Dewey or Dewey Not? Peering into the Zen of Political Correctness in Libraries

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

Editor’s Note: Following is an honest attempt at examining the hot-button issues of censorship in the literary world, the renaming of several literary awards, and the role the library plays with regard to political correctness. Emotions run high on these topics, and our intent is simply to examine them dispassionately from all sides. At the risk of being politically correct, we mean no offense…

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“That is unacceptable behavior!” “Mind your language!” How many of us remember someone reproachfully barking these words at us when we were children? My hand is raised. Language can hurt, can’t it? Words matter, as do actions. Clearly, some behaviors are hurtful and unacceptably wrong. So, why is it that we use words and do things that cause offense? Perhaps it is because we are human and fallible and locked in our own cultural framework. A few of us may ignore cultural expectations, refusing to be bound by them.

Consider when the use of language or behavior that some find offensive appears in a novel. In some cases, authors intentionally make their characters use “red flag” words and actions in an attempt to illustrate more fully who they are. This may be because words and deeds are powerful and sometimes humans grasp for more power through the use of hot button words and offensive behaviors. It is also sometimes the case that words and behaviors that were widely tolerated in the past are regarded as offensive by current standards.

shutterstock_1033250923Consider the often-used statement, “racial attitudes were typical of the time.” Is that a meaningless excuse, or is there merit in not judging yesterday’s attitudes by today’s standards? The same can be said regarding behaviors. Racist, sexist, harassing, and similar behaviors are unacceptable and have no place in our contemporary culture. However, they weren’t always considered to be taboo. “Boys will be boys,” “locker room talk,” racial epithets, and winking at some of the behaviors that men sometimes displayed with women was commonplace in past times. Not today. Our sensibilities as a culture have evolved and we have witnessed powerful movements such as #MeToo.

The American Library Association recently took bold steps in response to past words, attitudes, and behaviors. In its June 26, 2018 issue, Publishers Weekly reported:

The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association, voted on Saturday to strip the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder from a popular children’s book award, months after a task force set out to consider the long-running scholarly discussion around ‘anti-Native and anti-Black sentiments’ in the author’s work. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award honors an author or illustrator whose books have made ‘a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature.’ It will now be called The Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

This year, in its June 24th issue, Publishers Weekly announced this ALA decision:

“Citing a history of racism, anti-Semitism, and sexual harassment, the council of the American Library Association on June 23, 2019 voted to strip Melvil Dewey’s name from the association’s top professional honor, the Melvil Dewey Medal. The ALA Council approved the measure after a resolution was successfully advanced at the ALA membership meeting during the 2019 ALA Annual Conference in Washington DC.” The Medal is “an annual award consisting of a bronzed medal and a 24k gold-framed citation of achievement for recent creative leadership of high order, particularly in those fields in which Melvil Dewey was actively interested: library management, library training, cataloging and classification, and the tools and techniques of librarianship.”

Most of the mainstream media have made supportive comments about the Wilder renaming. Here’s an example from Book Riot:

Yes, we are judging a person from a different time based on today’s moral and ethical standards—because they are still being read and honored in today’s times. Yes, most authors from this time period and others would fail against today’s standards. Some have disingenuously argued that this is evidence we just want to erase history, rather than learn from it. The truth is that this name change is indicative of a population that has learned from its history, acknowledged its mistakes, and is moving forward with the intent of doing less harm.

Harvard Professor James Noonan wrote:

Because the stories are so colorful and told with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, it’s also easy to be blindsided by the racism … It’s how racism gets perpetuated That is, by children soaking up the prejudices of people they love, laid bare in unguarded moments.

Other reactions have been mixed. William Shatner has been quite vocal about the Wilder decision. He said, “An author who cannot defend herself was inadvertently judged in 2018 for a viewpoint from 1867.”

The Daily Wire commented:

Wilder’s work is considered ‘controversial,’ because of how she speaks of her family’s fear of Native American attacks, and her era-specific views on blacks. Intellectuals and historians might teach Wilder’s works in the context of her upbringing, but, apparently, children’s librarians are incapable of the same level of nuance.

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Some posts from the Library Think Tank – #ALATT Facebook group reacted to both renaming campaigns:

“Excellent decisions on both counts.”

“Revisionist history has never been of interest to me.”

“I think renaming the Dewey medal is great. Dewey was an incredibly problematic person (sexist, anti-Semitic, racist) despite his contributions to librarianship.”

“While I understand that Dewey was a pig and a misogynist, and that his behaviors should never have been acceptable, he did make huge contributions to the library world. I don’t think that anyone awarded or nominated for Dewey medal thinks it’s because of his behaviors, but only for his contributions to the library.”

“Please just stop this trend of demonizing people of the past because of the stories they wrote. These authors were a product of their time and life experience. Her books made a significant contribution for their time. I am not against the name change but sad that this action could lead to a snowball effect in demonizing authors who told stories from a different perspective of their time and place. It’s a kind of censorship we should be careful how we implement going forward…”

“Change the names as much as they desire; they will never change the fact the Dewey was a pivotal individual for this profession. His contributions will forever last.”

“The sentence ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian’ is said three times in the Little House on the Prairie series. What would you say to a little American Indian girl who was upset about reading that? How would you defend naming Wilder as the ideal writer of children’s books? People have talked about the importance of preserving history. This is true, but the place to remember the genocide of American Indians is in a museum, not in the name of an award for children’s literature.”

“I think renaming the award is fine, maybe even a good idea. I don’t think we should demonize the books, though, for accurately depicting a point in time. You can’t just erase racism from a book that takes place in a time when racism is rampant. Just look at Tom Sawyer. The books are a record of what life was really like back then. But, that being said, I would hope that if a teacher were to assign something like that as reading, they would have the awareness to use it to start a conversation about what’s WRONG with the language being used or the actions being done.”

“Jacqueline Woodson addressed the name change in her speech last night. When the winner of a lifetime achievement award feels othered and marginalized by the award that is meant to celebrate them, we need to listen to them. We need to listen to what our library colleagues & favorite creators say when they tell us they are affected & hurt by racism. If they feel this way, how must a child feel encountering these things? 2) I feel it is common to say we as book people discuss & explain these books & their harmful content with/to kids. However, I do not feel this is a wide mainstream practice. So our perceptions of how much damage an outdated book can do is deeply flawed. 3) No one said to remove the little house books, demonized Wilder, or proposed any kind of censorship in the official statement. Censorship & Wilder’s legacy are separate from this issue.”

“Since Washington, Jefferson and even Lincoln were all rather racist by today’s standards, will places and things named after them be changed in future? I wonder where we need to draw the line.”

 

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How do you as a librarian feel about these actions taken by ALA and the ALSC?

Were they correct? Or, do you think they were politically correct? Some people have labeled them as yet another example of disgusting “political correctness” gone overboard. To be sure, Americans have heard tremendous negative commentary regarding PC. “Politically correct” has been chewed and spit out and snickered at in the media over the past two decades and even Nobel Prize winners such as Elie Wiesel have weighed in critically on the subject. I wonder, though, if many of us are attaching different meanings and connotations to the term. Like countless other words and phrases, what PC means depends on the person using it.

“Merriam-Webster” defines PC as “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” A 2016 article in the Washington Post sheds a lot of light on the history and evolution in meaning of “politically correct.” I highly recommend that anyone with a curious mind (and aren’t we as librarians a curious profession?) read it.

shutterstock_1292732065What to do? How to proceed? Are the ALA and ALSC actions examples of political correctness?

In 2019 we are in the thick of a muddy mire as to determining what is offensive to whom, and when, and why, and where, and how in the heck do we respond sanely?

As I write this, I am doing my best to be sensitive and mindful and yet not stray from an honest inquiry. Many discussions, issues, offenses, behaviors, and loaded words exist to potentially trip us up. Here are a few that come to mind.

Brown Bag Programs

shutterstock_774540499Do those of us who plan library programs offer brown bag lunchtime programs? Think about the point raised in a memo by the chief spokesman (should I use spokesperson?) for the Seattle Office of Civil Rights. He advised the city’s public information officers to avoid the phrase “brown bag” and instead use “sack lunch” or “Lunch-and-learn.” The memo read, in part, “Innocuous phrases, right? Mm, not so much. For some people, the phrase ‘brown bag’ calls up ugly associations with use of the expression ‘brown bag’ to determine if people’s skin color was light enough to allow admission to an event, a home, etc.” So, what is your library doing? Do you offer “brown bag” lunch programs?

The Education of Little Tree

If you are of a certain age, you may recall this 1976 book by Forrest Carter with much fondness. I most certainly do. Oprah Winfrey recommended the book on her website soon after it was released. Imagine the shock when the truth emerged in 1991 that the author was Asa Earl Carter, a Ku Klux Klan leader in the 1950s, and that the book is fiction, not nonfiction as it was originally catalogued. Where does the shock come from? The fact that it isn’t factual? The fact that it was written by a Klan leader? The thought that it wasn’t honest or true? Knowing the author’s views, would we speak of the book today with the same reverence and awe that we did at one time? Has the message of the book shifted, or is it our view that has shifted?

Huckleberry Finn

shutterstock_76729498Does your library have copies of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”? As a classic of American literature, it probably has a place on your shelves. How do we as librarians deal with Mark Twain’s language? Specifically, his frequent use of the N-word in the novel? One Twain scholar, Dr. Alan Gribben, has edited a 2012 edition published by NewSouth Books (9781603062350) that omits use of the word in question. Did this significant change fundamentally alter the spirit or intent of Twain’s original, or make it more acceptable to a modern audience? I wonder how many libraries own this version of Twain’s classic.

Dr. Seuss

Was Theodor Geisel a racist? A 2012 article in Business Insider offers evidence of this from his early advertising illustrations. Children’s Literature professor Philip Nel agrees in his book “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?” (9780190635077 ), citing several examples. The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum in Geisel’s hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, removed a mural in 2017, taken from the book “And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” that showed a Chinese character with chopsticks, slanted eyes, and a pointed hat (read more here). Do some of the illustrations in his beloved books perpetuate racist stereotypes? Should the library withdraw them? Should the American Library Association (ALA) consider renaming its Theodor Seuss Geisel Award? As described by ALA, “The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award, established in 2004, is given annually (beginning in 2006) to the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished contribution to the body of American children’s literature known as beginning reader books published in the United States during the preceding year.”

Alice in Wonderland

shutterstock_1216708135Was Lewis Carroll a pedophile? In an article in School Library Journal (“Separating Art from the Author,” School Library Journal, June 2018 p. 10-11), the Livingston N.J. Public Library’s youth services librarian, Anna Coats, questions consistency in current calls to condemn some authors. She points out Lewis Carroll, who “was believed to be obsessed with two young girls, photographing them naked, and taking a picture of himself kissing an 11-year old.” Should we revise our opinion of this mid-nineteenth century author in light of his behaviors?

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Is it time for this classic to be renamed? After all, that word is now uniformly accepted as being derogatory. A British theater company in 2002 that produced the play changed its title to “The Bellringer of Notre Dame.” What does Quasimodo have to say to us in 2019?

When We Was Fierce

Author e.E. Charlton—Trujillo’s 2016 young adult novel received starred reviews and was a VOYA Reluctant Readers Pick. The author appeared in the publisher’s booth at the ALA summer conference and distributed signed copies. But a few days before the book’s official release date of August 9, “the sh** hit the fan,” due to perceived stereotyping of its black characters and use of a “made-up” dialect in narration. Candlewick, the novel’s publisher, pulled the book with an explanation that they would work with the author on revisions. A revised version was never issued and, to my knowledge, no commentary has come from either the author or the publisher. Some libraries that preordered the book received it, followed by at least one vendor’s attempt to recall copies. While some libraries weeded it, other libraries may have copies available for checkout. Should they be withdrawn? Read more about the furor here.

Sherman Alexie

Several women have recently accused prominent American Indian author Sherman Alexie of sexual harassment. In early 2018, the American Indian Literature Association rescinded Alexie’s 2008 YA Book of the Year Award, “to send an unequivocal message that Alexie’s actions are unacceptable.” Was this move justified?

American Beauty

Does your library still have a copy of the Academy Award-winning film “American Beauty”? Given the highly publicized predatory sexual behavior of one of its lead actors, Kevin Spacey, does this film belong in your collection?

Bill Cosby

What, if anything, are libraries doing with their copies of “Fatherhood,” “Time Flies,” and “Love and Marriage,” or the DVD copies of television series that he starred in? What do you think about having these in your collection?

Hanta Yo

This novel, written by Ruth Beebe Hill, was a beloved portrayal of Plains Indians life prior to the influx of North Americans of European descent. When it was published in 1979, it was on the bestsellers list. However, Sioux activists soon organized protests against it for its alleged inaccuracies that demean the Plains Indians. It has been out-of-print for years, and chances are that most libraries no longer have a “live” copy. But should a book considered so offensive to the Sioux be part of a library’s collection?

The Good Earth

Objections to Pearl S. Buck’s novel and its 1937 film version are longstanding for its stereotypes and cultural appropriation. Author Celeste Ng, whose parents immigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S., began her review of the book on GoodReads by saying, “It’s difficult for me to explain how much I hate this book, and even harder to explain why. I don’t think it’s just because I hated the main character so much, and in this case at least, I don’t think it’s because of the weirdness that arises from a Westerner writing about a colonized country.” However, the facts about Buck’s Chinese upbringing and firsthand experiences do lend weight to the book’s accurate portrayal.

 

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Quite the quagmire, eh? Is our footing on a slippery slope? Renaming awards isn’t new and isn’t limited to the library profession. Recently, Analog Science Fiction and Fact made the decision to rename its John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Campbell was the publisher of the magazine from the late 1930s until 1971. A statement from its current editor, Trevor Quachri, was posted on the website in August of this year and reads in part:

Campbell’s provocative editorials and opinions on race, slavery, and other matters often reflected positions that went beyond just the mores of his time and are today at odds with modern values, including those held by the award’s many nominees, winners, and supporters. As we move into Analog’s 90th anniversary year, our goal is to keep the award as vital and distinguished as ever….

This past spring, the Vermont Department of Libraries decided to change the name of its Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award, which honors excellence in children’s literature. Fisher was an educational reformer, social activist, and popular author in the early 20th century. Eleanor Roosevelt cited her as being one of the 10 most influential women in the United States. So why rename the award? Fisher, it is alleged, was associated with the eugenics movement of the 1920s and ’30s that promoted “better breeding.” Her novels were regarded by some as being stereotypical of French Canadians and Native Americans. Fisher’s defenders say the famed author, who died in 1958, stood up for prison reform, adult education, and war relief. They say she is being judged unfairly over a minor association with the now-vilified eugenics movement.

Here are three comments from the many responses to the Fisher renaming:

“Revisionist historians with their sanctimonious posturing…”

“Why must we constantly judge those in the past with the standards of today? Those in the future will find today to be wanting as well.”

“We hope that this name change will help make all kids feel welcome to be part of the book award program….”

In some cases, an award is not renamed despite complaints. Cable channel MTV awarded its Video Vanguard Award in 1988 to Michael Jackson, and in 1991 renamed it the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. Despite protests about the appropriateness of retaining Jackson’s name on the award, given the numerous allegations against him of child sexual abuse, MTV is so far not considering a change in name.

In 2015, Sports Illustrated renamed its Sportsman Legacy Award as the Sports Illustrated’s Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. This award, as the website states, “was created in 2008 to honor former athletes and sports figures who embody the ideals of sportsmanship, leadership and philanthropy as vehicles for changing the world.” Might a military veteran object to receiving this award, since its namesake was convicted in 1967 as a draft dodger? Although the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1971, it is not a stretch of the imagination that a military veteran might be offended if given an award named for a man who refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army.

Anne Rice made this comment on her Facebook account on August 10, 2015:

I think we are facing a new era of censorship, in the name of political correctness. There are forces at work in the book world that want to control fiction writing in terms of who “has a right” to write about what. Some even advocate the out and out censorship of older works using words we now deem wholly unacceptable. Some are critical of novels involving rape. Some argue that white novelists have no right to write about people of color; and Christians should not write novels involving Jews or topics involving Jews. I think all this is dangerous. I think we have to stand up for the freedom of fiction writers to write what they want to write, no matter how offensive it might be to someone else. We must stand up for fiction as a place where transgressive behavior and ideas can be explored. We must stand up for freedom in the arts. I think we have to be willing to stand up for the despised. It is always a matter of personal choice whether one buys or reads a book. No one can make you do it. But Internet campaigns to destroy authors accused of inappropriate subject matter or attitudes are dangerous to us all.

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What’s next? Who’s the next author to be posthumously censored? Which award renaming will be put to a vote next? Where will it end?

I don’t know. The 2009 comedy film starring Meryl Streep, Steve Martin, and Alec Baldwin pops into my head. The title says it all: “It’s Complicated.”

I leave you with two quotes, one from an ancient sage, and one from a more contemporary critic of modern society.

 

 

“We cling to our own point of view, as though everything depended on it. Yet our opinions have no permanence; like autumn and winter, they gradually pass away.” —Zhuangzi

“Political Correctness is Fascism pretending to be manners.” —George Carlin

 

 

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Nothing brings a smile to Paul Duckworth’s face quite like a good book, a long walk, and the unmatched beauty of country life. Click here for more.

 

 

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