Publishers on the bandwagon of gesture politics

11 July 2023
Sandra Bloodworth

You might be pleased to know that you can now read Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels with racist references edited out. But the misogyny remains, including the notion that women “love semi-rape” along with the disabled villain trope.

Publishers’ “sensitivity editing” of classics by writers such as Fleming, Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie has created a storm in a teacup. Anti-“woke” warriors have denounced it as censorship—while their far-right audience is waging a determined campaign for censorship.

Children’s drag queen story times are under attack in the US, Australia, the UK and Europe. Hundreds of books are being stripped from school library shelves in the US, including those by Jodi Picoult, Toni Morrison and James Patterson. Even the Bible is being removed from some.

I looked at the edits highlighted in the media. They rip language out of social context, prioritise the superficial over substance, are often pointless or misplaced. There is no rejection of hetero-normativity, demeaning disability tropes or the anti-working-class, homophobic or anti-Irish bias which abound in these classics. They do not shield us from offence or hurt and do nothing to stamp out damaging stereotypes.

The point is not to defend the original texts but to recognise that the publishers are just another lot of capitalists jumping on the bandwagon of gesture politics, hoping to boost profits.

In Roald Dahl’s The Twits, the word “weird” is cut from the phrase “weird African language of the monkeys”. Why not delete “African” instead? In any case, it remains a vile, misanthropic text employing vulgar tropes, including that of an ugly woman disfigured with a glass eye. And children are encouraged to find mean cruelty towards both humans and monkeys humorous.

Dahl’s Augustus Gloop is no longer “enormously fat”, just “enormous”. What a win for those subject to body shaming. A reference to a woman as an “old hag” becomes an “old crow” in The Witches, gladdening the heart of every anti-sexist!

Christie is infamous for a novel, the title of which was a line from a popular minstrel song which included the N word. The novel has nothing to do with racism and the title was changed without fanfare decades ago. It was never used in the US. Fixation on that offence means there is no mention of her anti-Semitic tropes.

Instead, media reports have highlighted the fact that the word “black”, used by Christie to describe Mr Akibombo, a West African, is deleted in Hickory Dickory Dock. Have they not heard of Black Pride in the ’60s, Black Power, Black Panthers, Black Lives Matter? OK, it can be racist in a particular context, but it is not here.

And early in the book there is a clear rejection of anti-African racism. The owner of the student hostel in London, where the novel is set, suggests that if American students support the colour bar, she’d get rid of the students from places like India and Africa.

“‘Not while I’m in charge’, said Mrs Hubbard [the hostel matron] coldly. ‘And anyway, you’re wrong. There’s no feeling of that sort here among the students ... Sally [a white American] and Mr Akibombo have lunch together quite often, and nobody could be blacker than he is.’”

The BBC’s adaptation of the novel makes a mockery of claims to editing in accordance with today’s sensibilities. Assuming that Christie was racist, to be safe they simply cut all the people of colour in the hostel from the narrative. So, instead of students of colour living amicably with whites, they are all white!

Some left-wing people are inclined to welcome the edits. That would be understandable if they were not so tokenistic. However, apart from the logistics of editing centuries of literature, there are serious objections.

It was a step forward when social movement activists established that language matters. It is good that authors writing today get advice about offensive terms.

But language is not the essence of oppression. It reflects attitudes generated by social reality. Its meaning is grounded in the political, historical and cultural context. That’s why it can change with struggles against oppression. It’s true that language can reinforce bigoted attitudes, but it does not cause the structural discrimination and inequality that constitute oppression.

Encountering outdated language can be an opening for young people to learn about the context of such texts. Shielding either young or old from the possibility of being upset by outdated texts denies them essential knowledge showing that struggles have changed the world for the better. Ignorance of that past only benefits the political right’s efforts to return to the conditions that bred the objectionable language in the first place.

The hard fact is, it’s not possible to live in a safe cocoon. The far right is on the march. Sheltering the young, or indeed adults, from offensive historical texts does nothing to prepare them to recognise the right’s agenda. That is the first step to becoming a confident fighter to push them back into the sewers from which they are emerging.

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