Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What censorship isn't...and is

Every year, the American Library Association does its best to whip us into a frenzy of outrage with their breathless announcement of the books that have been "challenged" during the past year. Angry cries of "Censorship!" are often heard in the literary blogisphere and elsewhere, and to tell you the truth, I find those tantrums annoying. So what if a school board votes to remove Huckleberry Finn (a book I love) from its middle-school curriculum? Is it so difficult to understand that many parents might be uncomfortable with the book's racial content and not want it pushed in their children's faces? If you want your kids to read the book, can't you buy a copy or borrow it from your public library? Why should we expose all kids to a book so many find upsetting?

Protecting your children from exposure to materials you believe might undermine the values you're trying to teach is not censorship. It's parenting.

Many of my writer friends have raged at WalMart for its refusal to carry books with "steamy" covers it believes will offend a large portion of its customers. But nobody's making my friends shop at WalMart, and nobody's stopping them from purchasing those "banned" books at Barnes and Noble or another store.

Refusing to carry certain products in order to keep the bulk of your customer base happy is not censorship. It's business.

This is censorship:

Dozens of literary masterpieces and international bestsellers have been banned in Iran in a dramatic rise in censorship that has plunged the country's publishing industry into crisis.

Companies that once specialised in popular fiction and other money-spinners are being restricted to academic texts under a cultural freeze instigated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Several thousand new and previously published works have been blacklisted by Iran's culture and Islamic guidance ministry, which vets all books.

Read more in The Guardian.

Here in the U.S., we have the right to buy and read whatever books we want. Sure, some titles are unavailable in school libraries and in stores like WalMart. Occasionally, as happened with the O.J. Simpson book, we even see independent booksellers refuse on moral grounds to stock certain titles. But while it may not always be easy to obtain a controversial book, there's a difference between being inconvenienced and being prohibited from buying and reading what we want. There's a huge difference.

Just ask an Iranian.


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12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Whoa! You nailed it, lady! You are absolutely right.

BJ Hoff said...

Great post. ("Great posts," as you may have noticed, seem to fall in the category of those with which I agree ....)

Seriously--very insightful, Brenda.

BJ

Danica/Dream said...

Really good point, Brenda! We whine about so many things that we take for granted, and yet we're really blessed that we have it to begin with. Thanks for the reminder. :)

Jennifer Hudson Taylor said...

Your post is so true. This is a very thought provoking topic.

Neal said...

You said it all Brenda. And you said it well, as always.

Brenda Coulter said...

Well, it's downright heartwarming to see how many intelligent people read this blog.
;-)

Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to comment.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Huckleberry Finn is a novel that exists in a historical context, a context that can easily be explained to students.

Also, if the school referred to is a public one, it is state-supported, and a decision to remove the novel from the curriculum (which presumably, would be accompanied by its removal from that school's library) constitutes government censorship.

The fact that the book remains available elsewhere is irrelevant, because it will not be able to be read and used in the context of a specific lesson whose meaning and relevance may depend on a familiarity with the book.

Based on your rational, every book that even one parent musters an objection to can be removed because requiring its reading is objectionable to someone, somewhere.

Similarly, we should remove many, if not all, books from the public library, because they are potentially offensive to someone. After all, you can still buy the books if you try hard enough.

Brenda Coulter said...

Huckleberry Finn is a novel that exists in a historical context, a context that can easily be explained to students.

Oh, I agree. But I'm a firm supporter of the right of parents to determine what and how their own children are taught. I'm not going to argue with a woman who believes reading Huckleberry Finn will damage her child's self esteem. It's a simple matter for that child's teacher to give her an alternative reading assignment.

Based on your rational, every book that even one parent musters an objection to can be removed because requiring its reading is objectionable to someone, somewhere.

Not at all. You mistake me, Peter, by assuming I'm in favor of the wholesale removal of books from school libraries. But there are such things as community standards regarding decency and morality, and it's the American way to argue over where those lines should be drawn.
;-)

I'm just calling for a little perspective here. We Americans know nothing about the horrible oppression of state censorship.

pacatrue said...

Woo-hoo, I get to disagree! I always agree with you, so this is my big break!

While I very much get your point about censorship being much stronger and pervasive in many other places, and therefore that Americans should maintain a healthy sense of perspective, that does not mean that censorship in the U.S isn't real. To stretch the analogy, a woman is being treated poorly by her husband if he refuses to participate in any household activities, earns no income to support the family, and yells at her every morning. This is true even if a wife is being beaten next door. The man is not as bad of a husband as the abusive one, and that perspective should be remembered, but he's still got some serious flaws.

In the same way, if a public school, funded by the government and providing an education to all Americans, removes books from their library because some number of parents doesn't like their content, then it remains censorship, regardless of the fact that Iran is 80 times worse. In the example of Huck Finn, this is a book that children should have access to as part of getting an education. Their ability to access it has been removed because some number of people didn't like the book. Even though it could be worse, it remains censorship.

Of course, these things are always slopes. Let's say you remove a book from a school library and decide that's OK because it's available at the public library. Well, we can apply the same moral argument to public libraries as well. Communities have the ability to argue over the moral line and not carry a book they do not like in the public library as well. If that works, then the book is no longer in a library, but, hey, they can always order it online, right? But now we start getting into a territory where the poor have access only to what other people think they should have access to, and the non-poor get access to what they want. It gets really hard to know where to draw these lines. So in the end, why not just go back to the beginning and allow books with true merit be allowed in the school library - even if they offend some people? The problem with removing books from public places due to one's right to parent is that you are also parenting someone else's children, which you do not have a right to do.

Ooh, but I agree on the business carrying the books they want part.

Brenda Coulter said...

In the same way, if a public school, funded by the government and providing an education to all Americans, removes books from their library because some number of parents doesn't like their content, then it remains censorship....

Okay. There are people in this world who believe that young children should have free access to all printed materials, including pornography. Are the school libraries that refuse to shelve pornography practicing censorship?

Well...yes. And no.

Of course, these things are always slopes.

Exactly. ;-)

The problem with removing books from public places due to one's right to parent is that you are also parenting someone else's children, which you do not have a right to do.

Not at all. There's a difference between the parent who quietly insists her child be allowed to opt out of a classroom assignment and the community group that lobbies to have a book removed from a school library. In the first case, no other children are being affected, so you can hardly call that "parenting someone else's children." As for the second example, don't our communities have the right to set their own standards--based on the majority opinion--for things like gambling, selling alcohol, prostitution...and what books are available in school libraries?

I have the greatest respect for you, Paca (and Peter), but you guys aren't going to budge me on these points.

pacatrue said...

I agree very much that there is a difference between a parent opting their child out of reading a specific book and removing a book from the library so that no one has access to it (in that library). I had a couple sentences about that but removed them since my comment was long enough. To be honest, I have no idea on the impact of parents choosing other material for their students to read, so I have nothing useful to say. We might just agree there.

For removing books from libraries, I think a lot of it comes down to "why does a library buy any book?" A library clearly cannot buy or hold every book. Moreover, they don't just open up Books in Print and choose a random list until their budget's done. They are using some sort of criteria to guide acquisitions.

But what are these criteria? It's not just popularity, though that should rightfully be a part of it. Instead, there is also some idea, it seems, of worth. Some books have merit and should be available to people of varying ages. Defining those criteria is exceedingly difficult, I'm sure, but they are both necessary and in use. And so the difference between a Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye and a porn mag like Hustler is not just one of moral offense but also comes from the fact that Hustler offers very little of merit to its readers. Unfortunately, this isn't to say that Hustler can have no merit at all. It's probably an insight into a whole host of sociological issues. But on a limited budget Huck Finn offers far more. And so Huck brings a whole host of things that are worth having plus a negative that it is offensive to some. Hustler is offensive to most and brings very little that's positive.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that when libraries choose books they should use these ideas of the worth of a book and try to maximize that, even when some of those worthy books could cause offense. If a book is of sufficient merit, it might trump the rights of even a majority to choose the materials available to them based on community standards.

And I should say that I have the greatest respect for you and your position on the matter as well, so I hope I didn't come off as lecturing or attacking. I think it's a really interesting question and an important one, so it seems useful to get both opinions out there so that people can choose what they think is right.

Brenda Coulter said...

I really don't have time to argue today, but I can't resist this:

If a book is of sufficient merit, it might trump the rights of even a majority to choose the materials available to them based on community standards.

When it comes to books, "sufficient merit" isn't a measurable quality, but a judgment call. Any two people might evaluate the same book very differently, which is why the wider community must be able to veto the inclusion of materials it deems exceedingly offensive to its citizens. A book detailing how to kill your mother with a chainsaw might be extremely well written, but the idiot librarian who buys a copy because it's "good literature" should have to account to somebody for her actions. ;-)

I hope I didn't come off as lecturing or attacking.

Not at all, Paca. It's a pleasure to argue with someone who makes interesting comments and who refrains from giving or taking offense at the slightest provocation. The blogisphere needs more people like you.