Sensitivity editing and free speech (have nothing to do with each other)

The folks at Fox News have been pretty upset lately. They’re pretty upset to have learned that publishers are going through books looking for things that might offend readers (or potential readers). The f***-your-feelings crowd who mocked snowflakes for being so easily offended are now super offended because publishers like the guys who publish 007 books are trying to keep readers engaged in spite of some antiquated language that’s pretty likely to offend many of today’s readers. Social media has been buzzing over this and the Roald Dahl controversy and other instances of woeness and cancel culture. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally opposed to censorship and I’m a big advocate of the free speech part of the first amendment, but I think the folks at Fox News (and elsewhere) are missing some key points.

Let’s think about what’s happened. A private publisher made a business decision that they would sell more books if they changed the language of the book to avoid words and phrases that weren’t considered offensive at the time the books were written, but are considered offensive today. Do I love that the original art is changed? Probably not so much, but I’m also not going to be all that upset about it. The publisher of Roald Dahl’s books has backed down and will now publish both versions: the original and the version with updated language. It will be interesting to see which one sells the most, so I’m a little excited that they decided to do this. It’s a nice experiment. But, I’m not sure it’s going to be all that enlightening because the subject group might not represent the whole country.

But try to put yourself in the publisher’s shoes. There’s a lot more competition in the young reader world than there was when Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that sales of that commonly read book of my childhood haven’t been great lately. Not necessarily because it feels old and because the language offended some, but simply because it’s old and kids are reading things that are a bit more fresh (Harry Potter is even getting a bit old). Parents might have forgotten about it and there’s not much in the way of new, updated movies that spark interest. Not anymore. Now it’s right up there in lots of people’s minds and parents are remembering how much they liked it as kids, and might be more likely to go get a copy (or pay for a download of a copy) for their kids to read. Some might be happy to have the updated language, and others might want the original, and now they have a choice. But this is all an exercise of the free market. This is what capitalism is supposed to be all about. If the market wants the crass language for kids’ books, then that’s what will sell and publishers will create that content. If the market wants sanitized language for kids’ books, then that’s what will sell and publishers will create that content. The pro-capitalism folks should be applauding these market forces at work, and enjoying watching their beloved free market at work. But instead, they’re calling it censorship and saying that free speech is under attack. Of course, neither is true, and they certainly know that, but they don’t care because they too are selling a product to a specific market, and their market eats this shit up with a spoon.

We’re in an amazing age of information and incredibly sophisticated analyses of purchaser behavior. Companies that aren’t taking advantage of this are missing opportunities. It’s hard for me to believe that large publishers (like the one that publishes Roald Dahl books) doesn’t have complex and frighteningly accurate ways of predicting buyer behavior. Somebody somewhere in the company figured out that snowflake liberals are more likely to buy their books than f***-your-feelings conservatives, so they know they need to cater to the snowflakes, because they can’t sell to the f***-your-feelings guys anyway, even with the old versions of the books that aren’t edited for sensitivity. And now, they can have it both ways. Dahl books are fresh on people’s minds now, which is great for the publisher, and the snowflake liberals can buy them for their kids without worrying about them getting turned off by language and concepts that they’re taught each day are bad. Meanwhile, the f***-our-feelings group can call it a win because the publisher is keeping copies of the original language on the shelves, and there’s no way that they don’t think about buying a copy while it’s fresh in their minds. Even if it’s just a few, it’s still a win for the publisher.

But until some government somewhere punishes them for either version, we’re simply not talking about a free speech issue (at least not the kind that’s protected by our constitution). We’re just talking about business.


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