William is no cause for panic

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Another children's classic fell foul of the political correctness vigilantes last week. Just William, who will this summer be celebrated in an 80th anniversary edition, was criticised by the RSPCA for his occasional cruelty to animals (in one of the stories the nasty rotter paints a dog blue). The plaintiffs asked that the stories be revised; a foolish suggestion that could not have provoked more publicity if it had been engineered by the publisher's marketing department. It was greeted with an inevitable blast of outrage from those who assume that "political correctness" is just another word for "spoilsport". Hostile critics claimed that the RSPCA was seeking to turn dear old William into - dread term - a goody-goody.

Bowdlerisation is always the most panicky and patronising response to shifts in moral fashion. When Nahum Tate rewrote the ending of King Lear, enabling Cordelia to survive, he was motivated by little more than a Hollywood desire for a happy ending. And when apartheid South Africa banned The Cosby Show, on the grounds that it subversively depicted blacks as reasonable people, it was only adding fuel to an already pernicious fire.

Literature often scores badly on the moral clapometer. It is easy to berate Jane Austen, say, for her negligent attitude to the slave-owners whose daughters we are beguiled by, or Lawrence for his phallic-seeming vision of the gender war. But the past is the past, even in literature. Looking it in the eye is more grown-up than the let's-pretend urge to wipe it clean.

As it happens, Just William has a lot more to answer for than meanness to dogs. The author, Richmal Crompton, failed to rise above all the prejudices of her time, and her pre-war view of the world has already provoked publishers to drop some of her stories. One, written in 1935, features a hook-nosed and stingy Jewish shopkeeper called Isaacs - a characterisation few would find illuminating these days. William, meanwhile, is by any standards an insufferable little berk, partly because he is one of the patron saints of the idea that boys (yawn) will be boys. Even liberal modern parents still assume that boy children come into the world with catapults and peashooters tucked into their nappies, not to mention a fully-formed scorn for swots, teachers and - worst of all - girly-wurlies. If anything, we ought to be grateful to the RSPCA for reminding us of Just William's essential callowness. He is much more interesting and useful to us as a bad example than he would be if we tucked his shirt in.

The saddest thing about the RSPCA's ill-judged attempt to revise these 80-year-old books is that it puts political correctness in such a bad light. We can't change the past, but an alertness to moral values in contemporary works is something we need more rather than less of. One recent study claimed that children's cartoons featured four times as many male characters as female ones, and added that the boys were active or funny, while the girls were droopy. Are we happy about that? We might not be able to prove that it's harmful, but do we think it will be helpful? Are we proud of that famous British cartoon about two bohemian "flowerpot" guys called Bill and Ben, who were occasionally interrupted by a whining girl called Little Weed?

An average weekend morning of children's television features a body count running into the hundreds; and a Martian visiting our toy shops would assume that lottery money was being thrown behind a mission to turn our children into homicidal maniacs. So it was vaguely cheering to see that Leonardo DiCaprio has announced his intention to avoid violent roles in the future. He has his own urgent reasons for making his discomfort clear. In the 1995 film The Basketball Diaries he played a teenage heroin addict who gunned down his teachers and classmates. Now the film-makers are being sued (for $100m) by parents of three pupils who died in a similar schoolyard shooting in Kentucky in 1997.

DiCaprio said that, while no one knew what effect such violent films might have, he "would rather not take any more chances". That seems deeply sensible. Study after study has failed to indicate any exact correlation between violent screen imagery and real-life bloodshed. The boundaries between the worlds of fantasy violence and everyday life are blurred, ambiguous and hard to navigate; and the seemingly violent times we live in are scarcely more violent than the past, where anyone could be stabbed for a shilling. But it is not possible to be sure, either, that screen murder is merely an innocent jape, a prank no more serious than painting a dog blue. At a time when Britain's children watch four hours of television every day, it is hard to feel sanguine. Political correctness, right-minded and progressive as it is, should have bigger fish to fry than William, however unjust he might seem.