Everything is offensive to someone. I recall an incident when I held the door for someone following me into a room and was thence accused of “perpetuating an oppressive patriarchy,” despite the fact that I had also just held the door for three other people of various descriptions. We can choose whether or not to be offended by something, which is why I’m rarely offended – it just isn’t worth the effort most of the time. When you are able to look at things from a variety of perspectives, you can usually find perspectives from which a thing is offensive, and at least as many from which it is not. That is a matter of personal choice. Unfortunately, Dr. Seuss Enterprises has decided that the choice should rest with them, not readers.

You may have seen by now (and probably have) the headlines about Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the entity that manages the books in the author’s estate and is charged with “preserving [his] legacy,” and their decision to cease printing six books from that catalog. Apparently, they consulted panels of “experts” and “researchers” to come to the decision that these particular six books were “offensive,” and therefore should no longer be printed. I guess readers don’t have sufficient expertise to have input? Although they did not decide to stop printing some of the more popular titles that some “experts” claim are offensive, so the cynical answer is that paying readers do still have some input. What qualifies someone as an “expert” in the offensiveness of children’s books, anyway?

As you probably gathered from the quotation marks, I find this decision extremely concerning. Not offensive, but definitely irritating, and concerning in what it implies, especially when taken in context of other publishing-related decisions that I’ve seen make the news in recent months. While I am very deliberate about keeping discussions of current events and controversial topics off of the site and the blog (I think the closest we’ve come would be our posts on exceptionalism and science), since this is a site dedicated to publishing, not a news site, nor my personal venue for venting my own views and opinions to a wider audience that probably isn’t interested, this particular issue seems decidedly relevant to IGC Publishing’s mission, and worth opening for conversation.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I do have something of a personal stake in this matter. While most of the books I had not heard of before, If I Ran the Zoo was a significant part of my childhood literary repertoire, and to this day is frequently referenced amongst my family. Whenever we’re shaking our heads over the decisions of a given organization, or lamenting some state of affairs, or wondering why bosses/leaders/people would make the decisions they do, we’ll shrug, and say “now, if I ran the zoo…” It has become a by-phrase to express the idea that we have a different idea for how things might be done, but are not in a position of authority from which to implement them. Hence this post’s title.

Now, I am not arguing that it was not within the rights of Dr. Seuss Enterprises to pull these books from print. As a private entity, they are perfectly within their rights to do whatever they like. My argument therefore has more to do with what they should have done, in my opinion. I tend to associate the repression of books and ideas with authoritarian, despotic regimes, not private American publishing entities. To my mind, the repression of ideas of any sort is one of the most dangerous activities that any entity can undertake. Should not it be up to individuals to decide what ideas they want to interact with, and which ideas they would prefer to avoid? One person’s offensive content is another person’s gospel, and what is considered offensive at any given time and place is purely a matter of transient local culture.

The standard that this sets also has concerning implications, especially in light of other instances recently in which publishing apparatuses like Amazon have removed content without explanation (which is their right, however questionable the decision may be), but which was always expressing a view that could be considered controversial. Yet if there is no room for discussion and consideration of “controversial” or “offensive” topics, then one must consider how much is being left out of the discussion. Many things that we today accept as “fact” or “true” or “right” were once incredibly controversial and inflammatory, and were in many cases considered offensive. If we are to consider the achievement of those things to be progress, then are we not perhaps limiting our future progress?

I don’t know whether the contents of any of the books was offensive or not. I saw nothing offensive in the images that were supposed to be the reason for the cancellation, and I certainly would not have as a child reading the books for the amusing rhymes and colorful, fanciful drawings. I’m sure that someone could be offended by it, but if there is really that much concern, then wouldn’t a more appropriate response be to include some kind of disclaimer or notification, rather than simply ceasing to produce the titles?

Literature of any kind is all about the expression of ideas, and if there is not room in the field for the discussion and explication of topics deemed offensive or controversial, there is no estimating the potential detriment to society and the human species as a whole. Literature, and especially fiction, has long been a way to express concepts and ideas that make people uncomfortable, that might be offensive, and to present them in a way that helps make them more approachable. If the publishers, who are the zookeepers of the literary world, decide that certain content should not be accessible to the general public, then we are crippling ourselves.

Fortunately, here at IGC Publishing I actually do run the zoo, which is why I can promise that we will continue to encourage the free flow of ideas and discussions. While the goal is not to inspire controversy, neither should we seek to avoid it, and just because an idea is considered currently offensive, unfashionable, or otherwise unpopular does not mean that we ought to ignore it or suppress it. So yes, that is what I would do, if I ran the zoo…

4 thoughts on “Dear Zookeepers…

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