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Why Cancel Culture May Only Make Racism Worse


In the Washington Post, Philip Bump argues that we should all calm down about Dr. Seuss. He supports the decision by the children’s author’s estate to stop publication of a handful of his books with allegedly racist imagery.

I say allegedly because, as I have written about before, our society has at least two competing definitions of what racism is. The more traditional one requires intent. The newer one does not. There is no way to know if Seuss intended to cause harm with the images, so it is a matter of opinion, not objective fact.

The thrust of Bump’s broader argument is that if you oppose stopping publication of the books because it is part of our cultural heritage, then you are supporting a racist culture. He writes, “This isn’t some toxic ‘cancel culture.’ If it were, what would that say about the culture you’re defending?” It’s an important question.

As I read Bump’s article, I was waiting for a word. I knew it was coming, and sure enough, it did. That word is “retired,” used as a euphemism to avoid the uglier term “censorship.” I first encountered this devious usage in 2014 amid a controversy in the theater world about whether traditional productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” should still take place. At that time, productions were canceled as a result of the outrage.

In arguing in favor of such productions, I suggested to my friends in theater that censorship is censorship whether done by the state or by cultural institutions. They insisted the play was not being censored, but retired. It seemed strange to me. After all “The Mikado” wasn’t being given a gold watch and a condo in Boca, it was being essentially banned from being performed.

At that time, many liberals, if not progressives, were still sensitive about allegations that they were engaging in censorship. After all, that was that kind of thing Jesse Helms called for, not Democrats. The gentler term “retired” soothed whatever sense they had that banning art is not a very good or particularly liberal idea. So in some sense it is good that Bump still uses it, but in general calls to censor, ban, or stop production or publication of artworks have only increased since 2014.

This brings us back to his question. If halting publication of the Seuss books is cancel culture, as many on the right would argue, what does that say about the culture? To answer this, I’ll use another example from Bump’s article. He says that when he was a kid, jokes about Polish people being dumb were very common, and they aren’t now. What, he asks, of value was lost by this change?

Setting aside the fact that reductions in Polish jokes were much more an organic than institutional phenomenon, what did the nature of such jokes tell us about America at that time, and about it now? The period between the mid-1950s and the mid-1980s produced radical and positive change regarding race relations in both law and society. They were also a time when all kinds of racial humor were ubiquitous.

Whether it was Don Rickles, the Rat Pack, Archie Bunker, or the Jeffersons, humor based on racial stereotypes was commonplace. People accepted these jokes as jokes. There was even some understanding that by laughing about these stereotypes they diffused them.

Rickles would always claim this, and there is undoubtedly some truth in it. So if a “racist” Don Rickles joke actually worked against racism, what would trying to erase or retire such artistic output say about the culture of that time, and about our own?

To the first part of that question, retiring Rickles would suggest that gains in racial equality occurred despite the race-based humor of the time. But that seems incredibly unlikely. What it would say about the culture of our time is that we are so certain, even arrogant, about the way to think about race, compared to those in the past, that we must erase the old ways from memory.

But there is a paradox here. If we assume our own viewpoint on race is so vastly superior to that of the late 20th century, then why do we also think race relations are in such a horrible state, as many who support the retirement of artworks, presumably including Bump, believe? What is our path forward if we cannot look to the past to see how we arrived here?

What if, and I don’t want to sound like a crazy person, but what if we don’t have all the answers? What if we are making mistakes today, just like people have made throughout history? What if the leftist approach to race and racism is not producing great results? Doesn’t it make sense to place ourselves in the continuum of what came before us and what will come after? How can we do that if we retire the cultural content of the past?

In this sense, we really do need to understand how things like Polish jokes and other racially insensitive cultural output came to be organically outgrown. After all, no children’s author today would create imagery like the allegedly offending pictures created by Suess — not because it is officially or institutionally banned, but because it has fallen out of cultural favor. And that is how racism is eroded: by organic and culture-wide understandings reached by society as a whole, not by experts.

It is only by understanding how far we have come and what cultural forces brought us here that we can truly tackle the problem of racism. It cannot and will not be solved by censoring books. In fact, that approach may well make the problem much worse.