For a moment I thought Enid Blyton was about to suffer the same fate as Dr Seuss.
The Daily Express headline screamed at me: Five get cancelled! Enid Blyton’s work ‘racist and xenophobic’ The Daily Mail fumed: Enid Blyton fans slam English Heritage ‘insulting’ re-appraisal of children’s author’s work as “racist and xenophobic”. Then Piers Morgan waded in: “Leave Enid Blyton alone, you woke w*****s”.
Oh dear, I thought, the Famous Five were headed for the same oblivion as I Ran the Zoo and five other titles Dr Seuss Enterprises will no longer publish because they contain racist images.
But, no, English Heritage was merely updating the information that accompanies the blue plaque on the home where Blyton wrote her first stories in the 1920s. It now reads: “Blyton’s work has been criticised during her lifetime and after for its racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit…Others have argued that while these charges can’t be dismissed, her work still played a vital role in encouraging a generation of children to read.”
In other words, her work was being placed in a modern context. Whether you want your children to read the Famous Five or Noddy books is up to you, but you should explain that some of its characterisations and events are wrong for a number of reasons. Then console yourself that at least they’ll be reading instead of playing on your iPhone.
That approach is infinitely preferable to imposing a ban that does no more than draw added attention to the work and, in the case of the Dr Seuss books, increase the value of second-hand copies. Dr Seuss’ And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street increased from about $8 to more than $400. I can still buy Five Go To Mystery Moor for under $8.
What difference does it make if a few children’s books are no longer reprinted? And Enid Blyton is more likely to be parodied than pored over. Witness Five Give Up The Booze and Five on Brexit Island.
It matters because these are entry-level examples of a phenomenon that is extending its reach across the length and breadth of expression. It affects publishing, news media, broadcasting, academia, and even private conversations.
The Dr Seuss ban is an example of cancel culture, while the contextualising of Enid Blyton’s work for a modern audience is the sensible alternative.
Cancel culture seeks to erase elements of the past or present and shape our future thinking. It may be well-meaning – as in the removal of images deemed racist – or simply a bullying attempt to eradicate what does not fit with a particular world view. Whatever the motive, it is an attempt to alter reality.
You know things are reaching crisis point when a blatantly right wing organisation, intent on imposing its world view on a willing audience, claims its new news channel will “expose the growing promotion of cancel culture”. GB News (which launched last week in the United Kingdom) will, in fact, deride what it sees as left wing ‘woke’ attempts at suppression. At the same time it will avoid criticising the burgeoning right wing cancel culture and will belittle or exclude what doesn’t fit its own narrative. I suggest you keep an eye on Andrew Doyle’s Free Speech Nation. Doyle is an ‘anti-woke’ comedian and now a GB News interviewer who champions free speech
Unfortunately for GB News, cancel culture took on an entirely different meaning after the launch when Ikea, Swedish cider maker Kopparberg and Dutch brewer Grolsch pulled their advertising. Beauty product manufacturer Nivea is reviewing its position. The channel, they said, did not reflect their values of inclusiveness.
Cancel culture does, nonetheless, pose a clear and present danger for journalists (and society in general).
A year ago 153 writers and thinkers in the United States signed a letter published in Harper’s magazine. The signatories included Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, Francis Fukuyama, Malcom Gladwell, Steven Pinker and J.K. Rowling. In the letter they said:
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought…We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
That should be a description of a totalitarian state but it is an accurate description of increasingly illiberal democracy. And, although it was penned when Donald Trump was president of the United States, it applies now…and here.
In August, Australian philosopher Peter Singer is due to give a single lecture in Auckland. It will be his second attempt. Last year his tour was cancelled after SkyCity withdrew the booking in the face of criticism by disability activists over his past statements about disability, including his belief that parents of profoundly disabled newborns should be allowed to ask doctors to end the child’s life. That, apparently, is an idea to which the New Zealand public must not be exposed, must not debate.
Singer is co-editor of a new academic publication The Journal of Controversial Ideas. It is a peer-reviewed journal with one unique quality. It will allow authors to publish under a pseudonym in order to protect their careers in the face of widespread censure for unpopular views.
The first issue’s editorial explored reasons why suppression needed to be resisted. It is only by discussing all ideas—even those that many regard as offensive or immoral—that we get closer to the truth. Potentially more harmful is the fact that suppressed discussion moves into silos of like-minded people where the ideas become more virulent and irrational, and more influential.
The editors rightly believe that while it is perfectly normal to feel annoyed, threatened, offended, or even insulted when our deep beliefs are challenged, we should respond with reason and argument, rather than outrage.
However, if the Harper’s letter is correct and journalists are becoming risk averse, we cannot expect them to argue against the cause of that aversion. To attack cancel culture is to label yourself a bigot, a racist, Alt-Right.
Yet we must do so.
Rather than deny the past we need to accept it and contextualise it for today.
That means publishing children’s books from the past with images we find offensive, but skilfully annotating them to explain why such things are wrong.
That means exposing past stereotypes and contextualising the wrong-headed attitudes that gave rise to them.
That even means leaving a statue of Captain John Fane Charles Hamilton in the city that bears his name but attaching a plaque that gives an unvarnished account of the Land Wars and his role.
Unlike some, I do not argue for completely unfettered freedom of expression. I draw a line at harm and assaults on dignity. However, I respect the right to air controversial and unpopular views so long as we can, in Milton’s words, let Truth and Falsehood grapple. Peter Singer, for example, must be allowed to argue his stand on the topic of his choosing and face his opposition. And that discussion must be reported.
We must not shy from discussing race, and acknowledge that some have yet to be convinced of the direction in which the country (correctly, in my view) is travelling. Those people have a right to articulate their views and have them tested.
Editors and publishers must have the courage to confront the unpopular, to provide a forum for robust discussion, and to see falsehood exposed for what it is rather than allow it to fester while seemingly unspoken and unseen.
Cancel culture is really a crude and short-sighted weapon. If we want to rid society of ridicule, bigotry, and extremism we need to play the long game. That means building a society where values and ideas have been tested and accepted on their merits. It will not happen if our children are shielded from the wrongs of the past or lose the powers of critical thinking because they are only told the ‘accepted’ version of truth.
Bouquet: To Metro magazine. Firstly, for hitting the newsstands with an enormous 276-page Winter issue. And secondly for an assessment of Auckland secondary schools that was so rich in data it took an hour to read. Yes, prior knowledge of radar charts would help but it meant abundant information on student attainment in each school could be accommodated in a relatively small space. I hope the education minister and the staff in his ministry study the data closely. It shows they are failing to break down the socio-economic divisions in New Zealand society.