“Cancel Culture” Didn’t Cancel Dr. Seuss. Capitalism Did.
The decision to stop publishing six Dr. Seuss titles was purely business.
On March 2, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that it intended to cease publication of six Seuss titles, ranging from the career-launching And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street to titles that I, despite being a member of the Dr. Seuss book club as a toddler, had never heard of, like McElligot’s Pool.
“These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” the organization said in its statement. That one sentence started a revolution.
By the time I wandered in, one position had clearly been staked out: Dr. Seuss, beloved children’s author and American icon, was the latest victim of “cancel culture.”
What Is Cancel Culture, Anyway?
“Cancel culture,” the concern du jour, has a catchy name, and it’s just vague enough to apply to any number of situations. This combination of alliterative appeal and shifting sense makes it all the more powerful.
Wikipedia’s current definition of “cancel culture” describes it as “a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles — whether it be online, on social media, or in person. Those who are subject to this ostracism are said to be “cancelled.”
In some ways, cancel culture can be seen as a form of bullying. Like bullying, it can be hard on its targets. A 2019 New York Times article, for example, describes “canceled” individuals seeking out therapy in the face of intense backlash, both on social media and in their professional and personal lives.
Between 2019 and today, however, the term “cancel culture” has experienced a certain amount of semantic drift. While targets of “cancellation” once struggled with the loss of personal friendships, professional connections, self-confidence, and a sense of safety, today’s targets are just as likely to be self-identified — and even to receive a larger platform for announcing themselves as “canceled,” as this comic by Barry Deutsch notes.
Targets of cancellation face criticism, ostracism, and other socially uncomfortable consequences for their actions. Even when the target makes hay from these consequences, the consequences themselves are generally understood to be a bad thing.
Can You Cancel Yourself?
Inherent in the concept of “cancel culture” is the notion of two parties: the one who is cancelled, and the mob or “culture” that does the canceling. Cancel culture happens to its victims. It is the mob versus one hapless, pitiable soul who dared to speak out against the tide of public opinion.
This David versus Goliath tone in cancel culture rhetoric is what gives the concept of “cancel culture” its emotional power. There’s pathos in “the mob is after me for speaking my truth!”, and that pathos is precisely what makes claiming “cancellation” so appealing.
Even those who claim the title of “canceled” for themselves don’t really want to be canceled or silenced — as evidenced by the fact that this claim is always made in some media outlet, never to the cavernous silence of their empty home. If they wanted to be silenced, they’d be silent. They don’t. They want the attention that martyrdom attracts.
Which raises the question: Is it possible to cancel yourself?
“I didn’t like how I was being treated, so I took my ball and went home” is only the tale of a martyr from the point of view of the person who took their ball and went home. To everyone else, it’s the story of a spoiled brat.
“I didn’t like how I was being treated, so I changed my behavior to attract the kind of attention I actually want” isn’t the tale of a martyr at all. It’s a tale of growing self-awareness, self-control, and maturity.
Despite the semantic creep the term has experienced over the past few years, “cancel culture” describes neither one of these stories.
It doesn’t describe the decision of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, either.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises and Capitalism 101
In its March 2 announcement, Dr. Seuss Enterprises explained its decision to discontinue publication of six of Dr. Seuss’s children’s books in two sentences:
These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.
Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’s catalog represents and supports all communities and families.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises is the organization responsible for the Dr. Seuss books. Dr. Seuss himself died in 1991; Dr. Seuss Enterprises stands in his place when it comes to decided what to do with his books.
US copyright law treats an author’s books as property belonging to the author. After the author’s death, those books are property belonging to whomever the author left them to — in this case, Dr. Seuss Enterprises.
The name enterprise should leave no one confused as to what, exactly, this entity does. It’s a business. Like any business, it exists to make profits. And it makes its business decisions accordingly.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises in particular seems sensitive to the legacy of the author himself, at least in this press release. The organization makes reference to its “mission of supporting all children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship” to explain its decision to discontinue six books with “hurtful” content.
Confusing a commitment to a mission with commitment to profit, however, would be a mistake. The strongest businesses combine the two. The mission drives the company’s profit-making ability.
So it is with Dr. Seuss Enterprises. A commitment to fostering “hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship” drives sales of children’s books because the public wants to inculcate these values in its children. This commitment drives sales most strongly when it is not only announced in a mission statement but actually carried out in the titles offered for purchase.
Fire Sale: All Racist Portrayals Must Go
The United States has grappled since before its founding with questions about whether racism is acceptable, to what extent racism is acceptable, and what expressions of racism are acceptable.
For centuries, however, the White majority public agreed on one thing: Racism was marketable.
But like its tastes for clothes, cars, food and films, the US public’s tastes for racist portrayals change over time.
During his lifetime, Dr. Seuss grappled with the changing tastes of the children’s book market when it came to racism. In the 1970s, for example, he changed the Chinese caricature image in Mulberry Street, removing the yellow skin color and the ponytail, and changing the text from “Chinaman” to “Chinese man.” His later works, including The Sneetches, foregrounded the message that equality is inherent, rather than a factor of external features (whether that’s a star on one’s belly or the color of one’s skin).
Thirty years after Dr. Seuss’s death, Dr. Seuss Enterprises continues to grapple with the public’s changing tastes for racism. It also grapples with the public’s ever-decreasing tolerance for racism.
Plenty of products have disappeared from the market without anyone crying that changing public tastes or tolerances “cancelled” them. CFCs disappeared from aerosol products, for example, largely because the public refused to put up with CFCs’ wanton destruction of the ozone layer. Nobody made a martyr out of companies that sell their products in aerosol cans.
Remember when the public’s distaste for New Coke cancelled another beloved American corporate icon? No one does, because it didn’t. The Coca-Cola company is alive and well, even thriving, after the “cancellation” of its attempt to reformulate its flagship product.
The buying public had no taste for New Coke. It refused to tolerate CFCs. In each case, purveyors of these products chose not to invest resources in continuing to produce things that would not sell. The death of these products was not “cancel culture” coming for their creators. It was business.
The same thing happened here. The public’s tastes for racist portrayals, especially in children’s literature, are changing. The tolerances are narrowing. Dr. Seuss Enterprises informed itself about these changes — as any business with an interest in keeping its customers does — and chose not to invest resources in continuing to publish six titles that ultimately hurt its bottom line.
And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, and the other Seuss titles pulled from publication were not killed by cancel culture. They were killed by capitalism.