There’s a typical media bubble furore right now over the ‘censorship’ of Roald Dahl and other older writers who remain, although bafflingly to me, beloved of quite a few people who consider themselves morally right on. Therein comes the exercises where people try to contort themselves into defending something they know is problematic but where admitting that would put them in the position of, outrageously, having to take a look at what they love and questioning the harm it may have done.
So far so normal for my life as a minority among an ever blind to self majority.
Why then am I writing this? Because it’s both too easy to say such nonsense as ‘I read it and didn’t become a racist’ and to simply tell people who like Dahl and Fleming and any host of other writers whose attitudes have aged terribly (and this in itself is a problematic phrase we’ll come back to momentarily) that they’re the problem.
As it’s so often up for debate let me state here that trans people are people. Fully so. Indeed, allyship is fundamentally intersectional and if you come for them then you’ll better come for me too (hey, I know I’m also on the fascists’ list, but it’s worth reminding bullies they can’t pick you off one by one).
What do i think about this?
Firstly it’s not censorship. There is no government censor demanding the offending copies be destroyed and replaced with new bowdlerised versions. So please stop calling it that.
What this is, is revision, amendment, adaptation. I think whether you believe this to be wrong rests on two intersecting sets of attitudes the First is simply – are you prejudiced. If you are then you’re going to struggle accepting there’s anything wrong with Flemings’ happy projection of sexism, racism and ableism in his Bond books. You’re going to struggle to see how buying books from the estate of Dahl doesn’t implicitly condone his virulent anti-semitism. This doesn’t make you a racist or anti-semite or misogynist.
But it makes you a fucking terrible ally. If you are still in the camp that thinks that because it’s not affected you then it must be fine then you are not my ally. Because it’s sure as fuck affected me. The writing of Dahl (mean spirited as it is about people who don’t meet his particular moral norms), the terrible attitude towards anyone not a white british upper class male of Fleming, the out and out racism of Lovecraft. These harm people like me. They harm us twofold. First you keep giving your money to publishers who see you supporting these awful attitudes and so keep publishing them. The second round effects of these do untold harm.
Secondly they harm us because they continue to entrench, in a thousand tiny ways you are fucking blind to, attitudes and behaviours that essentially say white men are ok and everyone else is (slightly to grossly) inferior.
But that’s enough on why these books are problematic.
The question right now is what to do about it.
This brings me to the second set of motivations about amending and adapting literature. Whether you think it exists as a perfect artefact or whether you think culture is a living breathing thing. I’m in the latter camp but if you sit in the former, even if you don’t realise it, then you may well regard adapting ANY work of art as problematic, more so than the messages it contains.
I wonder if you’d rather nazi works of art or the art of the KKK or mussolini and Pinochet’s regime works should be put on display prominently rather than being quietly forgotten? Probably not (unless you’re some kind of edge lord who thinks reductio ad absurdum is a god tier debating technique rather than the province of 10 year olds caught pissing in the sink).
I understand the reasoning. if the work of art is a thing itself, a direct platonic objet d’art then interfering with it is sacrilege. Religious in its level of desecration (apologies of you’re an atheist who feels like this but perhaps you’d be better off taking a long look at how you value objects and what that says about the axioms of your ideological value system). I mean you’re on the wrong side of history, fighting Canute like against the encroaching sea which can easily wipe away your sand castles but at least your position is comprehensible.
For me, someone who continues to face racist abuse and who witnesses and experiences a thousand smaller expressions of unthinking prejudice any attempt to change the framework within which the discussion takes place is a positive one. My kids read and listened to a select few of Dahl’s stories. They hate James Bond and they (and their friends) are all too aware of Lovecraft and mock the racist old bastard whenever he comes up. This is fine by me.
Do I think these authors and others like them should be banned or actually censored (and gosh, because we’re talking about changing windows of acceptability among the MAJORITY here, that’s a lot of authors and artists)?
No. I do not.
I think we should be honest about the fact that in giving people like me a voice, in your recognising me as a proper human being who is worth every bit as much as you that we must alter what we think is acceptable to say, express, paint, sing and write about. I think we must look at our histories in which your parents were abusers of mine in a thousand ways even when they were kind because of the nature of the imperial and classist society they lived in and consider the legacies of that upon ourselves today.
I think that if we can change the landscape for the better even if only for a few that is worth doing because we are doing something right now that will echo through the years to come. But we do not forget the past. We do not exploit the past for gain. We do not pretend it didn’t happen but we do not hold it over one another either. If we truly want equity and equality then we must, especially the representatives of the majority, accept that our tastes should be open to change in order to lift others around us up.
Far too often in these debates those who have never been harmed because they’re in the majority scoff at those who have been harmed and, worse still, mock those allies who are trying to make our culture somewhere safer for those who are harmed by old attitudes and the power structures they still represent.
This is no way to treat those trying to do good. This is no way to make me feel safe around you. When I hear your comments I mark you as someone who is at best cloth eared and tone deaf but who is, at worst, willfully ignorant and therefore not someone who I can trust in any way at all.
If that causes you to think about what you say then I want you to know this is no condemnation – I hope you see this as me being vulnerable (and spikey as a result natch) about how your attitudes impinge upon my life and my experience of the spaces we share together.
So no to censorship. This isn’t censorship. It’s people in some small places trying to make things more inclusive and contemporary (just like those books were when they were published). They’re trying to update the hymns and when you object on the spurious reasons I’m seeing all over the place, you are the crusties sitting at the back of church demanding hymns are sung exactly as they were written three hundred years ago. Regardless of the fact they were contemporary back then, regardless of the fact they were often mixed up, rejigged and adapted to their situation then. You see the ossification of the object and assume that’s the pure form rather than realising that like any fossil, the stone version of the bones has seen not just the life stripped away but the meat, sinew and blood too. The fossil is nothing more than a fractured memory as far from the real thing as a painting of someone in love is from love itself.
The question I’d ask is – are you an ally? if you are then perhaps a little more nuance and a lot more empathy about the people whose lives are actually involved might go a long way to helping you understand why these small acts – so irritatingly silly to you – are actually wonderful signs of rebellion against prejudice and hatred.
Words matter or people wouldn’t be arguing over them.