Comment writer Joshua Brooks argues against Penguin’s reworking of Roald Dahl’s classic books to remove “offensive” passages
Once, while watching an episode of QI, host Stephen Fry posed a question to the panellists: ‘Have you read ‘1984’?’. The resounding answer was ‘yes’ – followed by the infamous claxon. The panellists (at least some) had answered wrong. Research has shown that 25% of people who claim to have read Orwell’s classic have not actually read it. At first, I found this hard to believe, but gradually it has become more apparent. This was especially evident in the recent publication of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, where it seemed clear to me that the editors either hadn’t read 1984 or had failed to grasp its meaning.
The thought police have been at it. Puffin Books, along with the Dahl estate, have announced they will be republishing the children’s books of Roald Dahl, but with one important difference. The new books contain hundreds of alterations to remove ‘offensive’ language. Words such as ‘fat’, ‘ugly’ and ‘crazy’ have all been removed. In ‘The Witches’, a section describing the witches as ‘bald’, will now feature a caveat emphasising that there are many reasons for female baldness, and that it is okay to be a bald woman. Following backlash, it was announced that both censored and uncensored versions of the texts will be available to offer readers a choice.
Censorship of this sort can be exceptionally dangerous. Historically, art and literature have been viewed as extremely powerful – capable of sparking intellectual thought, aiding in the pursuit of ethics and truth, and liberating citizens from oppressive regimes. Consequently, oppressive regimes, such as the Soviets and Mao’s China, have attempted to censor art, imprison and even execute writers in order to quash any influence they might have over the populace. Orwell’s 1984 (which was banned in many countries) serves as a striking example of how language can be politically weaponised by oppressive regimes to control or limit thought. Additionally, Salman Rushdie’s 1988 book The Satanic Verses is still banned in many countries, and a fatwa demanding his death remains in effect; last year he was attacked and stabbed 10 times – for writing a book.
Allowing any ideology the control of language, especially within works of literature, is dangerous. Control of language can impede the ability to challenge an ideology and render any discussion difficult or even impossible. When certain words are deemed contrary to an ideology’s views and are banned, we find ourselves in a situation where we are unable to challenge the beliefs effectively – dogma ensues. We become powerless victims in the face of the power wielding manipulators. Such circumstances cannot be tolerated in a free society.
You may ask: “why is the Roald Dahl example specifically dangerous?”. Seemingly, we cannot claim that Puffin Books are at all comparable to Mao – this is not a dangerous case. Unfortunately, this response fails to grasp the core issue at hand.
We must be clear: censorship of art/literature/history should never be allowed under any circumstances – it should be vehemently opposed. While it may not pose any direct danger, we cannot permit anyone to begin modifying art. By allowing Puffin books to alter Dahl’s work, we are setting a precedent: it is okay to censor art. What they must consider is how this weapon could be utilised in the hands of those with opposing views. This is not a matter of partisanship – we should all agree this is not an activity we engage in as a free society.
What about the nature of the changes made? Augustus Gloop, once described as ‘enormously fat’, has now been revised to ‘enormous’. I struggle to see the difference here – ‘enormous’ could even be considered more offensive than ‘fat’. Therein lies an additional problem: subjectivity. Who is to determine what language is offensive? We should acknowledge that offensive language will always be used – it cannot all be banned. Children using ‘enormous’ instead of ‘fat’ to bully others appears irrelevant in practice. Language constantly evolves, words go in and out of fashion and perceptions of offensiveness also fluctuate. This never-ending cycle of censorship is highly impractical – engagement in education of offensive language appears to be a much more pragmatic use of time.
I agree with Salman Rushdie that Dahl was certainly ‘no saint’. Some of his work and views may well be offensive – censorship is not the solution. We have other options: We can continue to read the book as it is presented – but discuss the issues. We could omit offensive passages. Or we could read something else.
Instead of resorting to censorship, we should opt for option 1 – directly confront and discuss problematic ideas and themes in works of literature. Roald Dahl’s writing is fantastic; the marvellously descriptive passages are amazing for a young mind to engage with – they allow a child’s imagination to run wild. Censorship is not only naïve, but also opposes intellectual freedom by erasing ideas or words that one disagrees with. It is crucial to engage in open debate and educate children on why certain things are objectionable – not just avoid broaching the topic altogether.
Another option is to skip over the ‘bad’ language in the books. If you don’t want your child to be exposed to certain words, that is your right – do not read it – again, no need for censorship.
If you wish to avoid Roald Dahl altogether, you have the freedom not to read his books. You may have this freedom – but, importantly, he has the freedom of expression to include what he wants in his books. There are loads of other children’s authors out there – you have other options. We do not paint over the nudity in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel – his works are an expression of himself. In the same way, Dahl is expressing himself – his art is a representation of his thoughts and ideas. Artists should maintain a posthumous right to this personal work.
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