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Sensitive Readers: A sensible approach to publishing or a worrying disempowerment of freedom of speech?

Pause long enough in a second hand bookshop and it won’t be long before you stumble across a volume that contains stereotyped portrayals of groups of people or views that belong to a bygone era.  The very vocabulary and sentence structure may well suggest antiquity as society evolves around and through us.  Indeed thoughts, assumptions and views that allow us to peer backwards at society that once upon a time was ‘modern’ provide an interesting social history that makes up our fabric of society just as significant historical events clutter our text book timelines.

So now let us turn our attention to the new(ish) phenomena of being able to hire ‘sensitive readers’ (Guardian April 2018).  An editor or an author can hire people to read manuscripts from a specific perspective to ensure that the published work does not offend a particular group of people or indeed, however consciously or unconsciously, propagate a view that some may find unacceptable.  Clearly a second hand bookshop would be ill advised to hire such a service to vet the stock as there would be a very limited selection of books left after such a culling!

Does the very act of editing to avoid offence result in an airbrushing of society so that when ‘modern’ life becomes history a skewed impression will be left?   Some views are unpalatable, some views demonstrate a lack of understanding but that these views exist is undisputed.  They are the ‘truth’ of our society.  We can educate and question.  We can probe and pry, challenging assumptions and through this process of evolution we, the humble members of our ‘modern’ society, are empowered to shape our future and reminisce on our past with clear, untainted glasses.

Could such editing also result in a lack of empowerment?  Rather as the parent makes a home environment as hazard free as possible for their toddler is this in effect what will happen to books?  A ‘safe’ hazard free environment in which we do not need to question because the very source of debate has carefully (albeit for honourable motives) been removed?  A child, at some point, must learn to risk assess autonomously just as the literate adult must make a judgment on what they read.  Books unlock worlds that we, as the engaged reader, have the opportunity to be stimulated by, to discuss, debate, enjoy and bask in the freedom that blossoms from every page.

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