The Dr. Seuss Debate

Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the publishing house responsible for preserving the legacy of the beloved children’s author Theodor Seuss Geisel, announced on March 2, 2021 that they would cease publication of six of the author’s titles: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. Their reason —“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.”

Within hours of the decision, the prices of the discontinued books skyrocketed to thousands of dollars, while other Dr. Seuss titles topped Amazon’s bestseller list. Outraged fans and social commentators complained that cancel-culture had struck again. Being a long-time Dr. Seuss fan, I too was immediately shocked and upset thinking that this was just one more example of cancel culture. What could possibly be the reason for this “cancellation” of Dr. Seuss?

Offending Pictures
The discontinuation of the six titles was prompted by several drawings within the books that “portray people [particularly people of color] in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” For example, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street includes an image of an Asian boy, referred to as “a Chinaman,” painted with a yellow face and eating with chopsticks; If I Ran the Zoo has drawings of two African men looking like apes; McElligot’s Pool includes an image of a school of fish dressed in stereotypical Inuit garb; and On Beyond Zebra! has a caricature of a Middle-Eastern man.

On first reviewing the pictures, I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. Part of the reason for this was that I thought the drawings of the two African men in If I Ran the Zoo were not men at all, but apes. When I learned that they were, in fact, men, I was sobered. Such images are deeply troubling and degrading. A look at Seuss’s early cartoons reveals similar humiliating and demeaning caricatures of black people. Not all of the images from the discontinued books are as bad, but if we find them inoffensive it might be because, as a friend pointed out, “we don’t happen to be one of those people portrayed in such a stereotypical way.”

This doesn’t mean that Dr. Seuss was a racist; and in his defense, there may be room to say that such drawings and images were common in his day and perhaps were not always meant to be racist or degrading. We might also note the many books that Seuss wrote that intentionally combat racism, prejudice, and bigotry—books like The Butter Battle Book, The Sneetches, and Horton Hears a Who. But in the end, there simply is no way around the fact that the images from these six books are problematic. And it’s not because we are now more enlightened than Seuss was. It is simply that such images were always wrong. Even if they were not intended to do so, they portray certain people groups in a mocking, stereotypical, or degrading way—a way that is incompatible with the truth that all people of every nation and color are made in God’s image.

So Is it Cancel Culture or Isn’t It?
But while a look at the offending images reveals the reasons for Seuss Enterprises’s decision, some in the news media ignored the pictures, instead sounding the alarm that “liberals” were out to destroy America once again, this time by cancelling Dr. Seuss. Fox News host Tucker Carlson went so far as to call criticism of Dr. Seuss “demented.” You can watch his segment on the “cancelling” of Dr. Seuss here:


Carlson stated that the discontinuation and criticism of some of Dr. Seuss’s books is a “calculated” and “intentional” attack by the left to destroy a mid-century meritocracy that championed “color-blindness.” He claimed that “they’re banning Dr. Seuss not because he was a racist, but precisely because he wasn’t.” The implication is that it is the liberals who are the real racists. Tucker hammered home his point by highlighting Seuss’s anti-prejudice book The Sneetches, but he totally ignored the offending pictures from the six books that were discontinued.

Similarly, conservative political commentator Michael Knowles called the decision to discontinue a few Dr. Seuss books another example of cancel culture. He laughingly said that the six books were banned “because they have insensitive and politically incorrect depictions of cats or something . . . I don’t know, I haven’t read them.” But his ignorance of the actual drawings didn’t prevent him from abusing and blaming liberals.

Meanwhile, talk show host Stephen Colbert argued that the discontinuation of some of Seuss’s books was not an example of cancel culture (discussion of Dr. Seuss starts at 8:30):


Colbert called the decision “a responsible move.” He said, “There hadn’t been an earth-shattering outcry, but they [Dr. Seuss Enterprises] recognized the impact that these images might have on readers, especially kids, and they’re trying to fix it, because Dr. Seuss books should be fun for all people . . . Dr. Seuss has also so many books that are lovely and teach vital lessons that resonate to this day . . . The Dr. Seuss folks listened to criticism, thought it was reasonable, and made what’s called . . . a change.” He finished his segment by poking fun at Fox News and suggesting a handful of modern books by people of color.

Meanwhile, British comedian and political commentator John Oliver criticized conservatives1for their complaints, arguing that “The books weren’t banned . . . a company deciding which of its own books it will or won’t print is an example of free-enterprise, not facism.” Oliver grudgingly showed some of the offending images from the books and then asked, “Are these really things that we want to fight for kids to see?” He went on to criticize Tucker Carlson’s segment on Suess, calling him out in this fashion—“Shut. . .up, Tucker, you fear-mongering lacrosse injury.”

A Confession
After reviewing all of this, I was left feeling convicted and troubled. My initial complaint against cancel culture was invalid and I had readily jumped to conclusions without knowing the facts. If I’m honest, deep inside of me there had been anger toward those who would dare criticize the beloved Dr. Seuss. And here is the interesting thing—this anger, this uninformed disdain for those who might hold a different opinion than I do—something that all commentators we discussed in this article agree that Dr. Seuss would have been against—is exactly the kind of thing that was stoked by Carlson, Knowles, Oliver, and (to a lesser degree) Colbert.

Carlson and Knowles were uninformed about the issues, or they simply ignored the facts so that they could demonize “liberals.” And while in this particular case, both Colbert and Oliver were more honest and reflective, they also ripped “conservatives,” portraying them as fear-mongering idiots (Oliver’s comment about Carlson being a “fear-mongering lacrosse injury” is particularly troubling). Each commentator was operating under the assumption that it’s “us” vs. “them,” “liberals” vs. “conservatives,” and that the other was to blame. And there was I in the middle, rashly following a reactionary course until more sober conversation, honest reflection, and factual investigation caused me to repent and rethink my position.

Each commentator involved was fighting over the meaning of the word “racist,” which makes sense, because how we define words matters. The problem is that they each did so in a way that was uninformed and abusive to others. Throughout these commentaries, Seuss’s drawings, Seuss himself, those who wish to remove the images, and “liberals” are all called or implied to be “racist.” If we can slap the label “racist” on something or someone, it allows us to lump that person or thing together with whatever constitutes racism in our minds. It allows us to dismiss that person or thing without further comment. Using words like “liberals” and “conservatives” has the danger of doing the same thing.

To be clear, our purpose here is not to define who and who isn’t racist. To say that this was not an example of cancel culture and to speak out against some of Seuss’s drawings is not to say that Seuss was necessarily a racist, nor is it to accept the way in which the word “racist” is tossed around today. It is to affirm a deeply Christian truth—that all people deserve dignity and respect because of their status as God’s image-bearers. To abuse, degrade, or insult another human being is thus to take such action against God himself.

I tell this story to highlight the way in which the cultural dialogue around the Dr. Seuss fiasco was almost entirely unproductive and harmful, and also to show the way in which we are all in danger of adding more noise and stoking the fires of anger against others we happen to differ with, politically or otherwise. As I reflect on these things, I think there are three valuable lessons to be learned.

First, when we enter cultural dialogue, it is essential that we are informed. We need to take an honest look at the facts and resist the temptation to jump to conclusions. The discontinuation of six Dr. Seuss books was not an act of cancel culture. It was a thoughtful decision on the part of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which has every right to decide what they will and will not publish. Second, we must consider those who might have been hurt by the thing in question. In this case, some of Seuss’s drawings were truly unkind, hurtful, and degrading towards other people groups. We would all do well to ask, “How would I feel if I was the person depicted in an inhumane or mocking way in this book?” And finally, we must—I repeat, we must—show Christian love to those with whom we disagree. The dignity of my fellow human beings ought to be foremost in my mind as I am debating with them. If the tone of my argument or criticism encourages hatred towards anyone, I have failed in my Christian duty. May God help us to love one another, just as he loved us (Ephesians 5:1-2).

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.