I must admit I didn’t follow the “controversy” surrounding “cancel culture” and Dr. Seuss as it erupted across news outlets — and particularly those with a conservative bent — last week.
Coming from a newsman, that revelation may sound strange or even alarming, but I’ve been trying a “lean news diet” since the 2020 presidential election. Sure, I still glance at headlines and read several newspapers on a daily basis, but I’ve found life to be more relaxed — and my blood pressure to be lower — when I avoid items that seem to have little substance about them and only allot my Twitter feed 10-15 minutes per day. To sum it up, I chunked the “outrage” regarding Theodor Seuss Geisel and his whimsical works to the “not worth reading about” pile.
However, last Saturday, I allowed my addiction to get the best of me, and I spent a while reading about the controversy regarding the author, who has been dead for 30 years. His estate owns the rights to his vast catalog of 60-plus children’s books, and a business manages the estate. That business made a strategic decision — that doesn’t seem to be forced upon them by any external group — to voluntarily pull six Dr. Seuss titles from bookshelves. Their statement on the matter was succinct: the affected works portray people in “hurtful and wrong ways,” and they would no longer promote or publish them. If this is an example of the “cancel culture” that so concerns some members of our populace, it’s a very successful and self-afflicted one.
To be honest, I’d never heard of any of the “canceled” works, and I quickly determined why. The most popular book of the “canceled” bunch only sold about 5,000 copies last year. Compare that less-than-stellar number to other Dr. Seuss works, like the 513,000 sold copies of “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” or 338,000 sold copies of “Green Eggs and Ham.”
Estate managers certainly didn’t shoot themselves in the foot with their choice. They’re probably saving a few bucks by pulling unpopular (in terms of sales volume, that is) titles from print while also benefiting from outraged Fox News viewers or parents scared that they’ll soon lose access to beloved children’s titles. In one week, Dr. Seuss Enterprises rode that outrage — or that fear, whatever you believe it is — straight to the bank as books by the poetic author jumped to the top of bestseller lists across the country. If nothing else, it was a fantastic week for the public relations company advising the estate.
For whatever it’s worth, I don’t agree with the decision to pull the six titles. People can choose what they wish to purchase, and the free market can order the steps for businesses and their product offerings. With that said, it seems the market was already pulling the curtain on the affected books, and “cancel culture” doesn’t seem to be at play here. The whole matter would have probably avoided attention had the estate not issued a press release about it.
I don’t know if our society has a “cancel culture” problem, but I think broadly defining isolated incidents such as this one under a single wide umbrella is inadvisable. Perhaps the broader issue is the all-encompassing strength of social media and the always-on news cycle, both of which must be continuously fed. Those tools have the remarkable ability to turn nothing into something and amplify voices that don’t take responsibility for their words or don’t correctly judge their platforms’ power.
There’s a line between what some people consider to be “cancel culture” and what others consider accountability.
The fact is that some people — and their viewpoints — are offensive to others, but we live in a society that holds free speech as one of our most sacred values. If a celebrity says something hurtful, allow the free market to work its magic and push them out. If a company sacks them as a consequence, that’s business between the company and the affected party, and there are most likely codes of conduct and mutual agreements at play. I’m specifically referencing the Walt Disney Co. and its firing of “The Mandalorian” star Gina Carano. Still, the same goes for any social media website that kicks a user off of its platform. Along the same lines, if a politician says or does something offensive, allow their constituents to judge that behavior at the ballot box.
Ultimately, we must “practice what we preach,” and that mindset involves certain accommodations for others and their opinions, no matter how unsavory they may be.
And what becomes of Dr. Seuss and others like him? Do we toss them out of the historical record when we come across a troubling word they uttered or wrote? Of course not.
My opinion is that legacies need to be transient instead of permanent. They should be, from time to time, evaluated using new information and cultural enlightenment. However, when doing so, we must carefully consider the “day and age” of the person. Only with that knowledge are we able to make solid judgments and avoid what we should all fear: a society that does “cancel” people based on outrage — mock or real — and without taking into account anything else.
Joshua Wilson is the editor at Hattiesburg Publishing, which produces The Pine Belt News and Signature Magazine.