And Then They Came for Dr. Seuss
Don’t ban Dr. Seuss. Learn from the rabbis: Interpret him.
Two weeks ago, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that it would no longer publish these six children’s classics by the famous author: If I Ran the Zoo; And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street; McElligot’s Pool; On Beyond Zebra!; Scrambled Eggs Super!; and The Cat’s Quizzer. The company said it had taken this action because it wanted to protect readers from the racially and ethnically insensitive pictures that occasionally appear in the books.
The decision by the company to stop publishing the volumes is surely well meaning: Its leaders want to promote racial and cultural sensitivity. Still, the dangers far outweigh whatever benefits the decision might have for the greater reading public. Censoring the work of an established, even beloved author puts other artists’ works, past and future, at risk of being redacted, repressed, or, in today’s parlance, “canceled.”
Those of us who profess to be tolerant, liberal, inclusivist, and even woke may think we are safe from this threat. After all, we support Black Lives Matter; we march in pride parades. But we are deemed tolerant and inclusive only to the extent that the standards of our times dictate. In the next century, it is as likely as not that we, too, will be judged to have fallen far short of the mark of our grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s generations. Today, many of us have no qualms about eating animal meat—and thereby participating in the annual slaughter of seventy billion of our fellow sentient beings. We wear sneakers and use smartphones manufactured in East Asian factories that treat human workers like machines and pay them slave wages, if even that. It is not unforeseeable that fifty to one hundred years from now, George Saunders will be canceled because he wore Nikes, Viet Thanh Nguyen will be canceled because he ate chicken, and Isabel Wilkerson will be canceled because she used an iPhone.
If cancellation is the remedy we use to address culturally insensitive content in our pre-21st-century books, we can look forward to the day when we will be left with hardly any pre-21st-century books at all. Cancellation doesn’t just chill the creation of art (if Dr. Seuss can get canceled, who can’t?); just as important, it deprives us of the ability to use hurtful content in otherwise great artistic work as an opportunity to learn how far we have traveled on the road to tolerance and how much farther we still have to go.
An Older, Better Way
But if cancellation is a flawed, even dangerous way to address the dilemma of hurtful and offensive content in works of art and literature, how should we handle it instead?
We are not the first human beings to face this dilemma. When we examine the wisdom of our ancestors, we discover an older and better way. The Abrahamic religious traditions offer a far superior solution to cancellation: interpretation. Every religion, as thinkers such as the late Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks have discussed, contains its share of “hard texts:” scriptural passages that we acknowledge today as irrational, insensitive, intolerant, and occasionally downright violent. Such texts have troubled us ever since Abraham tied Isaac to a rock on Mount Moriah. It’s not all pretty.
Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars who appreciate the value of sacred texts but recognize the highly problematic nature of biblical and Quranic passages that preach or express hatred have carved out a middle way. It does not involve repressing or censoring the Bible or Quran outright or pretending that the text is fully wholesome. Instead, we interpret our texts: We understand them within the context of the times in which they were written and interpret such passages in a manner that illuminates and subsequently diminishes their troubling import.
Thus, the Jewish oral tradition, later written down in the Talmud, interpreted the “eye-for-an-eye” mandate in Leviticus as non-literal: If someone deprives another person of the use of an eye, that doesn’t mean the perpetrator’s eye should literally be taken out in retribution. Rather, the offender should be made to pay the victim for the monetary, medical, and emotional costs of his having blinded a fellow human being. Another, even more infamous biblical passage mandates that the children of Israel should slaughter every man, woman, and child of the nation of Amalek. This passage, too, has been interpreted: It is said to be no longer applicable in the post-biblical era.
Theologians have applied similar methods of interpretation to biblical passages that appear to be racist, misogynist, homophobic, and otherwise exclusionary. The Bible advocates genocide and the most inhumane forms of corporal punishment. But it also advocates a great deal more that is good: the obligation to love not just your neighbor but the stranger; the commandment to support the widow, the orphan, the downtrodden, and the poor; the importance of viewing our fellow human beings as irreplaceable individuals endowed with equality, uniqueness, and infinite value; and the duty to pursue justice and to create a more perfect world. Instead of canceling the Bible, we have — through interpretation—corrected what is cruel and insensitive in its disturbing passages while allowing its more humane, inclusive messages to inspire us to become better people who strive to construct a better world.
So, back to Dr. Seuss: Some of his books do indeed contain troubling pictures. At the same time, we must recognize that Dr. Seuss was an imperfect product of an imperfect time who has nonetheless inspired countless children to love, dream, imagine, and view their fellow human beings as infinitely valuable individuals with infinite potential for emotional and psychological growth. He has shown us, in books like And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, that the world is a place of wonder and that we should go out to meet it forthrightly, unafraid of whatever challenges it may put in our way.
In books like The Lorax, Dr. Seuss stirred in us a profound environmental concern and elevated our compassion for birds, fish, cats, turtles, and all varieties of animal life. In books like Happy Birthday to You! and McElligot’s Pool he roused us to think about ourselves and our fellow human beings in the best possible light, as people who can dream any dream—and achieve it—if only we care enough for the world and one another, and if we make our hearts as capacious as our infinite imaginations.
Dr. Seuss was by no means a perfect conveyor of these messages, but neither are we perfect conveyors of the moral and ethical messages we try to impart to our children and grandchildren. If we do see elements of racial or ethnic insensitivity in Dr. Seuss’s books, these passages should not be deleted, nor should the books in which they are found be taken out of print. These passages should instead be used as opportunities for personal and societal growth—as occasions that should inspire us, just as Dr. Seuss has inspired us, to think more broadly, to feel more deeply, to behave more sensitively, and to relate to one another more empathetically. The need is not to ban or cancel Dr. Seuss but to take from him what is positive and to learn from him what we can.
In spite of his shortcomings—which existed, as they exist in us all—there is so much to learn from Dr. Seuss and his books. There are so many things that we can know—and, through his books, so many places we can go—if only we give him and ourselves that chance. Don’t cancel Dr. Seuss; interpret him. Don’t take his books out of print; learn from them.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a rabbi, writer, and scholar from Springfield, Massachusetts (the hometown of Dr. Seuss). He is a writer for the Washington Examiner and author of the novel A Single Life (2020) and the book Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema (2020).
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