Conversing, not canceling, will save free speech

The Muppets are back.

And they are offensive.

That's the message attached to 18 of the 120 episodes of the family variety show, which Disney Plus launched Friday.

You remember them, right? Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, the Swedish Chef? And those crabby old guys in the balcony?

I loved watching the show, which aired from 1977-81. I have absolutely no memory of Johnny Cash singing "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" in a barn decorated with the U.S. flag and the Confederate flag.

Here's part of the warning that appears before the show begins streaming:

"This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together."

Displaying the Confederate flag and using racial stereotypes aren't the only complaints about "The Muppet Show."

Kylee Zempel of The Federalist contends Kermit's "The Rainbow Connections" song is a direct attack on the LGBT community and his complaints about being green are offensive to the BIPOC community. Statler and Waldorf (the crabby old guys!) are white patriarchs and the Swedish Chef is "a glaring example of cultural appropriation," among her other grievances.

She suggests we can never again watch Steve Martin, Jimmy Kimmel or Ellen DeGeneres. (My guess is her list is much longer than that.)

Amazon is making headlines, too, for its decision to ban Ryan Anderson's "When Harry Became Sally," a 2018 book about how society views transgender individuals.

And there's more than one story about teachers who no longer want to teach Shakespeare. One professor in Arizona believes "Merchant of Venice," "Othello" and "Taming of the Shrew" should never again be performed, according to an episode of "Code Switch" on NPR. Other teachers have more general objections about his privileged, white, male, European voice.

What do I make of all this? It's complicated.

Racial stereotypes we once collectively found amusing are now horrifying, and that's a good thing.

I cannot defend portraying Jews or Blacks or women as inferior to white men or causing problems for people who identify as transgender.

On the other hand, I'm not interested in looking for evidence that Kermit is anti-LGBTQ. Nor do I want Zempel telling me which performers to stop watching.

Does the fact that high school students have been forced to read too many books by dead white men mean they shouldn't read any books by dead white men? No.

Should Amazon decide which books should be widely available and which books shouldn't? Absolutely not.

Is Disney's disclaimer perfect? No. (But it's certainly better than Amazon's "Shucks. This product is not available" note for the Audible version of Anderson's book.)

I hope it will help us all remember that the way things were then is not how they are now. And that doesn't mean we have to erase all evidence to the contrary.

We need to decide if we truly value free speech, in all its brilliant, wonderful, distasteful, offensive forms. Or if we'd prefer to let a certain group decide what is and is not appropriate to say and write and sing and draw.

When you agree with those making the decision, the choice might seem easy. But what happens when you disagree and it is your voice that is silenced?

I hope and pray we never find out.

- Pamela Lannom is editor

of The Hinsdalean.

Readers can email her at

[email protected].

Author Bio

Author photo

Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean