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Expert Comment: Beyond the Dahl Debate - A Reflective Imperative

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Professor David Bolt, Director of the Centre for Culture and Disability Studies at Liverpool Hope University, analyses the Roald Dahl debate, arguing that it is part of a bigger picture around the use of prejudicial language and representation.

The current debate about Puffin Books revising Roald Dahl classic children’s stories tends to swing back and forth from issues of censorship to those of sensitivity. 

On the one side, rewriting works of the past constitutes a diminishment of the original creative expressions while doing absolutely nothing to change social attitudes of the time.  On the other side, in a progressive society any such effort to reduce prejudicial language about gender, race, and disability must be lauded, especially when young people are the most likely to be influenced. 

Drawing on decades of disability experience, I am bound to add that such terminological slurs are often inextricably linked with attitudes if not actions. 

Rarely disconnected from disability experience, moreover, my position as an academic is to stress the importance of profound and expansive engagements with the power of language and the language of power.  That is, after all, the basic stance of any researcher whose method of choice is Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). 

The academic premise of my own work in particular is that the censorship of cultural artefacts, such as Dahl classics, may be problematic but far more so is the critical avoidance of profoundly informed discussions. 

Moving beyond the current Dahl debate, one socially progressive response to such matters is the individual reflection on one’s own relationship with prejudicial language and terminology, what I sometimes call an autocritical contribution to representational discourse. 

Driven by this reflective imperative, in Hope’s (CCDS) a recent supplement to disability studies is designated Autocritical Disability Studies. 

This subfield constitutes a development of the internationally established field of critical disability studies, which has elicited concerns about disability being the start but never the finish, insufficient engagement with ethical and political issues, and insensitivity to individual experiences (Goodley, 2013; Vehmas and Watson, 2014). 

Responding to these important concerns, autocritical disability studies couples critical disability studies with the research method of autoethnography, whereby individual experience is explicitly prioritised.  More specifically, contributors to the subfield of Autocritical Disability Studies may well focus on language and representation but acknowledge, and indeed emphasise, how the positionality and premises of their work are led by disability experience.

As a subfield of disability studies, Autocritical Disability Studies is represented in an eponymous Routledge book series to which CCDS Core Members such as Owen Barden, Leah Burch, David Feeney, Ella Houston, Claire Penketh, and Erin Pritchard have contributed monographs, edited volumes, chapters, and artwork. 

The inaugural volume of the series is entitled Metanarratives of Disability: Culture, Assumed Authority, and the Normative Social Order (Bolt, 2021).  The issue with which this work engages is that the personal narratives of disabled people are often overshadowed by ubiquitous metanarratives of disability. 

On the understanding that due consideration of these personal narratives can help to disrupt the discursive assumptions and generalisations by which social encounters are frequently influenced, the book gathers together authors who have academic expertise and individual or intimate experience of disability. 

Via chapter contributions from new, established, and eminent authors from the United Kingdom, Canada, India, and the United States, multiple metanarratives of disability are explored to investigate the language and actions of assumed authority (Bolt, 2014) and the normative social order from which it derives.

Building conceptually on the inaugural volume, the second in the series is Finding Blindness: International Constructions and Deconstructions (Bolt, 2023).  With chapters by an intercontinental group of contributors, this edited volume explores blindness as an individual understanding on the way to which many formative cultural stations are visited and passed. 

These cultural stations include key moments in education and training; the reflective pursuits of philosophy, aesthetics, and cultural theory; literary works such as autobiography, novels, short stories, drama, and poetry; visual texts ranging from photography to postage stamps; technological developments like television, computer applications, and social media; value systems defined by family and/or religion; and the social phenomena of hate and war. 

Most of the contributors have individual experience of blindness that is nonetheless found to be informed by a multiplicity of sociocultural artefacts.

Likewise building on the inaugural volume, the third in the series is an authored monograph, Midgetism: The Exploitation and Discrimination of People with Dwarfism (Pritchard, 2023).  This work appropriates and repurposes the prejudicial term midget to label the ideology of the metanarrative by which people who have dwarfism often find themselves defined (Pritchard, 2021). 

For example, the tripartite model of disability (Bolt, 2015) is applied to expose the problematic premise that so-called midget entertainment is often listed among non-normative positivisms, from which its social acceptability seems to follow (Pritchard, 2023).  Based on a wealth of individual experience, the book responds to discursive excuses cloaked as reasons for the contemporary endorsement of midgetism.

Also underpinned by direct individual experience, the fourth book in the series is my own authored monograph, Disability Duplicity and the Formative Cultural Identity Politics of Generation X (Bolt, 2024).  This work adapts the concept of cultural stations (Bolt, 2023) and returns to the long decade of the 1970s via the language and texts of everything from play figures and comics to punk rock and alternative comedy. 

The contention is that the formative cultural identity politics of the X generation rendered disability as one of many exchangeable identities, often underpinned by the enforcement of gender norms and racial bias, which thereby implied multiple instances of duplicity that have echoed down the decades.

Presently under contract rather than in production, the fifth and sixth books in the series are further authored monographs, one being Advertising Disability (Houston, Forthcoming).  This work applies a number of concepts from disability activism, theory, and experience to the language and images of multiple advertisements that date back to the 18th century. 

A methodological mix of textual analysis and empirical research conducted with disabled women in the United Kingdom and the United States is thereby employed to uncover how advertising relates to metanarratives and counter-narratives of disability.  What emerges in the book are some of the ways in which disabled people ‘incorporate, resist, and subvert advertising content’ (Houston, 2022, 240), as well as a critical evolution of disability advertisements. 

Comparably interested in metanarratives, as evidenced in the inaugural volume (Barden and Walden, 2021), the sixth book in the series is What Learning Disability Can Teach Us About Being Human (Barden, Forthcoming).  Contextualised by cultural history (Barden, 2000), this authored monograph disrupts the normative social order as it employs the typically marginalised concept of learning disability to explore the central concerns of humanness. 

The premise is that personhood becomes radically shaped by the organising concept of learning disability, a false dichotomy that exposes a series of binary oppositions: human/not fully human; menacing/vulnerable; controlled/abandoned; capable/incapable (Barden, Forthcoming). 

These tensions and contradictions are recognised as a metanarrative whose deconstruction is hastened by individual experiences of learning disability, the result being a more appreciative conceptualisation of humanness. 

My point in this comment is that, whatever the rights and wrongs of the current Dahl debate and others like it, prejudicial language and representations do not exist in a vacuum beyond individual experience, they are part of a bigger picture, a metanarrative, which leaves us all with the reflective imperative to dig into our own attitudes and relations to the normative social order. 

In any case, rewriting children’s classics surely must be better than filling the heads of young people with groundless hate but an alternative is to supplement such material with informed criticality, while doing much more to encourage and endorse radical new writing that crosses the normative divide. 

Please note: All expert comments hosted on the Liverpool Hope University website provide the views and opinions of the author(s), and not the views and opinions of Liverpool Hope University.

Published on 29/03/2023