Gaslight: The "Sensitivity Readers" Erasing Western History
an army of nameless, faceless “sensitivity readers,” emboldened by a cannibalistic institutional culture, are altering some of the most beloved works of fiction in the english language
From James Bond and Matilda to R.L. Stine’s library of beloved young adult horrors, an army of Orwellian “sensitivity readers” are quietly altering our most precious texts. Separate from the obvious ethical issues inherent of censorship and manipulation, the notion our cultural artifacts are malleable, now, raises many alarming questions. Chief among them: with no agreed upon sense of history, comprised of a shared (and fixed) western canon, how do we even discuss, let alone learn from the past? And can a society with no shared heritage learn to share anything else?
Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer, Unherd columnist, and the Edgar-nominated author of five novels; her most recent book, You Must Remember This, was released in January. She guests today for Pirate Wires with an exploration of the single most dangerous trend in literature.
There's an iconic scene in the 1944 movie Gaslight, in which Gregory — played to evil sneering perfection by Charles Boyer — is trying to convince his wife, Paula (a luminescent Ingrid Bergman) that she's losing her mind. He's been wearing her down for months, but this is the moment that breaks her: she thinks back to when it began, the day she found a strange letter among the effects of her recently-deceased aunt. She remembers the letter upsetting her husband… and that's when he goes in for the kill.
Gregory: What letter?
Paula: That one I found among the music from that man.
Gregory: Yes, you're right. That's when it began. I can see you still, standing there and saying, "Look. Look at this letter." And staring at nothing.
Gregory: You had nothing in your hand!
Needless to say, Gregory is a liar — and a murderer!— and there was a letter, which Paula eventually finds, thus confirming that she's been sane all along. But imagine if she hadn't. Imagine if her husband destroyed the letter; worse, imagine if he could somehow make it look, definitively, as if it had never existed. Imagine a deepfaked video of Ingrid Bergman saying, look, look at this letter… and indeed, holding nothing in her hand.
I think a lot about Gaslight these days, about that scene, whenever a new censorship story breaks. Even more than the other, obvious analogues — Orwell's 1984 comes to mind of course, as does Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 — there's something about this film that speaks to the terrifying power of narrative, and the unreliability of memory, and the importance of retaining historical records that anchor our shared understanding of what is true.
I am writing this at a moment when I (or at least, someone with the skill and inclination to feed the proper prompts into an AI video generator) could create an alternate-universe version of the film in which poor Paula is genuinely losing her mind— or perhaps, and more in keeping with contemporary sensibilities, one in which she kicks her shitty husband to the curb and becomes a lifestyle influencer. The rise of the streaming media model combined with increasingly advanced editing technology has ushered in a new era, one where it is not only possible to seamlessly, instantly alter an existing work of art, but to do it unannounced, in the dark, quietly snipping away little pieces of the stories, songs and films that live not on physical shelves but on servers in a digital nowheresville. Characters on old movie posters hold up empty hands that used to be holding cigarettes; culturally insensitive scenes are gently massaged into compliance. Gone is the conspicuous 1990s bowdlerization that bleeps out a singer dropping the f-bomb (RIP, radio edit of Nine Inch Nails' "Closer"); offensive lyrics can now be expunged and replaced with auto-tuned alternatives, so seamless that you never even realize what you're missing. In book publishing, sensitivity editors surgically excise outdated or outre attitudes from classic texts (and sometimes insert new ones). The overall effect is like something out of The Matrix, only without the telltale glitches that alert you to something having been changed.