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.
Indeed, those in charge of updating the old songs and stories in order to reflect our (or someone's, anyway) current sensibilities are strangely reticent to reveal the details of what they're doing. The lack of transparency surrounding precisely what is being changed, and who is doing the changing, reveals not just an ideologically-driven desire to meddle with the art of the past, but an unsettling propensity for doing it in the dark. Even in self-congratulatory, highly publicized instances of bowdlerization — as with the recent updates of Roald Dahl's classic children's books to be softer, gentler, and generally un-Dahl-like — the substance of the changes is often left ambiguous until or unless a third party takes it upon himself to do a side-by-side comparison. An announcement in February that Ian Fleming's James Bond novels would be subject to a sensitivity edit spawned questions, largely unanswered, about exactly which lines (or perhaps, entire characters) would be cut and why. When R.L. Stine's work underwent a sensitivity edit, he apparently found out via Twitter — and announced that it was done without his consent. ( "I’ve never changed a word in Goosebumps. Any changes were never shown to me," he replied to a disgruntled fan.)
Some edits are only uncovered when a reader stumbles over a surprise alteration in a familiar text, as when Agatha Christie fans woke up to find that their digital editions of various works, including Death on the Nile, had been stripped overnight of references to race, ethnicity, and certain physical characteristics. (Christie's estate didn't respond to an email requesting comment, but the update appears to have been made unannounced and was only reported on after fans began posting about it online.)
The censorship that animated so much liberal outrage in the pre-internet era seems positively quaint by comparison. A ban here, a burning there, a single work of "offensive" art suppressed from a single library or movie theater or museum wall. It's also a different animal from the recent phenomenon sensitivity reads, in which authors are advised (or held hostage, depending on who you ask) as to the proper portrayal of characters whose culture, race, sexual orientation, or other identity characteristics differ from their own. This is not about shaping contemporary stories at the source; it is about searching through existing, beloved cultural products and editing them into compliance, scrubbing away the norms and mores of the past in favor of the current thing.
All of this is happening at a time when the American news cycle is largely dominated by outrage over incidents more in keeping with our notion of censorship as the purview of right-wing prudes: books pulled en masse from library shelves in Florida, a school administrator fired for showing sixth graders a picture of Michelangelo's David, stone penis and all. But as discouraging as these incidents are, the intense focus on them increasingly seems like a distraction from this other brand of censorship, at once more wide-ranging and insidious, that is working its way through the bowels of the culture, hollowing it from the inside out.
When people in positions of cultural authority no longer agree on the importance of preserving art, in its original form and in keeping with the artist's intent, what results is a wild west ruled by the whims and competing sensibilities of nameless, faceless culture cops, all making a grab for the censor's pen. The line between matters of morality and matters of taste is not just blurry in these cases but entirely nonexistent: if one person is offended by Agatha Christie's sexism, another by her xenophobia, another by her elitism, and still another by her propensity for grisly violence, who decides what to cut and what to keep? How much offense can you strip from Death on the Nile before it's no longer Christie's work?
And in the quest to eliminate outdated attitudes from old books, what new biases will you unwittingly insert?
This would not be the first time that a classic mystery series became the victim of misguided presentism: in 1959, publisher the Stratermeyer Syndicate subjected iconic detective Nancy Drew to the equivalent of a sensitivity edit, out of concerns that the books didn't reflect modern social mores. The new books were shorter and markedly less racist than the 1930s originals, but the biggest changes were to Nancy herself, in response to complaints that she was too "saucy", too "strongheaded", and too prone to daring and dangerous investigative work "involving high-powered cars and expensive perfumes." (Librarians, who then as now evidently considered themselves the ultimate arbiters of what sort of literature should and should not exist, were particularly offended by Nancy's antics: a 1935 article by one Lucy Kinloch called the series "worthless, sordid, sensational, trashy and harmful" and expressed the fervent desire that the Nancy Drew series, having been kept off her library's shelves, would "find its way to the furnace, where it belongs.")
Via email, Liesel Crocker, a book collector and Nancy Drew expert, explains how publishers updated the titular heroine to be "more domestic, calm, and feminine," reflecting the priorities (and anxieties) of 1960s parents when it came to what kind of daughters they were raising: "Language changed from Nancy 'angrily exclaiming' to 'calmly stating.' Where Nancy previously drove as fast as she could in pursuit of a thief, she now 'drove as fast as the speed limit permitted.'"
No doubt, publishers believed that these changes were an improvement on the originals, making the books more relevant, more sensitive, to the sensibilities of modern audiences. And yet, some fifty years later, our idea of a strong female character looks a hell of a lot more like the fierce, saucy 1930s Nancy than the docile rule-follower of the 1960s. For all our well-intentioned desire to situate our fictional heroes — and the authors who created them — on the right side of history, humans are famously terrible at predicting which of our present societal trends will age well, and which will not.
Supporters of this type of editing invariably claim that this is much ado about nothing, and that whatever is done to classic works in the name of sensitivity, the original books still exist in wide distribution for those who want to access them. That's arguably true, at least for those who own physical rather than digital copies, but it also misses the point. Once, whatever value outdated books lost in relevance, they gained as windows into the past. Once, a person could appreciate Agatha Christie's work not just for its masterful plotting and execution but also, anthropologically, as an artifact of the stunning, casual contempt with which people of a certain time, place, and social class once viewed those they considered less-than. Reaching back in time to soften that contempt may make the books more palatable to a certain sort of reader, but it comes at a cost.
And already, the sense that art should be infinitely customizable to reflect either changing mores, personal sensibilities, or both, has taken us to strange places. We currently live in a world where Roald Dahl's name appears on two different versions of The Witches, one of which he actually wrote, and one he would never in a million years have written. Now, when you go back to a beloved book from childhood and find that it reads differently, you may no longer be sure whether it's because you changed, or the story did. Now, an author whose legacy is too fraught and morally complex risks being not just weeded from library shelves, but overwritten, edited out, and stuffed down the memory hole where not even the algorithm can find him. Tech reporter Nicholas De Leon, testing the new Google chatbot, recently tweeted: "Bard refuses to acknowledge the existence of HP Lovecraft. I've tried 8 million questions all to no avail. It's like his entire existence is commented out."
This is what is being eroded: not just the ability to access "offensive" works of art, but something more fundamental. Social trust. Artistic sanctity. Our shared understanding, rooted in historical record, of what is true.
Ah, yes. That's when it began. I can see you still, standing there and saying, "Look. Look at this book by H.P. Lovecraft." And staring at nothing.
You had nothing in your hand!
If you enjoyed this piece, check out a few related pieces from Pirate Wires on the dangerously malleable nature of information on the internet —
Tether, Part I. our dictionary vs. reality, with definitions changed in real-time with clear political intent, and the withering of our shared reality.
Tether, Part II. the simulated reality we are living in, perhaps.
Variant Xi. vanishing UFO stories, Covid variants, and forgetting who we are.
Used to think the worst thing you could do to a book was burn it.
Fantastic essay. The ending left me actually a bit shaken, it is wild that it has come to this