Many classic books, including Roald Dahl's, teach morals that are repugnant by today's standards. Can we keep the good parts without dragging along the bad, or does respect for authorial integrity force us to keep them exactly as they are?

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What should we do with Roald Dahl?

He was a beloved children’s author whose books reveled in dark humor and transgression, in a way that thrills young readers to this day. He was also a bigot and a confessed anti-Semite who said things like, “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity… Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”

Worse, some of his unsavory beliefs made it into his writing. The Witches incorporates almost every anti-Semitic trope there is. Throughout his books, characters described as fat or ugly are also morally bad.

With an eye to redressing this, Puffin and the Roald Dahl Story Company announced new editions of Dahl’s books with edits to remove language and passages now deemed objectionable. However, they underestimated the amount of blowback this decision would attract. After a storm of criticism, they gave in and announced they’d also be publishing the original, unedited versions side-by-side with the new ones. (Here’s a full list of the changes.)

There were similar complaints when Dr. Seuss’ estate announced they were withdrawing six books for demeaning depictions of non-white people. On that occasion, conservatives were crying about “cancel culture”, including Kevin McCarthy, now House majority leader, who posted a video of himself theatrically reading Green Eggs and Ham (even though that’s not one of the books that was pulled).

Let’s get something straight about both of these cases. This wasn’t censorship, because no law forced them to do this.* It wasn’t even censorship in the broader, colloquial sense of publishers knuckling under to activist pressure or backing down in the face of threats.

As far as I know, no one was pushing the Dr. Seuss estate or the Roald Dahl estate to make these changes. No one was marching or petitioning. No one was clamoring for these books to be taken off the market. The authors’ estates did it of their own initiative in response to perceived market trends.

Woke capitalism or just plain capitalism?

In other words, this is less about social justice than it is about capitalism. Book publishing is a business, and the publishers are updating their products to stay in sync with what (they believe) their customers want to buy.

This is happening everywhere. Disney updated its theme parks to get rid of offensive elements, like changing the Pirates of the Caribbean ride to remove the “wench auction”. Looney Tunes added disclaimers to classic cartoons that have gross racial stereotypes. Sports teams have stopped using Native American stereotypes as mascots. Toymakers like Lego are ending gender-specific branding.

It’s happening on supermarket shelves too. The Aunt Jemima brand (which came from a character in a minstrel show) changed its name to the Pearl Milling Company. Land O’Lakes butter dropped its Native American mascot. Even Animal Crackers changed their packaging to depict animals free in the wild, not in circus cages.

These changes are a reflection of moral progress, but only indirectly. Most of them didn’t come about because the companies were being actively pressured, but because people’s attitudes have changed. Corporate marketing departments recognize that growing numbers of people won’t buy products with offensive imagery, and they alter their branding to match.

Conservatives are allegedly in favor of capitalism and free markets, so they should welcome this, or at worst be neutral about it. Instead, many are ranting about how “woke capitalism” is ruining everything. They’re raging at M&M’s and Mr. Potato Head.

Florida lawmakers took away Disney’s tax privileges because it spoke out against anti-gay laws, and they’ve divested state pensions from investment companies merely because they offer ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance)-themed funds as an option.

One might be inclined to suspect that conservatives’ supposed commitment to free markets was a sham. They’re only in favor of capitalism as long as it delivers results they want. As soon as the markets start going against them, they want the state to step in and force businesses to behave the way they prefer.

The past was bad, actually

The controversy over Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss is one small facet of a bigger question: How should we interpret the past in light of our evolving moral understanding?

The good old days weren’t so good. The past was rife with violence, injustice, casual cruelty, and shockingly prejudiced attitudes. Even its most enlightened figures held opinions that are unacceptable by today’s standards. Moral progress has arrived at a rapid rate in the last few decades, and while that’s a welcome development, it’s misled many people into believing that the way things are now is the way they’ve always been.

Many classic stories from less enlightened times teach bad lessons, either directly or by implication. Should we preserve them as they are, warts and all? Or should we update them to fit modern sensibilities, so we can keep what’s good about them without dragging the bad parts along?

The Dahl estate took the latter path, and I understand the impulse behind it. It seems excessively harsh to say that we have no choice but to swallow the good with the bad, or else throw all of history on the trash heap.

Besides, this is something humans have been doing as long as we’ve been telling stories. Every generation rewrites the past in its own image. The Christian Bible overlaid a new theology on the Hebrew scriptures, and the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon both did the same for Christianity. Subsequent Bible translations continued this by putting their own spin on the text, emphasizing some verses while downplaying others.

Disney’s fairytale movies omitted many of the family-unfriendly parts of the Brothers Grimm versions. Other classic novels, like Agatha Christie’s or Enid Blyton’s, have been edited to remove racist language or outdated slang. The modern cinematic versions of James Bond bear little resemblance to the racist and misogynist character of the original novels.

It’s not as if books are sacred artifacts, to be preserved forever under glass as soon as they roll off the printing press. Many authors go back and edit their earlier books. Roald Dahl himself changed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after critics savaged the original, racist depiction of the Oompa-Loompas.

Still, there’s something about posthumous editing that strikes me as unfair. I’m all in favor of parodies, deconstructions, retellings, adaptations, and critical responses—any option that meets bad speech with better speech. I’m more skeptical of changing the actual text of a book after the author is dead and unable to protest. Something about it feels mildly sacrilegious, like vandalizing a tomb.

The fall of an ancient tree

For me, when weighing these factors against each other, it comes down to how extensive the changes are. If it’s limited to updating a handful of words in a way that doesn’t impact the flow of the story, I think few could object.

But if the problematic message is woven into the plot, it becomes more of a dilemma. For example, there’s no escaping that Cinderella, Snow White and other fairy tales teach girls that they should aspire to marry a prince. That’s an archaic moral at best, but there’s no way to change it without completely changing the story.

Some of the edits in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have this issue. I’m unfazed by characters reading Jane Austen rather than Rudyard Kipling (colonialist author of “White Man’s Burden”). However, another change is that Augustus Gloop is described as merely “enormous” rather than “enormously fat”. How is this an improvement, really, when gluttony is still his defining character trait and the crime he’s punished for?

In cases like these, instead of trying in vain to sanitize the past, I think it’s better to keep it as is. If the morals of these books are repugnant or no longer relevant, they’ll fade away as they should. It’s not as if there’s nothing else worth reading, and it would open up opportunities for other, better authors. Like the fall of an ancient tree, it’ll create a clearing where new saplings can sprout.

On the other hand, if we choose to keep reading these books to our kids, we can use them to create teaching moments. These passages can be the jumping-off point to give young readers an appreciation of historical context: why those beliefs are no longer accepted, and how the progress we now enjoy was hard-won. That feels more honest, and more genuinely educational, than pretending that people of the past had all the same opinions as we do.

* What does meet the legal definition of censorship, by contrast, is conservative politicians forcing teachers to purge books from their classrooms under the threat of felony charges—which is happening right now in Florida under Republican rule.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...