Censorship Often Proves Counterproductive

Puffin, the children’s imprint of Penguin Random House recently hired sensitivity readers to go over some of their books. These readers discovered some problematic words in the collection of author Roald Dahl’s books that relate to weight, mental health, gender and race. Puffin decided to remove the words the sensitivity readers found offensive, fearing that they might insult future readers. Was this purely a business decision? Did Puffin fear getting sued, or did they simply not want those words associated with the children’s imprint of the “family friendly” Penguin Random House name. Puffin, Penguin Random House eventually reached a compromise with those who view this action as a form of censorship. Going forward, they will publish two versions of Dahl’s classic works, an unexpurgated, “classic”, version, alongside an edited, more sensitive version of Dahl’s works.

Prior to the compromise, author Salman Rushdie wrote, “This is insane, right? [Roald Dahl] was a bigot and he never supported me, but really? We can’t say fat or female? . . . Can we take some sort of stand against this? Or … pointless?”

In reply, PEN American Chief Executive Suzanne Nossel writes of the effort, “So many of us agree on the need to build a more inclusive, equitable world, and also that that quest need not – and must not – come at the expense of free speech, truth, and reckoning with what is difficult.” 

Actor Tom Hanks, not responding directly to this exchange, said, “Let me decide what I am offended by.” It’s an excellent retort, and it leads to the question, why don’t they let us decide what is offensive for us, our children, and the world at large? 

Two of the words that Puffin sought to expunge from Dahls’ works were ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’. No reasonable and thoughtful adult wants children to hear, learn, and use mean words to describe other kids, but does removing them from books, movies, and the town square, remove them from the lexicon of young children forevermore? Will this effort create a more inclusive and equitable future? If we remove these words from books, will kids evolve to full-fledged adults without ever hearing them? Perhaps the censors wanted to remove the words from books for those moments when teachers read these books aloud to a classroom. Kids are going to laugh, of course, but they might also look around the room for examples of those words, and further ostracize them or make the other kids feel ostracized. 

My guess is that Puffin, the sensitivity readers, and the movement to censor books believe that if we can change the words kids use, in their formative years, those words might be out of sight, out of mind for the rest of their lives. We tried that, I would argue, for years, decades, and centuries. We tried to institute conformity of thought, censorship through public outrage against the use of obscenities, and we now acknowledge that that not only were those efforts ineffective, they actually proved counterproductive. 

We can take offensive words out of books, but we cannot take them out of the mouths of babes on the playground or in the households around the world. Kids may not hear obscenities or insulting descriptions of others in some households, in their formative years, but households vary a great deal around the world. Even those raised in the optimum households, will eventually hear these terms for the first time. What happens when a kid hears a derisive term, or an obscenity, for the first time? What happens when there are no adults around to soften the blow for them when they do hear them? Removing these words is not the answer, in my humble opinion. Censorship might even be counterproductive, as removing words, even temporarily, only grants the words more of a taboo nature, and kids love violating taboos.

The best way to handle derogatory words, or swear words, if we hope that our kids don’t use those words regularly, is to try to somehow drain the words of their taboo nature. The person who can do this better than any sensitivity reader, publisher, or even a teacher, is the child’s parents. Every kid is different, and every kids’ parents are different, but there are numerous ways in which a parent can influence their child in day-to-day interactions, and the primary one is through example. Therein lies the key, not some publisher dictating what a child can or cannot read.  

When I attempt to encourage friends and family to avoid swearing around my child, they’re embarrassed when they slip, but they add the line all adults do when they accidentally swear in front of a child, “He’s going to hear them anyway, and he’s eventually going to say them.” They’re right, of course, but I respond, “Well, he won’t hear them from me, one of the two most dominant influences in his life, and I would hope he doesn’t hear them from you either, because you have some influence on him too.” The question on both fronts is, again, what happens when he eventually hears these words? What happens when that child eventually hears the terms fat and ugly? He may not read them in Roald Dahl’s books, thanks to Puffin, but he will eventually. Will these “words you cannot say” efforts, prevent him from using them, or will his desire to find a way to define his independence from authority lead him to use them in a way that helps him define his maturity in the manner kids and teenagers naturally do? 

If I were sitting in on Puffin board, I would remind them about the various obscenity laws we tried to enforce, and all of the other attempts to remove obscenities from the town square. I would ask them if any of them were successful? That question might elicit some giggles. “Exactly,” I would say. “I think we can all admit after all these years, that they were actually counterproductive.” The more effort religious puritans put into attempting to control our language, the more counterproductive it turned out being. How many times was Lenny Bruce arrested for his public use of obscenities? How many fights did George Carlin get into with the FCC over the years over the use of seven dirty words? How much power did these public seals of disapproval end up granting these words? 

Some students of culture suggest that some of our most obscene words date back to the days of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare. If that’s true, they weren’t very powerful back then. How did they amass such power over the last eighty years? I don’t know if my grandparents used such words, but I’m sure they knew of them. To my knowledge, they didn’t used them, even when I was not around. I know my parents used them, as I heard them used them to punctuate pain, frustration, and sometimes even humor, but they didn’t use them as casually as I did. I don’t think they ever heard or used these words so often that they eventually lost their taboo, as they did in my generation and beyond. Those efforts to inform us what words we cannot say were routinely mocked, ridiculed and soundly defeated. If we were to go on a timeline in which Bruce and Carlin never existed, would these words have as power as they do now, or was it an eventuality that would’ve occurred as our society grew courser? If Bruce and Carlin never existed, I think someone would’ve stepped into that vacuous hole and fueled the power of those words.    

Those who fail to know history are doomed to repeat it. If we view the Roald Dahl episode as a war on words on par with the war against obscenity, we could say that the wars are basically the same, but the combatants have flipped sides. My guess is that the sensitivity warriors would’ve been in the “Freedom of expression” wars the Bruce/Carlin camp waged in the 50’s to the 70’s, but they’ve swapped uniforms in the modern era, and they wear different nobility badges on their lapels. The powers that be, in the 50’s to the 70’s fought for a more puritanical society, and they failed miserably. The powers that be in 2023 fight for a more virtuous society, and virtuous and puritanical are synonyms.   

The effort to convince kids not to think in various terms such as ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ is so similar to the war against obscenity that they strike me as similar to the psychologists who say don’t think pink. If they tell kids not to think pink, pink will be the only thing on their minds.