A number of years ago, when my husband was still practicing architecture, he was presenting a school board with preliminary plans for a school they’d hired him to design. There were a number of decisions on which he wanted their feedback, but the board focused entirely–for an hour!– on arguments over the size of an elevator, and whether it should accommodate one wheelchair or two.
As he left, he ran into a friend, and explained his frustration with the school board’s focus. The friend said something I’ve thought about on multiple occasions since: “people argue about what they understand.” Insightful as that observation was, I think it needs amending to “People argue about what they think they understand.”
Which brings me to censorship, accusations of “cancel culture,” and Dr. Seuss, with a brief side trip to Mr. Potato Head.
The right wing is exercised–even hysterical–and screaming “censorship” about a decision made by the company that controls publication of the Dr. Seuss books. It will suspend publication of six of those sixty-odd books, based upon a determination that they contain racist and insensitive imagery. The decision didn’t affect “Green Eggs and Ham,” “The Cat in the Hat,” “Horton Hears a Who” or numerous other titles.
This is not censorship, not only because they aren’t proposing to collect and destroy the numerous copies that already exist but because, in our constitutional system, only government can censor speech. In fact, a decision by the company that owns the rights to Dr. Seuss’ books is an exercise of that company’s own free speech rights.
Think of it this way: you post something to Twitter, then think better of it and remove that post. You haven’t been censored; you made both the initial decision to post whatever it was and the subsequent decision to remove it.
Or think about that same example in the context of contemporary criticism of so-called “cancel culture.” You post something that other people find offensive. They respond by criticizing you. Your public-sector employer hasn’t punished you and, for that matter, no government entity has taken any action, but many people have expressed disdain or worse. Again–that is neither censorship nor “cancellation.”
The Free Speech clause of the First Amendment protects us from government actions that suppress the free expression of our opinions or our ability to access particular information or ideas. It doesn’t protect us from the disapproval of our fellow-citizens. It doesn’t even protect us from being sanctioned or fired by our private-sector employer, because that employer has its own First-Amendment right to ensure that messages being publicly communicated by its employees are consistent with its own.
When Walmart decides not to carry a particular book, when a local newspaper (remember those?) rejects an advertisement or refuses to print a letter to the editor, when the manufacturer of “Mr. Potato Head” decides to drop the “Mr,” those entities are exercising their First Amendment rights. They aren’t “censoring.” They aren’t even “cancelling.”
You are within your rights to disagree with the decision by those who own the Dr. Seuss catalogue (actually, that “company” is run by the author’s family, aka the Seuss estate.) Disagreement and criticism are your rights under the First Amendment. You are free to argue that the decision was misplaced, that it constituted over-reaction…whatever. But since the government did not require that decision–or participate in it– it wasn’t censorship. And unless the criticism was accompanied by ostracism–unless it was accompanied by removal of the author’s books from bookstores and libraries–it isn’t cancellation, either.
Americans have a right to freedom of expression. We have no right–constitutional or otherwise– to freedom from criticism. The desire of America’s culture warriors to “own the libs” doesn’t trump that reality.
As for the decision to stop printing and circulating six books with unfortunate portrayals, we’d do well to heed Charles Blow. In a column for the New York Times, Blow reminded readers that the images we present to young children can be highly corrosive and racially vicious. A Times article on the controversy noted that a number of other children’s books have been edited to purge what we now recognize as racist stereotypes. Often, those edits have been made by the authors who wrote the books, who belatedly recognized that they had engaged in hurtful stereotyping.
Agree or disagree with a given decision–whether by the Dr. Seuss estate or by Hasbro, the Potato Head manufacturer–it was a decision they had the right to make and a right that the rest of us have an obligation to respect, even if we disagree.