Dr. Seuss and cancel culture

March 5, 2021

The US right is currently engaged in a rolling hysteria over the purported ‘cancellation’ of beloved children’s author Dr. Seuss.  This is, of course, nonsense.  But maybe it can illustrate what ‘cancel culture’ isn’t, as a way of saying something about what it is.

The background: Dr. Seuss Enterprises (the business that oversees the Theodore Geisel estate) announced on March 2nd that they would no longer be publishing six titles which “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong”.  This is good and appropriate.  The books in question are racist.  They’re not subtly or complexly racist.  They are, moreover, books written for very young children, and their target audience clearly cannot be expected to adopt a critical or reflective attitude toward their contents. They are also (luckily for the Geisel estate) far from his best books. They’re books that, when you buy your big Dr. Seuss box set, you quietly remove because obviously you don’t want to be teaching your children to read with these books.  So: dropping these books from the Seuss catalogue is an easy call.

Is this an example of ‘cancel culture’?  Here I think it helps to understand that the phrase ‘cancel culture’ denotes, to a first approximation, two completely different things.  

First, it denotes any effort to reduce the amount of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and sundry other forms of bigotry in our public sphere and social lives.  For the US conservatives furious about these Seuss books, the idea that we shouldn’t be teaching children to read with racist caricatures is “cancel culture”, because the reduction of racist imagery in society in general is “cancel culture”.  That’s all there is to it.

The second sense of “cancel culture” is more useful and interesting.  This second sense is something in the space of “excessively unforgiving and expansive attitudes to the level and scope of sanctions that should follow from transgressing community norms”.  This sense of “cancel culture” captures, for example, the idea that people should lose their jobs for making offensive social media posts.  The characteristic feature of “cancel culture” in this sense is the expansion of critique from one dimension of self to all dimensions of self – this is why it is sometimes called a ‘purity’ discourse.

Unlike many on the left, I think that “cancel culture” in this second sense picks out a real phenomenon, and a problematic one.  The reason this phenomenon is problematic, in my view, is that we are all, in one way or another, deeply flawed.  We all – individually and collectively – contain multitudes, and some elements of our individual and collective identities are, inevitably, deplorable.  For this reason, if we are too expansive and unforgiving in our social sanctions, we risk de facto committing ourselves to a global sanctioning – a scenario in which there is nothing that can legitimately or consistently escape sanction.  And in this scenario – since we cannot in fact sanction everything and everyone – we will end up resorting to ad hoc alternative criteria of social acceptance and exclusion, such that the principles that we aspire to realise are no longer really guiding our application of sanctions anyway.

In fact, if we aspire to build a better present and future out of the deeply flawed materials we have to hand, we need to be skilled at using what is good in our history and present, and rejecting what is bad, while acknowledging that the good and the bad are often also bound together in complex ways.  We all do this in practice anyway – we look back at the figures we admire, and we select what is most admirable for admiration, while letting the rest fall by the wayside.  Moreover, even grim elements of our societies and histories may have potentials that can be put to use.  (This, by the way, is one of the core commitments of Marxism – the idea that the social and technological potentials of capitalist society can be put to work to emancipatory ends, if only the political-economic structure within which they are embedded is transformed – a correct and worthwhile commitment still, in my view.)  It is necessary to reject what is bad without throwing out everything connected to it – because the latter risks leaving us with nothing to work with at all.

So, returning to the Dr. Seuss nonsense – is the withdrawal of these Dr. Seuss books an example of “cancel culture” in this second sense?  No, it is not.  More strongly, it is something close to the opposite of cancel culture in this sense.  Dr. Seuss has not been ‘cancelled’.  The withdrawal of these six works has not been extended to his corpus as a whole.  The Geisel estate has been presented with a situation in which the widely beloved figure whose literary legacy they are charged with preserving and transmitting (for a healthy profit) has strongly transgressed our community’s ethical-political norms in several works.  They have responded to this as we all should when faced with the profoundly mixed legacy of our history and traditions: they have rejected what is bad and preserved what is good.  Of course, this decision is a particularly easy one in this case, in part for the reasons I discussed above. Much more would have to be said about ‘strategies of inheritance’ in more complex cases. Nevertheless, the Dr. Seuss situation is certainly not an example of ‘cancel culture’ in any useful sense.

One Response to “Dr. Seuss and cancel culture”

  1. Phil Says:

    You omit the other, more troubling implication of taking our own flaws seriously, which is that – when we’re in the denunciation business – it’s possible we may be wrong.

    The statement “the state of Israel is a racist endeavour” is offensive to many, probably most, Jewish people in Britain; many people who object to that statement genuinely feel that it strikes at a key aspect of their identity as Jews. Most people on the Left, faced with the choice of predictably causing offence to many members of a minority ethnicity and anathematising anti-Zionism, will reluctantly take the first choice; we don’t just take anti-Zionists’ professions of non-racism at face value (anyone can say they’re not racist), we work on the basis that the conflation of anti-semitism and anti-Zionism is fundamentally incorrect, no matter how many Jewish people believe in it.

    But if we’re right to do this – and I think we are – it has to follow that other denunciations of prejudice and bigotry may also be unsound, even if they’re made or endorsed by members of the minority groups affected. Even oppressed people are fallible (The German Ideology suggests as much).


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