More Ben

Dolor Sit Amet

Who will cry for Shakespeare?

Bad news, y’all: I just got cancelled. It’s time to pack it up. I’m not proud about it, but you can’t say anything anymore. Darn.

Does this sound familiar to you? Have you or has someone you know been cancelled by politically-active teenagers on social media? I mean, realistically, it seems unlikely. “Cancel culture” is the scariest boogeyman since the boogeyman, but should it be?

The victims of cancel culture are plentiful, from celebrities who make comments endorsing sexual assault and arguing against the existence of the Jews to media executives who make comments endorsing sexual assault and arguing against the existence of the Jews.

I read an opinion piece in the Washington Post recently about how a horde of progressive teachers and students have identified their next target: William Shakespeare. Their argument? The bard’s plays weren’t #Woke enough for our 21st century values. We should kill him. The author’s opinion stood steadfast in the opposite corner: Shakespeare’s plays were good, and he was good. We should let him live.

The core of her argument is a pretty common one: we can’t judge people who lived hundreds of years ago by today’s standards. We’d be cancelling everyone. She has a point – context is important in any discussion, and we’d be dumb to ignore the information a person had access to and the world they lived in. If we did, we’d be cancelling everyone!

But there’s a difference between attending to context and letting people off the hook. This argument comes up a lot whenever criticism is levied at the founding fathers of the United States, or similar important figures in American history. Our former President, DJ Trump brought it to the forefront in the Confederate statue debate when he asked “who’s next? George Washington?”

For most, the question was silly – obviously there’s a difference between Confederate leaders, who committed treason against the United States in the interest of slavery, and George Washington, who invented the United States. But it’s worth questioning whether our ironclad defense of figures like Washington is deserved or if we’re projecting our patriotism onto a flawed man.

Asked in the wrong circles, the question alone smells like treason. (Reward me for my bravery). But if the demand is that we take Washington in context, and what we’re investigating is the most significant accusation against him (that he supported slavery and owned slaves), does history really absolve him? Washington lived in a time when slavery was legally allowed, but as an educated and wealthy man, there’s no way he was completely separated from the abolitionist literature that existed parallel to him. He may have even been moved by it during his life, given that he manumitted all of his slaves on his death. For some folks, that last bit counts as a good deed, but how heroic is it to recognize slavery is bad early enough to put it in your will but still think it might be worth hanging on to them until you’re dead? Is it not a little likely that Washington understood the evil he was complicit in in owning humans but cared more for the effortless profit it brought him than the pain and suffering it painted on the men and women who could have been his peers?

Popularly, Washington’s legacy isn’t slavery, and critic critics will cautiously point out that it’s dangerous to ignore all the good he did for the country because of his personal flaws. To be certain, it’s easy for me to do that: I’m a white dude. Slavery for me was a boring part of social studies. But for people who care, choosing to own a village’s worth of people for economic benefit against your better judgment in the late 1700s is a pretty inescapable mark on your character, arguably one we shouldn’t ignore purely because of his political and military achievements.

This is where we get into “cancelling” territory. Some may say I’ve already gone too far, but they’re straw men, and, again, I’m brave

If we acknowledge that George Washington was first imperfect and second a contributor to the painful legacy of the Black Americans forcibly brought to this country and enslaved, what do we do next? Take down statues and monuments? Strike his name from the history books? Rename the capital Lincoln or Douglass or Aunt Jemima? These are the horrors the anti-cancel culture crusaders will have us warned about.

But they’re mostly unfounded. Sure, you can find folks whose honest opinions are that Washington’s very name should be considered a naughty swear word not worth repeating around children, but they’re few and far between. These are the same folks who, in arguments against feminism, invoke the words of extremists who rant on Tumblr that all men should be killed – they’re not representative of the norm, and the crusaders know that.

To be fair, I’ll personally throw my name behind the “take down statues and monuments” option, but I’m an iconoclast, and I don’t really know that any person is without flaw enough to be deserving of permanent state commemoration. It’s not that people like Washington are devils, but that none of us are angelic enough for the privilege.

It’s possible to acknowledge that Genghis Khan presided over a period of remarkable peace and justice within the borders of his empire while holding the opinion that he was a very bad dude whose actions on those borders do a good job of explaining away any virtue. George Washington is no Genghis Khan, but he’s also no Harriet Tubman. 

Historically, people like Washington have received something of a pass for wrongdoings on the patriotic virtue of their accomplishments, but if those concerned with cancel culture think there’s space for nuanced discussions of character, surely these nuances should be extended to even our most venerable heroes? And if we find them guilty if their crimes, surely their legacies and public images should suffer adequately.

No one is asking us to forget history, and to believe they are is to fall into a trap set by the opposition. I can spend hours on Wikipedia investigating the deep history of Nazi Germany, the North Korean regime, and the Mongol Empire without building monuments to their most prominent figures. It’s possible to acknowledge that Washington’s participation in the institution of slavery doesn’t erase his legacy as President or General while also recognizing that his achievements in these sectors can never overwrite that significant part of his personal history.

But the piece that riled me up enough to write this novel wasn’t about Washington, it was about William Shakespeare, a very different dude with a very different past. As far as I can tell, Shakespeare didn’t own slaves. He’s a much harder target to snipe, but it’s still not impossible.

The main argument against the bard isn’t regarding crimes he committed in his personal life, but the direct content of his work. In particular, some folks are concerned with accusations of sexism, racism, and anti-semitism. The existence of these themes of prejudice, they suggest, is enough to warrant his exclusion from classrooms. 

For what it’s worth, against allegations that these ideas come as a product of a recent wave of “wokeness” in America, accusations of prejudice in Shakespeare’s works is far from new. Whether or not his Black protagonist Othello suffers from racist caricaturing is a legitimate topic of literary discussion. When I read the Merchant of Venice last year, I wasn’t surprised when antagonist Shylock’s crimes were attached by characters to his Jewish background, but it did surprise me that the connections are never dislodged – from beginning to end, Shylock is an evil dude, and it’s worth considering that his inhumanity may be a secondary effect of his Judaism.

I don’t think it’s worth it to “cancel” Shakespeare, if “cancel” means remove from the historical record and ignore completely. In that, I think I stand with the author of the article I wrote this in response to and a considerable number of Americans concerned with cancel culture as a whole. But I also don’t think many people are arguing for cancellation in that way. There’s a difference between removing a set of works from a high school curriculum and deleting a name from history. Shakespeare’s works provided a still-standing basis for the English-language dramatic tradition, and many of his plays have claimed their thrones as timeless classics as relatable today as they were when they were written. Is that enough to earn them a place in 9th grade English classrooms? Maybe. I really don’t know. Shakespeare’s stories are strong, but his increasingly-ancient language makes his direct work a slog. Even in my nerd-tier English classes, folks struggled with reading these pages designed to be performed in a dialect all but lost to history.

Of course, that’s not to say we shouldn’t learn about Shakespeare. His shit was foundational. His lexicon poured effortlessly into ours and he had an undeniable influence on both the language and how it’s commanded in theater. But lessons are only useful so far as they’re understood, and the English fanatics among us put too much faith in American high schoolers. It’s not that they lack the ability to analyze text, but that they’re usually not motivated to, understandably.

This might read like a convoluted tangent, and for the most part, it is, but (I think) my point here is that the usefulness of a piece as required reading in schools is worth debating, and nothing should be considered an infallible target for inclusion. If kids don’t benefit educationally from including Shakespeare, don’t include Shakespeare. If his shit is racist, all the more reason.

We have to come to the decision of what to do ourselves. And by “we”, obviously I mean “not me” – I’m just some dude. I have no say in curricula, and that’s a good thing. But, importantly, when we (they) decide that a work relies on racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory thinking to get its message across, that fact should be inextricable from the text. Recognizing that an author lived in a different time shouldn’t necessarily mean letting them off the hook for dangerous attitudes, if “letting them off the hook” means hand-waving away the problem completely. George Washington owned slaves. Shakespeare may have distrusted Jews, or at least understood that his audience would.

As I was working on this piece, I was worried the Shakespeare bit wouldn’t be enough to cement the story – a few schools were considering removing him from their curricula. That’s hardly a nationwide moral crisis. Then, my snail’s pace writing speed did me a solid in keeping this from completion long enough for me to watch the country lose its collective shit over the cancellation of Dr. Seuss.

Seuss’s cancellation is a big deal because, unlike Shakespeare’s, the cancel culture doomsayers have actually read his works. When they say these are pillars of the American literary tradition, they know what they’re talking about. Of course, they’re not, like, in love with Dr. Seuss. If they have kids, they’ve probably cracked a book or two open in the last few years, assuming they care enough to pry their children’s eyes from uncanny valley animations of Indian nursery rhymes on YouTube for long enough to look at the pages. But they’re not fans, or even erstwhile defenders. If On Beyond Zebra went out of print tomorrow because no one was buying it, they wouldn’t give a shit. But this is a different problem, because the leftist mob is calling into question periphery elements of their childhoods. Things that have always been okay are suddenly not okay, and that’s bad.

Put short, the outcry over Dr. Seuss is that a few of his books include culturally insensitive illustrations that may have been in vogue in 1950 but are no longer vogue-adjacent. Stuff like a yellowface, highly-stereotyped depiction of a Chinese man and the decision to graft minstrel monkey man qualities onto a pair of native Africans. Some folks pointed out that these images that look super racist could be misconstrued as super racist. The Seuss estate, in response, agreed with that assessment and pulled the books. There’s an open door for them to return sans hate couture. Altogether, it wasn’t a very big deal.

To me. But I hate freedom. Luckily, there are patriots out there who may not necessarily agree with what I say, but they’ll gladly fight and die to preserve my right to shut the fuck up. This, to them, was not some culturally sensitive updating of a few children’s books – this was cancel culture run amok, a horde of snowflakes silencing a long-dead children’s hero. If Teddy Geisel can’t depict Africans as monkeys, what’s next? No cats in hats? No rhyming? Is rhyming un-woke too?

I’m being facetious because I think it’s a cute look on me, but without a little bit of the bald contempt, this is the actual argument: this is liberal censorship. But is it? For one, while the books in question are being removed from print, the scale of this story and the existence of the internet pretty much guarantee more people have now seen these images on their phones than ever would have in a book. 

Do the libs hate Dr. Seuss? Are they trying to ruin his legacy? I don’t think so. There are worse books than If I Ran the Zoo out there. I can buy Mein Kampf on Amazon, and if we don’t cancel this Hitler guy soon, I’m worried some people are going to start taking what he says seriously. 

I think most of the people rallying against the depictions probably have some sort of a respect for Seuss and his work, and that’s what makes these illustrations so jarring. We don’t want a man who had a part in sculpting our childhoods and literary histories to have harbored racist thought. But I don’t even believe that most of the people calling for these books to be pulled think Seuss was an outright racist. To be clear, these images are offensive, and Dr. Seuss’s career, particularly his time as a propagandist during World War II, is marked with shades of similar racial insensitivity at best. These actions do not define him or his career, but they do deserve proportionate response. This holds even truer if you believe the man wasn’t racist – if he didn’t want his works to espouse racism, then removing racist images from his pages sounds like the right thing to do.

Shakespeare is not George Washington, and Dr. Seuss is not Shakespeare, unless you’ve got some wild time travel theory I haven’t heard about but need to. In many ways, these men are unlike each other, having lived in entirely different places and times. But a chord of cancellation runs through them, and they’ve all been victims, one way or another, posthumously. 

Yet somehow they survive, uncancelled. We’re still talking about them, lauding them, condemning them, forgetting them. So if cancellation doesn’t seem to scald the people of the past the way the libs want it to, is it not worth discussing their actual intentions? Are we too infatuated with our historical idols to recognize that they’re flawed? Sure, everyone’s flawed, but we don’t worship everyone. And our inherent defensiveness toward arguments of this imperfection seems to validate the idea that these arguments are worth positing. 

The only way to understand a person is through examination of all of their qualities. It may not seem worth it to dredge the darkest side of a person’s past when we’re currently focused on the brightest, but if the dark side feels like it’s taking away from the bright, it’s probably for good reason.

I think our fear of cancellation comes from two places: the first is dumb: our need for unrealistic idols. Trying to emulate perceived perfection is an unwinnable game. The second, though, is more understandable: we fear that the cancellation of others means that we may one day be cancelled ourselves, potentially for something we feel ashamed of or did not mean to do. I won’t make fun of that; depending on what we perceive the punishment of cancellation to be, that idea can be scary.

But peoples’ flaws exist on a complex spectrum, and while I believe racist caricatures should be avoided in 2021, I can recognize that they aren’t comparable to participating in slavery. Similarly, if we embrace an understanding of humanity that allows us to take in the good and the bad, not for judgment, but for reasonable examination and clarity, I think most of us will find we’re nowhere near cancellation, even with our sins on display.

We all make mistakes, and they don’t define us. But what does define us is the level to which we learn from them. We should give everyone a chance to learn from their mistakes. But we should also understand that some mistakes are definitively worse than others, and harder to forgive with simple reflection.

In short, I think cancel culture is an exaggerated interpretation of a growing trend toward interpreting humans as flawed beings and not gods. Compared to perfection, you’ll always fall short. If we judge ourselves more realistically, we’ll be fine.

Tl;dr: Cancel culture? I hardly know ‘er!

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