Eva in Upper 4 has written an excellent entry to the John Locke essay prize junior competition run by Princeton and Oxford universities: 2021 Essay Competition | johnlockeinstitute

Eva chose the essay title: Before a certain time almost everybody would have held some belief which we now find repugnant. Does this mean we cannot admire or commemorate the people who helped to shape the modern world?

In her interpretation of the question she compared the accomplishments of Roald Dahl, James Watson and Wagner and their beliefs.

We have received the following feedback on her submission:

“Thank you for sending across Eva’s essay, it made for a very interesting read on a topic that couldn’t be more relevant but with many layers and complexities to discuss. She should be very pleased with the argument she has produced”

You can read the essay in full below.  Well done Eva!

Before a certain time almost everybody would have held some belief which we now find repugnant. Does this mean we cannot admire or commemorate the people who helped to shape the modern world?

The phrase ‘cancel culture’ is increasingly being used in conversation and on social media. It is a term to describe, as the Cambridge Dictionary puts it, the act of completely rejecting and stopping supporting someone because they have said or done something that offends you [1]. It is important to know how far this is a good thing and when it becomes extreme which is why in this essay, I will be looking at two examples of people with repugnant views who should potentially not be accepted for their views but whose work is still ground-breaking. I will review exactly what they have said, if what they have said is offensive enough to disregard them as someone to admire and look purely at the contributions, they have given us. I believe that if everyone who has said something repugnant is taken out of history, we wouldn’t be left with any history to study. Of course, there is a line to be drawn between debate and spreading terrible messages; the discussion on whether we can congratulate a hugely influential person despite repugnant views they believe in is one that comes up in many forms of media.

Can you separate the art from the artist?

In December 2020, the family and foundation of famous children’s author Roald Dahl issued an apology stating ‘[they] deeply apologise for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitic statements.’ [2] This has brought up the long-standing debate of whether we can separate art from the artist. Throughout his life, Dahl made many anti-Semitic comments even stating ‘I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic.’[3] He also made many other hurtful comments even saying that he supported Hitler’s and the Nazis’ view of Jewish people and the genocide they committed against Jews [4]. Dahl received a letter from some of his admirers calling out his anti-Semitism, stating ‘We love your books, but you don’t like us because we are Jews. That offends us! Can you please change your mind about what you said about Jews.’[5] At this point, it would have been the perfect time to reconcile his past views especially as this letter was sent not too long before his death and society had moved even further away from his ideas being okay- this is not to say they were ever accepted by the society that he lived in but that society is ever-changing and had moved on even further. However, he did not take this opportunity to withdraw his views. His books are still a huge part of children’s lives with children reading his books in school, watching film and TV adaptations, even listening to musicals inspired by his books. He is, indisputably, one of the most popular children’s authors but can we still celebrate his books without acknowledging his repugnant view?

To help answer this question it would be useful to look at a similar case involving the composer Wagner. Wagner was also extremely anti-Semitic and was very closely involved with the Nazi party but in 2011, after years of his music being unofficially banned in Israel, the Israeli chamber orchestra played a piece composed by him at the music concert Bayreuth [6]. The music director of this concert stated that though Wagner’s views were ‘terrible’ it was time to ‘divide the man from his art’. This was a huge step forward, but Wagner is still played very infrequently in Israel. In 2018, an Israeli radio station apologised after playing one of Wagner’s compositions [7] – the idea of playing his music is still controversial but slowly the impression is changing. It is possible to separate a person from the work they create even if it means accepting, they did wrong but also acknowledging that they were an excellent artist. Is this still the case when their views slip into the media they create?

It is easy to say that, in Wagner’s case, one can still appreciate his music as it can easily be separated from his ideals and the man himself. In Roald Dahl’s case, this is harder as some of those ideas, even if unintentionally, have made their way into his writing which is currently read by thousands of children each year. There are many throw away anti-Semitic, racist and sexist comments, portrayals of characters and situations in his writing. His representation of women in The Witches or Cinderella in Revolting Rhymes aren’t in any way progressive. The Witches portrays women as grotesque and unearthly beings who harm anyone who gets in their way and Cinderella is called a ‘dirty slut’ [8] which is a negative and degrading comment. If a modern-day author described a woman as a ‘dirty slut’ they would instantly get backlash and their book would certainly not be shown to children. Why is this not the case with Roald Dahl?

There is no reason to still be celebrating these stereotypes today when there are plenty of other books, written more recently with better messages and values. Showing some of these harmful stereotypes to young children isn’t a good practice, not to say that all his work should be taken down, but that the brain of a young child is ever-growing and expanding; some of his work might back up already emerging biases created from the prejudices in this society and in popular culture. Moving forward in this ever-scrutinising world, it will be beneficial to review his work and assess if it is necessary to be praising all his books when some contain harmful content. All in all, it is okay to still embrace and admire a person’s art even if they were a terrible person but once those views seep into their work and become noticeably opposite to the values the society believes in, the art should be condemned as well as the artist’s personal opinions.

How should controversial ideas and opinions be weighed against huge scientific contributions?

Dr James Watson, along with the scientist Francis Crick and with huge reliance on the work of Rosalind Franklin, was the first person to discover the double helix formation of DNA in 1953. This discovery has led to huge progression in genealogy, with many other aspects of Biology also relying upon it. It is even referred to in aspects of forensics to aspects of biodiversity. Since that discovery, Watson has received a noble prize in 1962 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom [9].

The scientist behind the invention was far from perfect. In 2007, he said in an interview ‘[he was] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa’ because ‘all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as [white people]— whereas all the testing says not really.’[10] This is a scientifically untrue and degrading statement that many people find extremely offensive. He later said, ‘I can only apologise unreservedly.’ [11] when talking about that comment. This issue could be dismissed or attributed to misjudgement of the situation and miscommunication but in 2019, a documentary called Decoding Watson was released in which Watson states that there is a difference, intellectually, between white and black people [12]. It is obvious that he stands by his opinion that white people are more intelligent than black people. He justifies this opinion by the claim that there is proof, but no such proof exists.

This racism is not the only hugely offensive thing he has said over the years. In an interview in 1997, he said that ‘If you could find the gene which determines sexuality and a woman decides she doesn’t want a homosexual child, well, let her [abort the child]’.[13] He was suggesting that aborting children purely based on their sexuality should be accepted. This, rightly, sparked outrage from the LGBTQ+ community. He said in a later interview ‘I simply said that women in that situation should have a choice over whether or not to abort. I didn’t say that foetuses found to have a gay gene should be aborted.'[14] This is still implying that you should be allowed to abort based on the sexuality of your unborn child which is offensive and extremely harmful to the LGBT+ community. It might be less shocking if he had said this in the 60s when homosexuality was a criminal offence in Britain and society was not in any way accepting of the LGBTQ+ community but society had moved on by the late 90s which was when these views were made public. Furthermore, he has made other extremely misogynistic comments throughout his career.

We cannot discount or diminish the key role he played in huge scientific discoveries that have shaped the modern way of thinking about science, but we can condemn Watson for saying these unjustified, hurtful comments. The indisputable notion that his views aren’t accepted in the modern world needs to be considered and action needs to be taken to stop these ideas from being normalised which is why in 2007, he was suspended as Chancellor of Cold Spring Harbour laboratory [15] because of his remarks surrounding race and in 2014, he sold his noble prize [16]. This shows that many scientific institutions are taking it upon themselves to lesser the prestige surrounding Watson. It is okay to learn about him as an amazing scientist without applauding him as an amazing man.

In the current society, it is widely agreed that the harmful views talked about in this essay are not accepted. In the cases above the people lived in a society that, at the time of their remarks, was not tolerant of the views conveyed in those remarks. It should not be the case that a misogynistic 18th scientist is suddenly condemned for their beliefs as they lived in a society where misogyny was the norm – it would be the equivalent of condemning an aristocratic woman from the 18th century for not being ‘proactive’ and getting a job. One can condemn a 21st century scientist for being misogynistic as we live in a society where misogyny is wholly unacceptable. In James Watson’s case, I believe that he should not be seen as a great and erudite person to look up to, he should not be over-glorified; he should be seen for who and what he is: an amazing scientist that has extremely repugnant views. It is possible to agree that he hugely helped scientific progression without praising him as a great role model.

Similarly, with the case of Roald Dahl, it is okay to still create film adaptations of some of his more child-appropriate works without agreeing that his beliefs were good. This is what the royal mint did when, in 2014, they decided not to create a commemorative coin celebrating Roald Dahl because of his blatant anti-Semitism [17] that has offended many people and shouldn’t be rewarded or accepted. In addition to that, many of the original controversial interviews with these two figures in which they state their repugnant views have been taken down which is a necessary step forwards as, by keeping the interviews up, acceptance is shown towards the person and view – it is a way of saying, like with the argument in this essay, that that they can still ‘admire’ and ‘commemorate’ the person’s work and the way they helped shape the modern world but they do not ‘admire’ and ‘commemorate’ the person themselves.


[1] Cambridge dictionary: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/cancel-culture: accessed May 2021

[2]Roald Dahl website: https://www.roalddahl.com/global/rdsc-and-family-notice accessed May 2021

[3] Guardian article: Harriet Sherwood https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/dec/06/roald-dahl-family-apologises-for-his-antisemitism accessed May 2021

[4] Newstatesman article: Eleanor Margonis https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2018/11/i-d-still-read-roald-dahl-s-books-my-children-we-can-t-forget-he-was-anti-semite : accessed May 2021

[5] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/roald-dahls-family-posts-quiet-apology-for-antisemitism-ftbx9wj09

[6] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-14272620

[7] BBC article https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-45393904 accessed May 2021

[8] Revolting Rhymes: Roald Dahl:

https://www.familyfriendpoems.com/poem/cinderella-by-roald-dahl: accessed May 2021

[9] MLA style: James Watson biographical: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1962/watson/biographical/: accessed May 2021

[10] The Times article: Charlotte Hunt Grubbe: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-elementary-dna-of-dr-watson-gllb6w2vpdr: accessed May 2021

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/oct/18/uk.research

[12] Vox Article: Julia Belloz: https://www.vox.com/2019/1/15/18182530/james-watson-racist: accessed May 2021

[13] Independent article: Josh Gabbattis: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/james-watson-racism-sexism-dna-race-intelligence-genetics-double-helix-a8725556.html: accessed May 2021

[14] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/nobel-winner-backs-abortion-for-any-reason-1279136.html

[15] AAAS Science: Yudhijit Bhattacharjee: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2007/10/watson-loses-cold-spring-harbor-post: accessed May 2021

[16] BBC News article: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-30346903: accessed May 2021

[17] The Guardian news article: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/06/royal-mint-roald-dahl-coin-antisemitic-views: accessed May 2021