The James Bond novels and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aren’t usually paired in the same sentence, but they have this in common: they have both fallen prey to “sensitivity readers.” While this development is lamentable, it serves as a warning for how quickly book censorship can spin out of control.
The Guardian published a story last week about sensitivity readers who comb through old and new books, searching for content that might be “offensive” to modern eyes that publishers or writers can then censor. This includes content like that written in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other stories by Roald Dahl, which Puffin Books, the publisher of these stories, decided to edit after consulting sensitivity readers.
The edits include the sort of changes you’d expect nowadays from cancel culture, such as removinggendered language and scrubbing a reference to the superb British writer and poet Rudyard Kipling, but also completely bizarre alterations, such as removing mention of the color of a worm’s skin.
Willy Wonka isn’t the only victim of this latest craze. A few days after Roald Dahl fell under the censors’ gaze, further news broke that the James Bond novels would be edited to remove racial slurs and “other terms and phrases describing race” after having been read by sensitivity readers.
Granted, Penguin Random House, which owns Puffin Books, announced (after facing backlash) that it would also publish an uncensored “Roald Dahl Classic Collection” containing Dahl’s original language alongside the new edited copies. But we shouldn’t get too comfortable. The very fact that this became an issue in the first place is absurd, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see more and more publishers go down the route of censorship.
Some may be tempted to see nothing wrong with this development. But if we say the book scrubbers are right in the case of James Bond and Dahl’s works, then where will they stop? If we concede the principle that it is acceptable to censor old books to make them palatable for modern sensibilities, then no Rubicon will remain uncrossed, no boundary be considered sacred. For example, who’s to say that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, a timeless masterpiece, won’t face the butcher’s block as well?
If this sounds like a mere hypothetical argument, consider that a British government program had previouslyflagged works by Tolkien as potential signs of right-wing radicalization—next to books by other famous authors such as C.S. Lewis and George Orwell.
You don’t need to search far to find people claiming that “Tolkien’s demonisation of the orcs in The Lord of the Rings without seeking to understand their motivation betrays a racist belief that some peoples are inferior to others.” (If this is truly an issue, that means we should probably erase mentions of every class of minions that have ever served a villain, including Stormtroopers in the original Star Wars trilogy and Death Eaters in Harry Potter.) A further search might show you that some people claim that “Middle Earth is literally a racist’s fantasy land” and is “structured by colonialist assumptions.”
(Speaking from my own experience as well, I recall my shock during my first semester in graduate school when some of my colleagues complained about Tolkien’s supposed racism; apparently his portrayal of elves as wise, fair beings and hobbits as hospitable and food-loving betrays a “racial essentialism.”)
One of the main problems with this book censorship is its basis on a false “end of history” philosophy. The would-be censors who want to purge Dahl act as if our current generation is the most enlightened, considerate, and wise that has ever existed, and thus has the right to pass judgment on all the sinners who came before us. Perhaps they should heed Jesus’ advice to His followers to take the log out of their own eye before they remove the speck in their brother’s eye—especially because, when it comes to sinning, modern society has not just a log but an entire forest blocking its vision.
Who is to say that future generations won’t judge us the same way that we judge those in the past? Suppose 50 years from now, humanity transitions to a vegan diet (Lord forbid), subsisting entirely off of Beyond Burgers and fake eggs. Undoubtedly these future super-men will shudder in horror at our barbarian meat-eating ways, but would that give them the right to censor Samwise Gamgee’s delicious rabbit stew from The Two Towers? What about the current push to remove all gendered language? Should censors in the 22ndcentury wipe out every single reference to “male” and “female” in the millennia-worth of human literature, starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh?
It is also hard to believe the same censors at places like Puffin Books would be willing to entertain differing viewpoints. The Guardian cites an author who claims that “Times change and sensitivities change, and thankfully we now accept that some things in older books can be very upsetting to some modern readers, and a more diverse readership.” But would sensitivity readers be sympathetic to a social conservative wanting to scrub references to cross dressing in Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, on the basis that such references somehow prefigure the current transgender trend to irreversibly mutilate little children?
Going down this road would not only take our society down a slippery slope with no end in sight; it also robs us of our enjoyment of the past. We need to be able to digest literary works on their own merit, appreciating their beauty and confronting their flaws candidly. Doing so, instead of constantly remaking the past in modern society’s image, is not just intellectually honest, it also gives us humility regarding our own modern sins. If we don’t stop this book scrubbing now, we could very soon fall into a future where beloved classics are constantly re-edited until all flavor has been boiled out of them.
Elad Vaida is a staff writer for Common Sense Society.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.