Roald Dahl (+1990) is being mauled, along with Dr. Seuss (+1991), and, as the Cat in the Hat might declare, we should be appalled, galled, palled, if not stonewalled. On the Ginsu chopping block are Agatha Christie (+1976), P.G. Wodehouse (+1975), Ian Fleming (+1964) and any number of deceased authors on the historical horizon.
Any word, term, phrase, epithet, reference that could possibly in any way give offence to anyone – or, at least, anyone in certain groups, exclusive of white, Christian, heteronormative, cisgendered males – is now verboten, either changed irrevocably into something deemed anodyne, if not cast into oblivion.
This has been tried before, albeit in a different context and purpose. Thomas Bowdler (1754 – 1825) expurgated offensive terms from Shakespeare, publishing in 1807 a family edition of the Bard, fit for pious ears. (In his version, Ophelia dies by ‘accidental drowning’, and not by suicide). It never caught on, but Bowlder’s name entered the English lexicon, and not in a felicitous way. One might think that if you want a play where the rejected damsel meets her demise for not wearing a life preserver, then write your own Hamlet.
The sensitivities are now more widespread and diffuse, politically and culturally fraught, if still somewhat predictable. The main category is anything ‘racial’, but also gone are derogatory terms for anyone – be they overweight or unsightly – as well as anything with a hint of colonialism, patriarchy and male superiority at anything, American exceptionalism, Christian ‘triumphalism’, or any hint of judgement at all. Other offending categories will likely be made up as sensitivities – like unpredictable allergies – unfold.
Let’s continue the allergy analogy: Normal life could never be conducted if everything allergenic to anyone were removed (even if we’ve headed some ways in that direction). Existence would be reduced to a bland beige tapioca pudding – but someone’s allergic to tapioca, and beige is likely too Caucasian.
Just so literature, which, to entertain, elevate and educate – to list but a few of its purposes – must give, or be permitted the potential to give, some offense to someone, if not to many.
Freedom of expression is not only a fundamental right, but also a vital and necessary condition of any true art. People are free to read, or not read, what they like, just as applies to food. Avoid what may bring on hives, metaphorical or otherwise. And to Bowdlerize the classics is to mutilate them, their deceased creators no longer able to resist, a subtle form of deceit and obfuscation. For that is not what they wrote, and what they may not write even if they were alive today.
Let Shakespeare be Shakespeare, Dahl, Dahl, and all will be well that ends as they intended.
In the meantime, buy up all the classic paper copies that you can. A well-stocked library is a treasure indeed, and sure to be more so as this progresses, or, more to the point, regresses.