Among its other noxious downsides, the scourge of wokeness has spawned in the younger generation a new morality centered on what The Coddling of the American Mind authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt call Safetyism: a belief system in which one’s emotional safety is considered a sacred value. Safetyism is at the core of such childish concepts as “microaggressions,” “safe spaces,” and “trigger warnings”; the irrational argument that “words are violence”; and the notion that free speech is fascist. While the ostensible motivation behind Safetyism is to protect the so-called “marginalized” elements of society from psychological and physical harm, in fact what it does is empower its adherents to marginalize those in the mainstream by demonizing them as oppressive, and controlling their behavior and language.
The latest example of wokeness’ insidious effects: a UK Telegraph report has identified hundreds of editorial changes to the stories of the late, beloved children’s author Roald Dahl, in the service of sanitizing his books for woke snowflakes who are perpetually on the lookout for something by which to be offended. Dahl, whose many books such as The Witches, James and the Giant Peach, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are characterized by a pre-woke sensibility and a streak of dark humor, is, as the Telegraph says, “a prominent example of a growing trend in children’s publishing for content that nobody can find offensive.”
The publisher behind the new editions is Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Books and one of the largest publishers of children’s books in the UK and much of the English-speaking world. A disclaimer at the bottom of the copyright page of Puffin’s latest editions of Dahl’s books reads, “Words matter. The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvellous characters. This book was written many years ago, and so we regularly review the language to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”
What that means is that “[l]anguage related to weight, mental health, violence, gender and race has been cut and rewritten,” The Telegraph writes. “Remember the Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach? They are now the Cloud-People. The Small Foxes in Fantastic Mr Fox are now female. In Matilda, a mention of Rudyard Kipling has been cut and Jane Austen added” – because white males are out, and women – even white ones like Jane Austen – are in.
The word “queer,” as you would expect, has been changed to “strange,” because “queer” today signifies a “gender identity” to be celebrated unreservedly (or else) and can no longer be associated with its former reference to something odd or different. In The Witches, a line which originally read, “Even if she is working as a cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman” has been updated to read, “Even if she is working as a top scientist or running a business” – because to suggest that women could ever be less than leaders of science and industry is unacceptable.
Fat-shaming today is a no-no too, of course, so references to portliness have been, well, trimmed down. “Fat little brown mouse” becomes “little brown mouse.” “‘Here’s your little boy,’ she said. ‘He needs to go on a diet,’” is edited to simply, “Here’s your little boy.”
Skin color is naturally a major concern of the sensitivity police at Puffin. Instead of “turning white,” for example, a character turns “quite pale” – because whiteness, as we are all reminded constantly, is the gravest of original sins. Similarly, in James and the Giant Peach, Miss Spider’s head is no longer “black” and the Earthworm no longer has “lovely pink” skin but “lovely smooth skin.” In Fantastic Mr Fox a description of two tractors as being “black” has been cut. In The Twits, a “weird African language” is no longer weird.
“We want to ensure Roald Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today,” said a spokesperson for the Roald Dahl Story Company. And thus Puffin and the Roald Dahl Story Company made the new changes in consultation with Inclusive Minds, described by a spokesperson as “a collective for people who are passionate about inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature, and are committed to changing the face of children’s books.”
Translation: Inclusive Minds is a platoon of social justice warriors whose mission is to enforce the corrosive trinity of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as literary imperatives. Alexandra Strick, a co-founder of Inclusive Minds, says they “aim to ensure authentic representation, by working closely with the book world and with those who have lived experience of any facet of diversity.”
The UK Telegraph notes that the revisions of Dahl’s work are “part of a general trend for ‘sensitivity readings,’ where books are screened before publication for material that might be upsetting. The practice began in children’s books, where it remains most pronounced.” Naturally it’s most pronounced in children’s literature – because the woke Left understands that the key to long-term success proselytizing wokeness lies in targeting the impressionable minds of the next generations.
“It just feels wrong to be told what to write by an outside party, no matter how well-meaning,” bestselling author Anthony Horowitz wrote in The Spectator. Horowitz himself has fallen afoul of sensitivity censorship over a Native American character attacking someone with a scalpel. Addressing the Hay Festival of Literature & Arts in Wales last year, he stated that “children’s book publishers are more scared [of cancel culture] than anybody.”
Dahl biographer Matthew Dennison says Dahl was passionate and tireless about crafting the language of his novels: “His relationships with his editors included marked fractiousness on Dahl’s part.” When it came to children’s books, Dennison says Dahl didn’t care what adults thought as long as his target readers were happy. “‘I don’t give a b—-r what grown-ups think,’ was a characteristic statement,” Dennison says. “And I’m almost certain that he would have recognized that alterations to his novels prompted by the political climate were driven by adults rather than children, and this always inspired derision, if not contempt, in Dahl…
“Dahl wrote stories intended to kindle in children a lifelong love of reading and to remind them of the childhood wonderlands of magic and enchantment, aims in which he succeeded triumphantly,” Dennison adds. “Adult anxieties about political niceties didn’t register in this outlook.” That’s because Dahl properly prioritized the art of language and storytelling over political messaging, while today’s sensitivity police prioritize political messaging over everything.
The Telegraph concludes by wondering, “When does harmless tweaking become over-meddling?” But the hundreds of changes to Dahl’s books are not “harmless tweaking,” nor are they the work of, as Anthony Horowitz generously but naively put it, “well-meaning” people who are just trying to encourage “inclusivity.” They constitute politically-driven desecration and indoctrination, and it won’t end with Roald Dahl and other children’s authors. If publishers have no qualms about policing and rewriting children’s literature, why would they draw the line at literature for adults?
The proper approach to teaching “problematic” language in classic literature – whether it’s archaic or strikes us as insensitive or whatever the issue might be – is not to reshape it behind the scenes to accord with modern tastes and political acceptability, but to use it as an opportunity for class discussion about historical differences, about changing mores, and hopefully about rethinking our own cultural arrogance. The kind of behind-the-scenes scrubbing and revision being carried out by Puffin and Inclusive Minds is not an act of embracing and learning from our incredible cultural legacy in the West, but one of rejecting and forgetting.