27 September 2010

Censorship, Banning, and Burning

It's September, which means it's Banned Book Week. It's a month that avid readers and authors often get riled up, and we have a lot to get riled up about this year, I suppose.

In current events, there's the whole Humble, TX fiasco. For those unfamiliar with the timeline, I invite you to Maya Reynolds' blog, where she talks about the controversy and the ultimate cancellation of the event. So, you have a librarian with her panties in a wad about books she's "heard" contain sex and drugs (apparently doesn't care that they are cautionary tales about the bad that comes from them) getting a bunch of parents that have never READ the books upset, and a weak school district that rolls over and plays dead to DISinvite the author already invited to the event. When the other authors rise up and protest, instead of admitting they are a bunch of idiots/bigots and eating crow, they cancel the kids' event, punishing the kids for their parents' own bias. Typical...and upsetting to me, as both an author and a parent.

But, does it mean anything outside of Humble, TX? Not really, besides everyone pointing, shaking their heads, and making comments...on both sides of the issue. I know my way isn’t the only way to look at it.

Well, it does make ONE difference. I'll bet sales of Ellen's books jump for a while during the controversy.

I've talked about this before. Banning and burning really only worked well before mass production of books and the internet. These days, if a locality bans something, people go on the internet and purchase it anyway. In fact, banning/burning gives the book and author publicity (here's my five minutes' worth for the lovely Ellen!), and it fuels interest and tempers. Some people will purchase the book to see if it's really that bad. Some will purchase it just because someone else banned it or burned it, to show their protest of banning or burning (even if they don't intend to read the book). Oh, and to burn the book, you have to BUY the copies you burn, which certainly isn't hurting the author, publisher, or agent either. Unless you want to create a mob to break in and steal them to burn, in which case, you're breaking a lot of laws along the way...and will probably still have to pay for the books after the court case...as well as damages to the shops you stole from and people you hurt. And insurance companies might have to pick up a bit of the bill, which raises everyone's rates a bit... I could go into more detail, but you get the idea.

So, what is my opinion of censorship, book banning, and book burning? I'd be glad to share it.

I live in the US. When the Constitution was drafted, the Bill of Rights (which are really privileges we bestowed upon ourselves and not really "inalienable rights" like we talked about in the Declaration of Independence...life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness...I'd add the right to think as you will to that)... Little side note? The ORIGINAL drafts of the Declaration had "the right to own land" instead of "pursuit of happiness," but the idea of people clamoring to own land currently held by others was a little too scary for them.

Back to the subject... The Bill of Rights includes freedom of speech. Not everyone reading this blog will have this privilege in their laws, and I won’t pretend it’s so, but it does color MY perceptions of the issue before us.

Now, every privilege comes with a responsibility to use it wisely. I wouldn't argue that. Yelling fire in the theater is not a responsible use of speech and should be punished. Going on someone else's property to exercise your "free speech" is not legal. Using it to threaten someone is not legal. Using it to hurt someone is not legal. Nor should any of this be legal, IMO.

Beyond that, speech is only free if that freedom is applied to everyone. Anyone else here see An American President? The movie had it right. Free speech means standing there and listening to someone advocate, at the top of his lungs, what I have spent a lifetime fighting at the top of mine. If he doesn't have the right to express his opinion on the matter, I am not truly free. For that reason, censorship should always be avoided.

In the same way, just because I find a book offensive does not mean someone else will not see benefit in it. Therefore, my ability to read what I want to read comes with the reality that others have the same ability to write and read what they find useful to them.

Mind you, censorship is not always the same thing as banning books. I don't believe books should EVER be banned from public libraries. My two cents on the matter. Companies have the right to decide what they will sell. I don't argue it. While I personally think Wal-Mart are complete idiots when it comes to books they choose to ban sometimes, they are allowed to do it to the comfort level of owners/stockholders. But public libraries are not companies owned by stockholders. We all support them with our tax money. To anyone that says a town library should ban a book because it offends them, I say, “Only if I can ban the ones of yours that offend me.” Turnabout and all. If they want their books, they put up with mine being shelved in the next aisle over. That’s true freedom.

School libraries should employ some common sense. If a book would be something beyond the emotional and intellectual level of most of the children in the school, by all means don't carry it on the shelves of that school. If it's not appropriate for a 2nd grader but is appropriate for 5th, have sections of the library that each age group is allowed to use.

But don't tell me that my advanced readers cannot check out a book they are more than capable of reading, because some other parent/s complained that they found the book offensive and didn't want their children "exposed" to it. It is up to each individual parent to make decisions about what their children should read and can manage to read and understand. It is up to parents to prepare their children for the world. Beyond the fact that it does no good to try and keep children blind and deaf to the world at large, how is doing that preparing children for the world they must work in and live in? It's not.

I'm not telling anyone else how to raise their children, and I certainly don't want them telling me how to raise mine. That's the core of this issue. I'm taking responsibility, as a parent, for guiding my children, teaching them my values, using books as both good and bad examples for them... I'm taking responsibility, as a parent, for knowing what my children are reading, watching, surfing on the internet, answering their questions, engaging them in conversation... I signed on to be a parent by having children. That's my job.

I've gone head to head with a UBS owner that tried to tell my (then) 12 y/o that Gregory McGuire's books were too adult for her. I've gone head to head with school librarians that wanted to limit my (then) advanced reader 3rd grader (reading at a 7th grade level) to books for her age level, because a couple of other parents had complained about their children reading "inappropriate material." I went head to head with my (then) 6th grader's "advanced" English teacher and the administration and told them: "She's teaching Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of NIMH. At home, he's reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and discussing the sociological implications of a prison planet. If she thinks he's not following along, it's because he's BORED."

I am something of Auntie Mame. I believe (within reason) in letting the child read anything within his/her ability to emotionally and intellectually understand and to discuss it with him/her. Not every parent is prepared to take that active an interest in their children. Beyond that, my husband and I "assign" our children to read books that will broaden their horizons. In addition to the books they read for pleasure, our children are handed books like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, Watership Down, and A Clockwork Orange and discuss the books with us after reading them. As a result, my 8th grader's first book report of the year was on V for Vendetta. He enjoys the book and wanted to do the report on it. My 10th grader is currently reading Sherrilyn Kenyon's newest, but the next up on her desk is A Handmaid's Tale. When she entered high school, she had already read some of the advanced reading books for the 11th and 12th grade classes.

Parents that want to ban books are doing one of a few things...or more than one. They are abdicating responsibility for policing their children by trying to narrow what the children have available to them. They are trying to push their belief systems onto other families by saying: "It offends me, so it SHOULD offend everyone. Take it away, so none of us will have to be offended." They are judging other parents as less than them for not being offended or even encouraging their children to learn as much as possible and be well-rounded individuals with (gasp) tolerance for the beliefs of others.

I completely understand the age levels and maturity levels of individual children and groups of children (in general) being taken into account when stocking a school library. But I do not believe in banning books, as a general rule.

Moreso with adults. If a particular book offends you or is not to your tastes, don't buy it to read it and don't take it out of the library to read. But don't try to take away someone else's reading material. Along with the free speech to write the books is the inherent privilege to access those books and enjoy or learn from them. Enough said.

Burning books is abhorrent to me, personally. I wouldn't do it, but I respect the fact that, with a burn permit, anyone can burn anything they darned well choose to and that they own, on a small scale. I'll get back to that. Burning or burning in effigy (which would actually let people "burn" what they don't approve of without purchasing the product and supporting the industry they claim to hate) is a long and established manner of protest. Who am I to say it's not effective? It has a galvanizing effect.

But, I would never support the government doing it. The government engaging in banning and burning makes it synonymous with censorship. I never support censorship.


Miriam Newman said...

Tell it like it is, Brenna. I am convinced that whenever a group wants to ban--or, worse yet, burn--a book, it has an agenda much more dangerous than anything in that book.

Kit Frazier said...

Amen, sister!

BrennaLyons said...

Thanks for commenting! You know, I have never understood the need some people have to control others: what they read, what they believe, and so forth. It just doesn't work for me personally.


Fiona McGier said...

Hurray! Common sense spoken here! My own parents encouraged me to read anything that I was able to understand, and if I had trouble with it, they discussed it with me. I was reading newspapers before I got into kindergarten, and was bored until I reached college. I have never forbidden my own kids from reading anything...just asked their opinion afterwards, and was frequently impressed with their grasp of complex concepts way beyond their years. I sub in many high schools, and this week I'll be wearing my ALA pin that says "I read banned books".

Chris J. said...

Right on Brenna.
Isn't it amazing that such a barbaric concept has to be addressed in the US. If they really cared about their children and the community then they would really step up to where it counts. Making sure all the children of that community had what they needed, encouraging them to read, helping their neighbors in these hards times...shouldn't those issues be what people should be standing up for and not trying to judge thy neigbor? But help thy neighbor. Shouldn't they be helping our men and women overseas and their families here, so many more important things but they choose to ban books and try to take away a freedom of choice, it is sad, disheartening and just plain stupid. They are actually hurting their children in the long run and continuing a practice that should be outlawed. No one points a gun and your head and says you have to read this book for heavens sake. Stupid because they know better and do it anyway...

Anonymous said...

"Aisle", not "isle".

Sorry, editorial knee-jerk.

BrennaLyons said...

You could have left your name, Anonymous. And...yes. Sigh... Sadly, there is no editor in blogging. No one is perfect, and I'm sure you make errors, from time to time, as well.