Jane Harley explains at Comment is Free that Oxford University Press hasn’t banned pigs, it just…doesn’t want its education authors to mention them. (Scholars are entirely free to mention them, she says. Oh, whew.)
Given that our editorial guidelines that reference pigs and pork have been in place for as long as I can remember, little did I imagine that they would attract international headlines claiming that the Oxford University Press had banned sausages. To clarify, OUP does not have a blanket ban on pork products in its titles, and we do still publish books about pigs. Although there have been no recent changes to our guidance on this topic, these articles highlighted the fine balance needed when considering students’ cultural and learning needs.
*waves hand in the air* Question, question! We don’t know how long Jane Harley can remember. For all we know, she can remember the OUP editorial guidelines only up to two weeks ago when she started working there. We don’t know; she didn’t tell us. Saying “as long as I can remember” like that, as if we all knew each other, is silly.
And then, this notion about needing such a “fine balance” that you don’t mention pigs – that’s the very thing we’re questioning. We’re not convinced that students have “cultural and learning needs” that depend on not mentioning pigs. We know that’s what OUP intends, but that’s what we think is fatuous.
To address children’s learning needs, it is important that they also reflect the cultural context in which children are learning. In the UK, we take it for granted that we would not include references to sex, violence, or alcohol in our textbooks; to do so would be considered inappropriate and offensive to many. In order to make an impact around the world, there are other sensitivities that, although not necessarily obvious to some of us, are nonetheless extremely important to others.
Are there? And they include pigs? Not pork, but pigs? A religious taboo on eating pork translates to a taboo on the very mention of the live animal? I don’t like eating pineapples, but I don’t quail at the sight or thought of them.
It’s not clear to me that pigs can’t be seen as the very opposite of pork – pork is part of the corpse of a pig; a pig is a live animal. An animal isn’t the same as the meat you can take off its corpse.
While we should be mindful of these cultural sensitivities, a healthy dose of common sense is also required. Cultural taboos must never get in the way of learning needs, which will always be our primary focus. So, for example, a definition of a pig would not be excluded from a dictionary, and we wouldn’t dream of editing out a “pig” character from an historical work of fiction. We also maintain entirely separate guidelines for our academic titles which are relevant to scholarly rather than educational discourse.
Imagine my relief.
What we do, however, is consider avoiding references to a range of topics that could be considered sensitive – in a way that does not compromise quality, or negatively impact learning.
“Negatively impact” – oy. I take it back, I think we can be confident she’s been at OUP longer than two weeks; she’s got the corporate jargon down. God forbid she use the blunt word “damage” or “harm.”
So, for example, if animals are depicted shown in a background illustration, we would think carefully about which animals to choose. In doing so we are able to ensure children remain focused purely on their learning, rather than cultural characteristics.
Meaning, there shouldn’t be pigs in the background. But do they even know that pigs in illustrations bother anyone? I don’t know that.
Managing cultural sensitivities isn’t about reducing educational quality, pandering to minority views, restricting freedom of speech or self-censorship. It’s about ensuring the educational value of our publishing is able to navigate the maze of cultural norms for the benefit of students around the world. We want to ensure we can make the widest possible impact.
I suppose lobsters are forbidden too?