If you have an internet connection in 2021, you have probably heard some chatter about Dr. Seuss. The whackadoo poet and illustrator known as sort of the bizarro Tim Burton of children’s lit is under the cultural microscope after his estate announced that some changes are coming to the publication of his works, which rank among the bestselling kids’ books of all time.
There’s been a lot of sound and fury around the announcement which generally means the details of the story are well known but poorly understood. In short, people are saying a lot of things. Some of those things are true, and some aren’t. That’s par for the course with any story involving “cancel culture” — a flimsy catch-all term that can mean anything from “someone went to jail for breaking the law” to “people are being mean on Twitter.” In an effort to bring a little clarity to the confusion, here’s what’s actually happening with Dr. Seuss.
So, has Dr. Seuss been canceled?
Depends on what you mean by “canceled.” It all started on February 26, when Ben Shapiro’s website The Daily Wire noted that an educator’s group had released a statement urging teachers to stop “connecting Read Across America Day with Dr. Seuss.” They highlighted some racist caricatures in a couple Seuss books as justification for their argument. Then on March 1, President Joe Biden released a statement cheering Read Across America Day that did not mention Dr. Seuss, which was all it took for some sites to roll out those “Biden CANCELS Dr. Seuss” headlines.
But the real blow came when Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that it will stop publishing six Seuss books because of illustrations of people of color that “that are hurtful and wrong.”
That evaluation was partly made based on a study conducted by a nonprofit called Learning for Justice. An expert associated with that study found that
Of the 2,240 (identified) human characters [in 50 Dr. Seuss books], there are forty-five characters of color representing 2% of the total number of human characters.” Of the 45 characters, 43 exhibited behaviors and appearances that align with harmful and stereotypical Orientalist tropes. The remaining two human characters “are identified in the text as ‘African’ and both align with the theme of anti-Blackness.” It’s also important to note that each of the non-white characters is male and that they are all “presented in subservient, exotified, or dehumanized roles,” especially in their relation to white characters.
So, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super! and The Cat’s Quizzer will no longer be published by Seuss’ estate, based on those findings.
In other words, those books are “canceled” — not necessarily Dr. Seuss as a whole.
Yeah, you could say that. Those books will still be available in libraries and bookstores that choose to keep them around, but they’ll probably become harder to find over time.
So they’re not “banned” exactly, but it still feels weird that we’re not publishing these kids’ books anymore.
It’s important to note that this sort of behavior happens on every side of the cultural divide. In 2019, the American Library Association found that eight of the 10 most banned or protested books in the U.S. had LGBTQ themes in them. We don’t usually group conservatives pushing for reading restrictions under the “cancel culture” umbrella — but the beats of the plot are pretty similar.
In other words, if we’re on a slippery slope, we’re all on it together and we have been for quite a while.
So …cancel culture run amok?
First, “canceling” is something that happens to TV shows when they run out of steam, and it’s a really unhelpful term for what we’re talking about when we talk about something as broad and nebulous as “cancel culture.”
The simple fact is, most people are fine with “cancel culture” when it comes for something or someone they’re already ideologically opposed to. For example, some Democrats who are more than happy to call for Rep. Madison Cawthorn to be “canceled” for a series of allegations of sexual harassment might drag their heels over similar allegations made against Gov. Andrew Cuomo. One person’s cancel culture is another person’s “holding accountable.”
Pundits and politicians like to talk about “cancel culture” because it’s a vague enough term that it can be dressed up as whatever bogeyman is most suitable for their particular agenda. That’s their job. It’s our job to be discerning about the ways we’re being manipulated to feel certain ways about certain things.
“Cancel culture” is nothing new. Every society knows the tension of navigating new understandings of accepted ideas. People in power who have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are will always try to cast aspersions on anyone who dares suggest that some things may have to change. One easy way to do this is to brand anyone trying to make these changes as an enemy: “cancel culture,” “the woke mob,” “PC police” and so on. Once you can put would-be change makers in a box, you don’t have to deal with them as human beings anymore.
But not everyone who’s calling for change is automatically correct, right?
Of course not. But when we label everyone who calls for change as being a part of “cancel culture,” we’re not even trying to figure out if they’re right or not. We’re not listening to them at all. We’re just sticking our fingers in our ears and chanting “change is bad” until they go away.
Christians are in a particularly interesting place with all of this. On the one hand, grace is the foundation of Christian doctrine. Jesus himself taught that there is no limit to how many times someone can be forgiven for the bad things they’ve done. On the other hand, Christians should also have the moral courage to call out when accepted ideas are hurtful and to stand up for the marginalized who are expressing real feelings of hurt or alienation over certain accepted cultural artifacts.
This isn’t always easy to do, but it’s not as hard as we make it out to be. The Dr. Seuss case is just one more example where a little listening and attempt to understand can go a long ways. When we’ve taken time to listen to the people who are expressing the genuine feelings of hurt and alienation that are leading to renewed examinations of past cultural artifacts, we can empower them to lead the way on finding a proper context for those things, demonstrating the sacrificial love and humility that Jesus modeled for us. It’s an enormous opportunity that the American Church could be at the forefront of instead of where we often find ourselves now, reacting to every headline with the outrage expected of us, blown and tossed by the wind.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.