Every morning, I turn on the radio in the vain hope that I might be able to listen to it for more than a few minutes before my five-year-old son walks into the room. Usually, I manage less than a minute before the airwaves fill the room with stories of genocide, rape or murder and I’m forced to turn it off. The same thing happens on the car journey to school. The radio comes on and within seconds I’m lunging for the off button before some barely pubescent popstar can sing in candied-tones, and between orgasmic exhales, about “feeling sexual”.
I tell you this not because I want to launch into a pearl-clutching plea to censor the radio – ultimately, as I’ve discovered, there’s always the off switch – but to point out that while children today are expected to have the emotional maturity to shrug off a daily barrage of sexual and violent imagery, they are simultaneously thought of as too brittle and impressionable to contend with an uncensored Roald Dahl story. (The publisher of Dahl’s books, Puffin, has removed language now deemed offensive from his back catalogue.) On the one hand, we treat children as soon-to-be-adults, necessarily capable of navigating the darker sides of life, and on the other, we view children as innocents requiring protection from the corrupting forces of the adult world.
Take online pornography: a recent study for the children’s commissioner for England found that children as young as nine have been exposed to this damaging material. By the age of 13, 50 per cent of children have accessed it. The long-awaited Online Safety Bill looks like it will pass in April, and require that pornography providers shield children from accessing their sites. But for many it comes too late. It also seems unlikely that this top-down approach will be effective in tackling those borderline examples of pornography that are so seamlessly accessed on social media sites. If the officious mentality of Puffin’s sensitivity readers had only been applied to genuine obscenity, then the damage already done to the minds of many young people could have been averted.
The decision to edit Roald Dahl’s books highlights a central hypocrisy in our culture. While the word “fat” was busily being scratched from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, supermarkets around the country hastily restock their shelves with discounted junk food; for every time an editor removes the word “ugly” from The Twits, thousands of young girls will click on an image of an airbrushed woman; and even though Dahl’s stories have been emptied of gender-specific language, boys will still be bombarded with adverts for protein supplements and girls will be coerced into filling their lips. We shouldn’t waste time scouring old books for offensive content when there is offence enough all around us.