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America’s storytelling took a massive kick to the head this June — and hardly anyone knows about it or about the DIY censorship tsunami it may have started that could seriously damage creative work in the future. When bestselling romance author Elin Hilderbrand (The Golden Girl) was attacked for what some online readers considered a disrespectful and passively anti-Semitic reference to Anne Frank by one of her teenage characters, she had the publisher remove the passage and apologized. A couple weeks later she announced she would retire from writing novels. The same month, Casey McQuiston (Red, White & Royal Blue) received criticism that her character’s mentioning Israel was normalizing the occupation of Palestine. McQuiston quickly promised that future editions of her novel will omit the line.
These two incidents have established a horrific precedent for writers and artists on two fronts: First, writers now must be careful about how their characters talk — even though they are fictional and the authors may be deliberately having them say less-than-admirable things. Second, in both cases it wasn’t experienced critics who offered the criticism, but people on social media whose opinions are based on personal bias and triggers, not the literary necessities of the works. If this knee-jerk pandering and self-censorship becomes widespread, it’s only a matter of time before all forms of fiction, including TV and movies, will be reacting, retooling and regurgitating to the whims of social media rather than the needs of their characters or story.
In Hilderbrand’s novel, two teenage girls discuss having one of them hide in her friend’s attic for the summer. One of the girls jokes, “like Anne Frank.” That is exactly the kind of dismissive, irreverent joke a teen might make which makes her character more believable. It is a typical coping mechanism that allows youth to disassociate themselves from the horrors of the past. One of the most brilliant uses of Anne Frank’s story is in the pilot episode of My So-Called Life. High-schooler Angela is reading the book for her English class. In class, the teacher asks her bored students, “How would you describe Anne Frank?” Unwittingly, Angela says aloud, “Lucky.” To which the outraged teacher explodes: “Is that supposed to be funny, Angela? How on earth could you make a statement like that? Hmm? Anne Frank perished in a concentration camp. Anne Frank is a tragic figure. How could Anne Frank be lucky?” Embarrassed by all the shocked stares of her disapproving classmates, Angela quietly replies, “I don’t know. Cause she was trapped in an attic for three years with this guy she really liked?” Ironically, the scene reveals that Angela is the only one in the class, including the teacher, who actually takes Frank’s book to heart. Angela is able to look beyond the stereotypical Tragic Figure she’s supposed to see and relate to her as a peer, as a teenage girl who feels helpless and controlled by others. Angela mentions the book again at the end of the episode and we can see how Angela has grown, in part because she’s able to see how the book applies to her own life, which is the point of literature. However, if some on social media have their way, that touching and insightful scene might be eliminated because someone who didn’t understand the point of using the book would have been offended. Like the clueless teacher.
Casey McQuiston’s character merely mentioned Israel, which a few readers found offensive. The list of things people find offensive or triggering would eliminate every work of literature from the Bible to The Catcher in the Rye to To Kill a Mockingbird to The Bluest Eye. These works are filled with rape, murder, child abuse, racism, incest, misogyny and homophobia. A Clockwork Orange is one of the best movies ever made and it features a protagonist who is a rapist and murderer. No, we don’t admire him, nor are we encouraged to emulate him. Instead, we are meant to see him as the result of a society that is even worse than him.
I don’t blame those on social media who expressed their personal concerns. Doing so is part of a vigorous and necessary debate about the topics they raise. I appreciate their candor and vulnerability. The villains of this piece are the authors who capitulated so quickly to those on social media whose personal feelings may be understandable, but do not justify changing the words. It’s one thing to have a protagonist who we are supposed to admire spouting racist, misogynistic or other hateful opinions that the book clearly endorses. Readers may justifiably raise an outraged ruckus and advocate boycotting the author. But that is not the case here. A handful of readers had a negative response and the authors, in misguided virtue signaling, quickly folded. In doing so, they put all storytellers in professional jeopardy.
A culture’s stories often celebrate the virtues it wishes its members to uphold: love, compassion, kindness, honesty. But our stories are also our way of understanding, explaining and coping with the varieties of life experiences, including the dark and tragic ones. We learn how to see ourselves more clearly through the prism of fiction. That special insight gives us the opportunity to change our behavior, to grow, to become better people and a better society. Fiction paves the path to Truth and that path must be protected by all of us.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an NBA Hall of Famer and the league’s all-time leading scorer, is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter.
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