisions that are made within workplaces, businesses and people’s own minds. Books go unpublished or are pulled from print; politicians face investigation and calls to resign; buildings get renamed — presumably when they’re renamed after a wealthy donor rather than a Black community leader, this is not deemed cancel culture. For decades, women, LGBTQ people and people of color have been forced out of their chosen careers after facing sexual and racial harassment, lower pay, harsher performance reviews, fewer opportunities for advancement, and the chilling sense that they are alone and without support in workspaces dominated by white, straight, cis men. This, too, has never been labeled cancel culture.

Not publishing a children’s book because of offensive or scandalous content is simply not a new concept. It is baked into the entire children’s publishing industry, in which editors select and publish manuscripts that they believe will appeal to parents, teachers and children, rather than ones that they anticipate provoking horror or psychic harm in their young audience.

This has historically applied even to beloved, prolific figures in children’s literature. Consider the Belgian series Tintin, which stars a plucky, boyish blond journalist who travels the world having adventures with his adorable dog. One of the earliest volumes in the original series, “Tintin in the Congo,” is rife with racist depictions of Black Congolese people — racism so overt that some publishers balked. The volume was not published in English until 1991, 60 years after it first appeared in Belgium.

The furor over Dr. Seuss comes amid a dizzying rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, fueled by the racist and xenophobic response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Somehow, the debate has turned to the threat posed to our children by removing certain Seuss classics from the shelf when the dangers of leaving them should be much more terrifying. It’s the Black child who leafs through a book in their school library and stumbles across a lurid, demeaning cartoon of an African man. It’s the white child who absorbs racist images wrapped up in playful verse and primary-color illustrations and subconsciously takes note that it’s OK to treat people of other races as punchlines.

On Wednesday, Slate’s Care and Feeding column published a letter by a parent whose 9-year-old son had been suspended for bullying an Asian American student by accusing him of starting the pandemic. “I have no idea where he heard these types of messages,” the letter writer notes, “because neither my husband nor I have ever even come close to suggesting anything like that.” In her insightful response, columnist Nicole Chung pointed out that not personally modeling this behavior was no guarantee that a child won’t be exposed to racism, because, “Our kids live in the same country we do.” These types of messages are everywhere — even in books many Americans grew up loving — and they’re not harmless.

Dr. Seuss has not been deleted from bookstores or the public consciousness. The vast majority of his work will continue to be published, including those upon which his reputation as an inspiring and humane influence on children rests. Cancel culture is a tool for evading the real, tough argument the anti-canceling partisans would otherwise need to make here: not “Why is such a beloved and wise children’s book author being senselessly canceled?” but “Why should we continue publishing, and marketing to innocent kids, six specific books containing vile racist depictions?” It’s a much more difficult case to make.

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