Debate: Sensitivity Reading: Absurd Censorship or Coercive Intervention?

Sensitivity reading refers to the targeted checking of books for politically correct pronunciation.

Debate: Sensitivity Reading: Absurd Censorship or Coercive Intervention?

Sensitivity reading refers to the targeted checking of books for politically correct pronunciation. This sensitive editing of new works is intended to avoid racist expressions and dangerous stereotypes. The goal: Literature should be designed to be as non-discriminatory as possible. Special agencies offer this form of proofreading, in which care is taken to ensure that the person proofreading is themselves part of the marginalized groups to which the sensitive reading relates. For example: If an author writes something about a Muslim person, a Muslim person can be placed through an agency and hired as a sensitivity reader.

The book industry, it seems, is divided on the issue of sensitivity reading. While some publishers and authors use sensitivity readers for almost all of their works, others completely reject sensitive editing of their works. For example, writer and best-selling author Salman Rushdie spoke out extremely critically on Twitter after the Puffin publishing house had checked Roald Dahl's children's books for critical language and then changed some passages. The Puffin publishing house explained in February 2023 that issues such as weight, mental health, violence, gender and skin color were affected. Words like “fat” and “ugly” were completely eliminated from the works. Changes that go too far for many critics.

Rushdie described the interventions as “absurd censorship.” According to the author, the publisher should be ashamed of having changed the books. Many users agreed. Andreas Steinhöfel, the German translator of the Dahl texts, also shared Rushdie's opinion. He went one step further and described the change in the Dahl texts as a "falsification of art and history," according to Deutschlandfunk. In this context, he spoke of measures that are only known from a totalitarian system.

However, the quarrels surrounding the Dahl works are just one example and part of a larger discussion. German publishers are also repeatedly confronted with the debate surrounding sensitivity readers. When asked by Stern, Simon Decot, Director of Programs at Bastei Lübbe Verlag, replied that working with sensitivity readers is an important tool for the publisher in the editing process of some titles - especially when it comes to reflecting diversity and authentically representing different groups of people represent. "With their expertise, sensitivity readers support us and our authors in avoiding prejudice, stigmatization and misinformation. This means checking the texts for potentially discriminatory content as well as for inclusive language use."

Similar to Bastei Lübbe Verlag, other publishers are now also doing the same thing, sometimes more and sometimes less strongly committed to the use of sensitive readers. The author Dr. Lisa Pychlau-Ezli thinks this development is good. She studied German and sports science in Frankfurt, received her doctorate in German medieval studies and now works freelance as a literary critic and in the publishing industry. She has the book “Who is allowed into Villa Kunterbunt?” published in which she writes about dealing with racism in children's books. She told Stern: "Children's media very often reproduce forms of discrimination such as racism, anti-Semitism or sexism and lookism." This is exactly where a detailed discussion of the critical parts of various classics could help. “Many people associate this term with restrictions, bans or cancel culture. But that’s not what it’s about,” says Dr. Pychlau. "What is sometimes portrayed here as an extreme form of political correctness is, in principle, simply the inclusion of groups that were previously not consulted."

The literary critic advocates education and early confrontation with unpleasant topics such as racism, anti-Semitism and sexism. That's why she emphasizes to stern how important children's books are in this debate. This is the only way to “avoid racist socialization from the start.”

To make her point clear, she gives a concrete example: In many children's books, black, Asian and Muslim children have little to no representation. "White German children learn that only they are "normal" and black children are "different" and don't really belong." At the same time, children from marginalized groups lack the opportunity to see themselves positively represented in such books. “These mechanisms operate very subtly, so that they are not recognized and reflected at first glance,” explains Lisa Pychlau. She concludes from this that there is a danger that children will internalize racism through incorrect representation in children's books and thus inevitably reproduce it themselves in the future. She is therefore of the opinion that real discrimination could actually be limited if texts for children were kept free of discrimination.

Although she supports the critical examination of stereotypical texts, she also explains that, in her opinion, sensitivity reading should not be carried out across the board for every book. Because “every book is unique”. In their eyes, simply removing problematic passages from texts is a lazy solution.

For an extreme example, journalist Deniz Yücel used Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf". If this book were subjected to a sensitivity reading, it could be read without anti-Semitism. However, according to Yücel, that would make no sense and would not work in the context of the book. Conclusion: A sensitivity reading is not suitable for every text. In order to find the right texts, Lisa Pychlau always asks herself two questions: "Do we really want to pass on racism or anti-Semitism to children in texts? Or are we dealing with a text that can be placed in a historical context by knowledgeable adults ?"

After the criticism of the modified Roald Dahl works, the Puffin publishing house explained that the new editions were primarily intended for children who were just beginning to discover literature for themselves and who therefore should not come into contact with such critical statements. The publisher also wants to keep the original versions in its range. The audience can decide for themselves which version they want to buy and read.

Sources: “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, “Welt”, “Deutschlandfunk”