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The Denial of Book Banners

This post is a bit off-topic for me, but it’s important. September 25-October 3 is the annual Banned Books Week, when we book lovers of the world unite to show our support for the glorious diversity of human ideas and for the availability of those ideas to all who would sample them.

And, of course, to give a well deserved, symbolic eye-poke to those who considers themselves holier-than-thou enough to decide which ideas shouldn’t get a chance.

All this, prompted by the banning of Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak, linked above. And not because I was in mad, unquenchable puppy-love with a certain Laurie Anderson who was in my 8th grade science class and who I haven’t seen since 1983. No, no, not because of that at all. Ahem.

Anyway, I have no idea what Ms. Anderson’s novel is about. Literally, not a clue beyond what I might guess from the cover art. But that’s not the point. The point is, I know it was a National Book Award finalist, which is nothing to sneeze at, and I know that somewhere out there some bunch of yahoos wants to ban it.

But even if the book had come in dead-last in the Hooters Beer-n-Boobs Literary Contest (which doesn’t actually exist. I just made that up. Don’t blame me if it suddenly springs into existence.), that’s no excuse to try to ban it. Even if the book had something in it to offend practitioners of every major and minor religion on Earth and atheists too, that’s no excuse to try to ban it. Even if the book advocated in favor of wanton, pre-marital teen orgies because hey, what do teens’ parents know anyway, even then, that’s no excuse to try to ban it. Even then, it’s still not anybody on this planet’s place to say whether or not somebody else (who isn’t their own underage progeny) ought to be allowed to read it.

That’s the point.

Besides, they’ve already lost the war

If you’re on Twitter, join the #SpeakLoudly hashtag to show your support. Here’s my contribution:

Book banning is the emotional response that happens when the banners realize they’ve already lost the larger cultural debate. #SpeakLoudly

Because when I think about book banning and the banners who try it, that’s all I can conclude. It’s just denial.

See, I don’t think that book banners are stupid people. Or uncaring. What I think they are is frustrated. And, while I am not a Christian myself, in the best tradition of loving thy enemy, here’s what I think is going on with book banners:

First, I think that book banners are people who hold a very narrow vision of what constitutes right, proper behavior. I don’t mean that in a critical way, just that they have a very stark, black-vs-white conception of right and wrong. No grey allowed. Further, the scope of what they consider to be right is pretty small compared to what isn’t. There are a lot of “don’ts” in the minds of the book banners.

Second, I think book banners are every bit as loving and concerned about their children’s futures as any other parent. They are no more nor less interested in giving their children the best start in life than I am. And I’m pretty damn concerned about that on my own children’s behalf.

Third, if I may paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of history is long, but it bends towards permissiveness. As time goes on, society and culture as a whole becomes less uptight about what is and isn’t ok to do.

Which, fourth, means that for the book banners the world is a very trying and frustrating place to live in. They have their narrow moral code, which by whatever means they have clung to long after that code ceased to match the norms of the larger culture around them. They truly believe in their narrow conception of right and wrong, yet they see society drifting further and inexorably further away from it.

They hold to a system of values from the past, while the world has moved on.

They see movies and TV shows which portray—and thus normalize—behaviors they can’t condone. Drinking, smoking, pre-marital sex, whatever it may happen to be. They see their own children’s growing awareness of the mismatch between their values and society’s norms. They worry, fiercely so, that their children will be “seduced” by the larger culture and stray off the narrow path. Their worries are only confirmed every time a kid does, in fact, experiment with drugs or—gasp!—kisses a peer of the same gender.

They’re not stupid people. They really aren’t. But they see all this and they’re terrified for their own children. My opinion, of course, is that this terror is wholly overblown and these perceived dangers are really not much to worry about. But that’s just my opinion, and it doesn’t change how they feel: overwhelmed, and fighting a battle they must know is already over.

So when their daughter introduces them to her new girlfriend and says she doesn’t want to go with Daddy to the Purity Ball, they wring their hands and cry “where, oh where, did she get that idea?”

Where? Why, from TV, and movies, and advertisements, and their peers and a million other places that constitute society at large.

The book banners know this, of course. They’re not stupid. They know where the ideas come from. They know the ideas come from an ever more permissive society that, unless they’re willing to move to the dark side of the Moon, they cannot escape.

They know they can’t fight society at large. They can’t point to society, generally, and shout “it’s all Society’s fault!” Well, I guess they could, but they know they’d look like morons. And that has to be an incredibly frustrating and disempowering situation to be in.

And so they ban

Nobody likes being frustrated. Nobody likes feeling powerless, especially when the stakes (their children’s immortal souls, or whatever) are so high. Nobody likes to admit that the war has already been lost.

And so they go into denial. They can’t change society (except through living by example, which they’re already doing and which is already not working), so they go into denial by convincing themselves that there is something they can do. They can ban books. They can attack what they see as carriers of bad ideas.

Books are mirrors of society, not disease vectors

Only, the books aren’t the carriers of these ideas they object to so strongly. Books manifest these ideas because the ideas are already loosed upon the world.

Books show teen sex because teens are, like it or not, having sex. Books show teens experimenting with drugs because, sorry, teens do experiment with drugs. Books show every unfortunate facet of life and every uncomfortable question children have to face in the process of growing up because those things already exist in the world.

The genie is well out of the bottle. Pandora’s box has flat-out lost its top.

Don’t hate the book banners

Seriously. Don’t hate them. Hate the repression of information, yes. Fight against that hard and in whatever forms it rears its ugly head. But don’t hate the book banners. They are, in their own way, only trying to do what they think is right against a society that no longer agrees with them. Book banners have my deepest sympathies—because man, talk about tilting at windmills—but they don’t deserve my hatred.

Oh, and Laurie, if you’re out there drop me an e-mail, k?

September 20, 2010 19:49 UTC

Tags: Banned Books Week, Speak Loudly, censorship

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