Dr. Seuss, Outrage Culture, And How Christians Should Respond

Dr. Seuss Enterprises recently made headlines with their decision to discontinue the publishing and sales for 6 of the late author’s children’s books, due to offensive and racially insensitive content. 

The decision has been met with mixed reactions. Some political commentators have applauded the effort to remove racially stereotypical images from children’s lists. Others have sharply criticized the move, going as far as to equate it to fascism and thought policing.

Hyperbole notwithstanding, many ordinary people are genuinely passionate and even outraged by the discontinuation of these works from one of their favorite childhood authors. Furthermore, a move like this, along with the recent decision by Hasbro to drop the “Mister” in Mr. Potato Head, has thrown fuel onto the ongoing public conversation about cancel culture and wokeness

These events often strike a certain sense of fear into people about what may be attacked next. And of course, cable news taps into these fears and exploits them for record high ratings. 

There are certainly important questions at play when it comes to cancel culture, and the current cultural-political landscape is changing swiftly and radically. Even still, these conversations don’t always bring the best out of Christians. When emotions run high, we’re tempted to let our outrage get the better of us. And as a result, our public discourse gets out of control fairly quickly. 

It’s in moments like these that we should pause to evaluate ourselves, measure our responses, and make every effort to maintain a good witness. Unfortunately, whenever controversies like this arise, a large swath of us tend to respond unfavorably–and in decidedly predictable ways. 

Here are 4 reminders I believe we need as we navigate controversies like Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head in our current outrage cultures.  

1. We need to stop shooting first and asking questions never.

It’s unsettling to me that so many of us Christians are apparently in such a constant state of simmering anger that even the most minute offense causes us to boil over into full-blown outrage. 

What’s more is that when you’re constantly on the verge of rage, it keeps you from looking into and understanding the nuance of a situation. For example, when it comes to the Dr. Seuss controversy, many of us have spoken out publicly with our online platforms. However, not many of us investigate the specifics of the situation before launching into predetermined talking points. 

Dr. Seuss is not being cancelled. A vast majority of his works will continue to be available for years to come. Furthermore, no one is forcing Dr. Seuss Enterprises to pull these books. This is the organization founded by Seuss’ wife and is tasked with preserving his legacy, and they felt this was the best way to do that. 

And when you take a look at the images that caused the 6 books to be pulled, it’s not a surprising decision. You can see them below–they are patently offensive. One depicts “a Chinese man who ate with sticks,” and another caricaturizes African peoples. The depiction makes them look nothing less than subhuman.

These images perpetuate racial stereotypes that are incredibly problematic. The first image is actually an updated version. The original text read “Chinaman,” and his skin was bright yellow. 

It’s difficult to argue that these are images we should be inflicting on our children’s impressionable minds. Jesus isn’t honored when we denigrate his image bearers. 

What’s more is that this information wasn’t difficult to find. We simply need to ask questions and dig deeper before launching into a social media diatribe about 1984

If you find yourself in such a cycle, this is my earnest urging to you: slow down. Don’t react immediately. Look into it. Be a voice of reason in an unreasonable world. 

Be a voice of reason in an unreasonable world. Click To Tweet

2. We can’t decry cancel culture every time someone is held accountable for problematic speech, behavior, or beliefs.

Christians are the kinds of people who should always pursue virtue, justice, and morality. Not because we’re legalists, but because a redeemed world is one that’s virtuous, moral, and just. 

And that means that we can’t call “cancel culture” every time the immorality or injustice of an existing structure or tradition is called to account. If we’re really committed to the way of Jesus, we should encourage that kind of accountability. We obviously want to always be gracious, but we should never tolerate injustice in the name of tradition. We can’t hide behind straw man arguments, calling every attempt to bring equity a leftist witch hunt, cancel culture, or an SJW agenda. 

It’s easy to feel threatened when someone argues that a piece of media you enjoyed as a child is problematic. If you have fond memories of Green Eggs and Ham and Cat in the Hat, it can be difficult to reckon with the idea that Dr. Seuss was anything other than a saint. And those two books will continue to be classics.

But the fact of the matter is that Dr. Seuss also authored and illustrated some pieces of content that are incredibly offensive to people of color. They engrain a sense of white supremacy into the minds of the children who read and see them. We can’t let that stand. We just can’t. 

We obviously want to always be gracious, but we should never tolerate injustice in the name of tradition. Click To Tweet

3. We can’t decry cancel culture while also being judgmental ourselves.

There’s a strange sense of self-righteousness that comes with decrying “cancel culture.” Some go as far as to call those who bring up issues of social justice names like “overly sensitive snowflakes” in an attempt to demean, diminish, and discredit them. 

But we tend to forget that the Church has been canceling people for literally millennia. We just call it excommunication.

You might object. “That’s not cancel culture–it’s just holding people responsible!” Exactly. That’s exactly what you’re arguing against when you turn “cancel culture” into a boogeyman. 

And I agree that cancel culture often goes too far, sometimes reaching a point of ridiculousness. But you would have to agree that the Church hasn’t always ousted people for just cause either. A brief look at Church history will tell you that. 

What’s more is that the Christian community is quick to try and deplatform public figures, in the here and now, whom we believe have diverged theologically or politically. One recent example of this is Lecrae and the scrutiny he has suffered as a result of being vocal about issues of racial justice and supporting a democratic political candidate. One political conservative even called for all “true” churches in America to boycott him outright. 

We need to make sure that we’re tending to the log in our own eye before we point out the speck in the eye of the culture. That isn’t to say that we have no voice. But we need to guard ourselves from hypocrisy least a little bit better than we tend to. 

I agree that cancel culture often goes too far, sometimes reaching the point of ridiculousness. But. you would have to agree that the Church hasn't always ousted people for just cause either. Click To Tweet

4. We need to be willing to sacrifice our own comfort to listen to the pain of others.

When a controversy like this arises, it’s so important to listen to the voices of our brothers and sisters of color. Too often, we get defensive. And when we get defensive, we go on the attack. That gets us nowhere. 

Try to put yourself in the shoes of a person of color in a community where these 6 Dr. Seuss books are celebrated. Would you want your children being exposed to images depicting them as stereotypical or even subhuman? And more than being exposed to those images, to have those images celebrated in the larger culture? Of course you wouldn’t. 

And if that’s the case, regardless of how big of a Dr. Seuss fan you are, you need to side with the people who are being offended by such damaging imagery. 

This kind of imagery has been a basis for discrimination and outright violence against people of color across generations. We need to understand the historical significance of these images. And we often only begin to feel the weight of that history when we listen to the stories of people whose families have been negatively impacted by it. 

Not being able to read 6 children’s books seems like a small price to pay to move in the right direction. It just takes empathy to arrive at that conclusion. 

Regardless of how big of a Dr. Seuss fan you are, you need to side with the people who are being offended by such damaging imagery. Click To Tweet

We have some growing to do. 

There’s far too much at stake for Christians in America to continue on the way we have in matters like these. We have to do better. 

The good news is that Jesus can work through us to do just that. 

But that means that we have to humble ourselves, repent, and seek to move in a different direction. My prayer is that we would do just that. Not so that we could be on the right side of history, but so that the world around us would be able to see the redemption that Jesus offers and would come to know and be saved by him. So that we could actually bring forth the redemption he promises.

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