Thursday, September 30, 2010

But... But... What if it's a really horrible book? Can we ban it then?

So I asked myself this really hard question:

Is there ANY book I'd support banning?

Is there ANY legitimate argument for keeping a book away from readers so they don't even get a chance to decide on their own if it has any merit?

Parents can certainly talk with their kids about what they feel their kids are ready to read and what they want their kids to wait to read, but is there ever a moment when NO ONE should be allowed to read something?

If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm a pretty liberal. But this question reminds me a bit of the ACLU defending the right of Neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois. I cringed when I heard about it, but I had to admire the ACLU sticking to the principle of free speech. And yet...

What about lies? There's a bunch of homophobic books out there that say that being gay is a choice and that religion can "fix" gay people - that's a lie. Being honest about being gay is the choice - our emotional and physical attraction is hard-wired. And the "fix" they offer is to deny the truth of being gay and go back to the closet. Those are books that I'd be very uncomfortable seeing in my local library's YA section. I think they're hurtful. And I'd probably read them and wish they'd never been written. But would I want them pulled from the collection?

What about hate speech? If a book was all about putting down a minority group and blaming them for everything wrong, I'd be horrified if my kid came home with it from the library.

What about incitement to violence? If a book was telling its readers that hurting others was the solution to anything, I'd want to keep that idea from spreading, wouldn't I?

And yet...

Would banning any of those books actually keep those ideas from the world?

If the idea is to be able to filter the books our own kids read - to help them interpret and process the difficult stuff that might come up - shouldn't we be able to read Hitler's Mein Kampf and dissect the mutation of logic to genocide? Are we fetishizing ideas like violence is the answer if we restrict access to The Anarchist's Cookbook - should we not be able to discourse about ideas that we find horrible? And with a world that all too often turns to violence and hatred of the "other," shouldn't we be able to speak truth to lies?

From my liberal position, I struggle with this.

I struggle with the idea that these might be the only books that a kid besides mine might ever read about being Jewish, or being disempowered, or being gay. I know I'll help my kid navigate the world of books and ideas. But what about everyone else's kids? Might not those horrible ideas, those terrible solutions, and those damaging lies take root?

They might.

But it just might be the risk we must take as a culture - because if we start banning things that might offend someone - if we ban every book that might offend anyone - there will be no stop, until the only books left are pablum.

What do YOU think? Is there ANY instance where banning a book is the right thing to do?


ps- I found the locked book image here.


Unknown said...

I've struggled with this question, too, and for me it comes down to this: as a feminist, I am strongly pro-choice, because I believe we should trust people to make informed decisions on their own. Usually this applies to abortion and other reproductive rights, but it also extends to other choices.

Banning books makes a choice for other people, saying "I don't trust you with this information; I think you'll make a bad decision." I can choose not to read it, and I can even make that choice for my young (hypothetical) children, because that's a parent's job (though I don't think my parents ever limited what I read. I was pretty good at putting down a book when it was getting too far over my head, and my mom did take me to see RENT when I was 13). I don't always think those parents are making great choices when they declare a book off limits, but if I don't want them to judge my family then I feel I shouldn't be too judgey of theirs.

Kate @Midnight Book Girl said...

I don't think there is any book that should be outright banned, no matter how horrible and ignorant it might be. You're right, there's a lot of books out there with messages about how wrong homosexuality is, but there's parents out there teaching the same message to their kids. I find that disturbing, but they're entitled to their opinions, vile though they may be. Banning books is like trying to regulate a person's thoughts and ideas. And I would not want to live in that kind of world, so I'll defend the books that are banned or challenged, no matter my personal opinion on them.

Kyle said...

Not to make light of your post, but when I read the heading a bunch of books popped into my head that I would like to ban because they are, well, bad.

In regards to banning books that promote hate and marginalizing a group I agree with you. As much as I loathe what is in these books, and on TV shows that do the same I cannot support banning them. If we do we have lost to the people that support hate. My goal as an uncle, teacher and citizen is to teach tolerance.

Lisa Jenn Bigelow said...

Speaking from a public library standpoint, public libraries have a responsibility to represent the multiple points of view held in their communities. Fair and balanced, etc.

That said, most libraries have in place a collection development policy that filters out most extremist literature. Most libraries purchase books through mainstream distributors and often based on professional reviews. The books that get those reviews are usually published by mainstream publishers. So you'd need a skillfully written book on a salable topic for it to have a shot at getting on library shelves in the first place...

...unless a patron specifically requests it. This is another time the collection development policy can be useful ("Does this material fit our standards for purchase, regardless of how I feel about it?"), but Jamie LaRue, big-time librarian and intellectual freedom fighter from Colorado, argues that one of the best responses to patrons who insist on challenging books they disagree with is to buy books they agree with -- even if it's from a small, politically-motivated press. Then patrons can't claim a bias.

It's a trade-off because then those books are on the shelf... but LaRue's argument is that those patrons will hold libraries in higher esteem and feel that their points of view are respected. They become library allies instead of library enemies. Does it work? I don't know, but I can hope. Regardless, controlling what people can and can't say, read and can't read, etc., is about the scariest thing I can see happening to our country.

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

Angela, and Kate, yes, I agree - the crux of the matter is this "judging" that seems to happen with books and opinions that diverge from our own. And it's really not about that.

Kyle, I think tolerance is a first step. Perhaps understanding would be the second?

Lisa Jenn, thanks for sharing your librarian's perspective. Jamie LaRue's approach - encouraging dissatisfied patrons to purchase books from the "other" side of an issue to donate to the collection and thus make them library allies is fascinating. I'm so curious to see if that works in practice. It would certainly get "buy in" but I wonder if it wouldn't be tempting to shelve that donated book with a big rubber band around it connecting it to the "real/right" info. I'm thinking, if someone came in protesting a book on evolution, and they wanted to donate a copy of their own favorite creationist history of the world, where would that be shelved?

Good issues to think about.

Thank you all for joining the discussion.

Laurie Young said...

This is a great question and I appreciate your thoughtful and honest exploration of it. I think you hit the core of the argument when you said, "Would banning any of those books actually keep those ideas from the world?"

The ideas precede the books and many of the strongest proponents of hate and intolerance do not even read. And people who buy those kind of books, usually have already bought into the dogma.

I believe in choice and allowing people to make up their own minds. Thanks for reminding me how important that is.