Through most of 2020, as the fearsome Covid-19 pandemic engulfed the whole world, the stormy American presidential elections took up much of our attention. No matter where you are, you simply can’t get away from the tumult of politics. Perhaps I feel this all the more because West Bengal, where I live, is in the midst of the eight-phase Assembly elections while we teachers are struggling to run our schools with full Covid-19 protocols in place. The spectre of the board exams is looming before us; they have to be administered after the election results are out.
Meanwhile, politics began interfering with the distribution of vaccines, and sadly with children’s books as well.
At the beginning of this month, it was announced that six of Dr Suess’ titles would be recalled because of the “racist tropes” that people had been talking about. It is well known that banned or unattainable objects are always the most attractive. Therefore, I promptly ordered a copy of the delightful Dr Suess book “And to think I saw it on Mulberry Street” before it became unavailable. Maybe it is a good thing that the United States is finally becoming sensitive to the feelings of non-whites. But removing stereotypical line drawings from books does not really get to the heart of racism. I don’t know about others, but if an Indian woman was depicted as a brown sari-clad figure eating out of a thali with her fingers, I would not mind at all. It is only if we believe that white is the only acceptable complexion, or that eating with one’s hands is unacceptable, that we would feel upset by such illustrations. Come to think of it, there are no “racist tropes” around white people -- and it is not difficult to fathom the reason. Dr Suess himself explained how he went about changing his original yellow-skinned, pig-tailed “Chinaman” whom he had drawn wearing a conical hat and eating out of a bowl with sticks. He changed “a Chinaman” to “a Chinese man”, but after deleting his conical hat and pigtail and removing the yellow from his skin, Dr Suess thought that his Chinese man looked more like an Irishman!
Politics dominates society so powerfully that everywhere and at all times we are required to be “politically correct”. This has reached such ridiculous lengths that very often the replaced “correct” expression can’t be comprehended. These “correct” terms have been especially coined to protect people from feeling hurt. In this context, it has to be mentioned that people seem to have very thin skins these days and get hurt far too easily. So, we have to look out for racist innuendos, references to skin colour, remarks on religion which may be deemed hurtful or even sacrilegious by some group or the other. We must remember not to call short people “short” though it is fine to call tall people “tall”. You had better not refer to a person who is hard of hearing “deaf” or for that matter a visually impaired person “blind”. You will be called all kinds of names if you use an “incorrect” term -- racist, sexist, insensitive to alternative sexual orientation (in some places the term “homosexual” is taboo, you must say “same gender loving”), intolerant of other religions, and so on. A few decades ago, Americans became so self-conscious about being Christian-centric that to be perceived as inclusive, they began to call the Christmas season “the holiday season” and wishing each other “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. But surely, calling a Christmas tree a “holiday tree” seems a bit too much.
This sort of political correctness without bringing about a radical change in attitudes is quite meaningless. It is true that certain words genuinely acquire connotations which are insulting to groups. For instance, the word “Negro” -- although if it merely referred to the Negroid “type”, it would be taken as just a scientific fact. Today the term cannot be dissociated with the history of slavery. Unfortunately, “black” has also taken on a similar meaning. But then if you truly believe that “black is beautiful”, you wouldn’t mind being described as a black-skinned or dark-skinned person. The trouble is that ethnicity is a loaded concept, and simple words have become complex. In India, where colour matters a great deal, people use the word “maila”, or dirty, to describe someone’s dark complexion.
I hope it was a joke, but I have read that an advertisement for “reliable and hardworking applicants” was rejected as it could offend unreliable and lazy people. The current euphemism for “old people” is “senior citizens”, but I suspect that this too will in time offend people of an advanced age. Recently, I named a virtual classroom “Brainstorming Room”, and soon after that I read that the term “brainstorming” could threaten epileptic people. The suggested alternative term was “Thought Showers”. It is nerve-racking to even speak these days.
Going back to children’s books, it is not only the allegations of racism or “hurtful” religious references that have generated trouble but also certain references to political ideology. “I know up on top you are seeing great sights, but down here on the bottom we too should have rights” -- in Dr Suess’ Cat in the Hat was found to be “too political” for children. In West Bengal, the withdrawal from the primary curriculum of Tagore’s Sahaj Path by the former Left Front government had caused a furore. One of the reasons for withdrawing these beloved books, some alleged, were a couple of lines that showed a zamindar to be benevolent. This was certainly not in alignment with the CPI(M)’s principles. I know that the now condemned Enid Blyton books were read innocently and with great enjoyment by generations of children without a thought about racism or classism. However, I do believe today that stereotyping the stepmother as evil in children’s stories could have a detrimental effect on children’s minds. Such stereotypes must be avoided.
In conclusion, it can be stated that a balance must be sought between a genuine need to change terminology and the rush to appease thin-skinned groups....