If most of the world has read George Orwell as a cautionary tale, our woke folk apparently read him as a how-to kit; hence the recent news that Puffin Books, with the assistance of "sensitivity readers" (a euphemism that even Orwell couldn't match), redid the books of Roald Dahl in order to make them consistent with woke standards.
The publisher backtracked a bit in response to the subsequent backlash but we should know by now that when it comes to matters woke, what was done to "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Matilda" was just the first salvo.
By the very logic of the thing, there will be more and juicier targets, more demands for rewriting and more outright suppression (Ian Fleming's James Bond books are also reportedly being rewritten in similar fashion for similar reasons) because once you accept the premise that we should redo any cultural works that fail to measure up to the latest sensibilities, there can be no stopping point.
It might begin with Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming, but can't help to also arrive at Shakespeare, Hitchcock, Beethoven, and Sinatra. It is even conceivable that art hanging in our museums can be repainted or perhaps taken down and stored in some back room reserved for that which should not be allowed to be seen for fear of causing trauma.
The point is that there is no point, given all the incentives for being offended, where we will all be able to say "enough, we've taken this too far." Woke virtue-signaling virtually guarantees that however far matters have gone, there will always be someone wishing to demonstrate greater commitment to the cause by demanding to go further. Once the virtue bidding war begins, if Shakespeare then Dante, if Beethoven then Bach too, and if The Beatles, then certainly The Rolling Stones and Sex Pistols, and for that matter Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer.
There is, in short, a great deal in our cultural past and present to be conceivably offended by, if offense is what you seek and always offended you wish to be. The legion of censors will always grow and find more to censor once the censorship begins and the concept itself ceases to be offensive.
It already makes for an interesting thought experiment to try to identify any movie or book from the past several decades that doesn't have something in it that could conceivably offend someone somewhere, so long as we inspect them in sufficiently thorough fashion and adopt a definition of "offense" that is elastic because it's entirely in the eye of the beholder.
If just about anything that has gone before, and so much of what surrounds us today, can be construed as imperfect and thus offensive by certain highly stringent standards, we arrive at the realization that the only "end" to it all will be the end of all culture. If woke standards are constantly evolving, what is rewritten today will have to be rewritten again tomorrow, such that nothing remains of the original, save a constant rewriting process.
Ultimately, there would be no reason to settle for mere tinkering in the form of edits, since, once the temptation to make over has been succumbed to, we could even alter plot lines and take out and/or add characters to books or movies to make them more "inclusive" and "look more like America."
Bad Black characters could be simply deleted and replaced by (always) good and admirable Black characters and (always good and admirable) transgender characters could be added to books and movies and operas which don't have them, on the grounds that their absence "harms" and further "marginalizes" the LGBT+ community. Every book or movie would have the obligatory kind gay man and noble Black woman, because a failure to do so would be judged offensive.
As this spreads and devours ever more of our culture, those of us fortunate to have extensive home libraries will likely begin to feel like medieval monks preserving our heritage against the assaults of the barbarians.
Reading original works will become a furtive exercise and taking a trip down the Mississippi with the unexpurgated "Huck Finn" or allowing your kids to read the unexpurgated "Goosebumps" will be regarded as forms of political subversion.
In the late, unlamented Soviet Union, Stalinist "socialist realism" dictated that all culture had to not only be vetted for (ideologically) offensive content but also contain themes that furthered the cause of building the earthly utopia. The narrow confines for artistic expression and subsequent chilling effect inevitably destroyed what had once been a flourishing Russian artistic and cultural scene.
That a different outcome would occur under woke totalitarianism than under Stalinist totalitarianism is far from evident, for it is the nature of totalitarianism per se that matters, not so much its particular ideological stuffing.
When it comes to art and culture, a little censorship is akin to being a little pregnant. Censorship is essentially an all-or-nothing binary proposition; once you begin you can't stop until you have gone all the way and thereby arrived at a place no sane person would choose as a destination.
So we either leave art and literature alone or we commence to light the bonfires.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.