William Shakespeare’s play "Hamlet" is considered by some to be the single greatest story ever written.
"Hamlet" has it all: ghosts, sword fights, suicide, revenge, lust, murder, philosophy, faith, manipulation, and a climactic bloodbath worthy of a Tarantino film. It’s a masterpiece of both high art and sensationalism, the only play I’ve seen performed live three times.
Not everyone likes "Hamlet," of course. One of its detractors was Soviet premier Joseph Stalin.
“[Stalin] simply didn’t want people watching plays with plots that displeased him,” Shostakovich wrote. “You never know what might pop into the mind of some demented person.”
Stalin didn’t ban the play, however. He merely let it be known he disapproved of "Hamlet" during a rehearsal at the Moscow Art Theater, Stalin’s favorite theater.
“Why is this necessary—playing 'Hamlet' in the Art Theater?” the Soviet leader asked.
That was all it took, Shostakovich said.
Cancel Culture and Fear"Hamlet" is safe in the United States today, fortunately. Yet today’s “cancel culture” has purged many works of art—from Dr. Seuss books and "Gone With the Wind" to Disney movies such as "Peter Pan" and "Dumbo."
Whether these works of art are culturally insensitive is a subjective matter, as is the question of whether "Hamlet" is a morally subversive play. Now, there are those who deny that Dr. Seuss is actually being canceled at all.
“We can debate whether doing this was the right thing, but it’s important to point out a few things,” the film critic Stephen Silver wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The decision was made by the company that owns and controls the books, not by the government, or by a ‘mob’ that pressured it.”
Silver is correct to note there’s a difference between government censorship and self-censorship. But his claim there was no pressure behind the decision warrants scrutiny. (More on that in a moment.)
"Obviously it is not desirable that a government department should have any power of censorship ... but the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the [government] or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves."What Orwell was saying is that fear of public opinion can also result in censorship.
Fear: A More Effective Censor Than Bans?Stalin’s canceling of "Hamlet" showed government bans aren’t the only ways to suppress free expression, or even the most effective. As Shostakovich observed, Stalin’s ability to cancel "Hamlet" with a mere word was a far better demonstration of power than an official state ban. It required no law or formal announcement. All it took was a quiet word and fear, an emotion that Americans today are familiar with.
“Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes,” the letter read.
“We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.”
This climate doesn’t end with writers and academics afraid to offer certain opinions, however. It extends to corporate boardrooms and executive committees, where individuals are being pressured to decide which art is acceptable and which opinions are fit to be shared on platforms.
To be on the wrong side of the debate invites personal destruction. It’s simply easier to agree to remove “harmful” art or fire that employee who raised the ire of the Twitter mob.
Like in Orwell’s "1984," in today’s culture you don’t even have to utter Wrongthink to be condemned for it.
‘Everyone Was Afraid’To be sure, in America today, one doesn’t risk liquidation for refusing to bow to pressure to self-censor works of art. That cannot be said of the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Yet there is a common thread that runs through both cases of censorship: fear.
“Everyone was afraid,” Shostakovich said.
These same words can be applied to those bowing to cancel culture today.
This isn’t to say that Dr. Seuss’s works are or are not culturally insensitive, or that "Hamlet" does or does not contain themes harmful or subversive.
It’s simply to say that fear lurks behind the disappearance of art and the suppression of free expression. For that reason alone, such efforts should be resisted.