Friday, August 1, 2008

Banned Books Across Cultures: Introduction

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
-- John Stuart Mill

To prohibit the reading of certain books is to declare the inhabitants to be either fools or slaves.
-- Claude Adrien Helvetius

You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.
-- Ray Bradbury

The First Amendment right to freedom of speech is one of the greatest values that America has to offer to world civilizations. Censored writers all over the world have looked at American ideals of freedom with awe and respect as they struggled for their rights to express their own thoughts even at the risk of their lives. “We are not afraid,” said John F. Kennedy, “to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” Salman Rushdie stated a similar sentiment: "Free societies are societies in motion, and with motion comes tension, dissent, friction. Free people strike sparks, and those sparks are the best evidence of freedom's existence."

Yet censorship has been a part of American history and modern culture as well. Even today school boards, local governments, religious fanatics and moral crusaders attempt to restrict freedom to read. “The censor believes,” said American journalist Heywood Broun, “that he can hold back the mighty traffic of life with a tin whistle and a raised right hand. For after all, it is life with which he quarrels.”

Fortunately America also has a great tradition of fighting censorship whenever it arises. Organizations such as American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union , National Coalition Against Censorship, People for the American Way, and the PEN American Center exist to defend the First Amendment, through legal action as well as by raising public awareness.

In our month long discussion on this forum, we hope to explore psychological, social, political, historical, aesthetic and moral dimensions possibly involved in the ubiquitous phenomena of censorship in America as well as across cultures. We will attempt to understand and evaluate the causes and the effects, the personal and the cultural, the universal and the tribal, the conscious and the unconscious, the said and the unsaid, behind suppression and censorship of ideas. More importantly, an informed and respectful debate about ideas and censorship may help us understand the true nature of ideas themselves and their complex interactions with processes of human consciousness as they co-create varieties of cross-cultural realities. One idea can only be opposed by another idea. Only after a spirited disinterested discourse about relation of ideas to each other, and their relation to universal ideals of truth, goodness and justice, can human beings aspire to live an examined life.

25 comments: said...

Given Brooklyn Public Library's own problems, it is funny to me to see this debate framed in the way it is.

Be that as it may, it appears an actual, possibly honest debate might take place, although it has already been tainted by the obvious bias of the writers of this blog. Therefore, please consider the following:

"Hogwash is Happening!", by Thomas Sowell, Washington TImes, October 3, 1994.

A recent ALA Councilor, displaying a refreshing willingness to say something the ALA leadership would never admit, exposed the dirty little secret about this hoax that puts the 'shush' in librarians:

It also highlights the thing we know about Banned Books Week that we don't talk about much — the bulk of these books are challenged by parents for being age-inappropriate for children. While I think this is still a formidable thing for librarians to deal with, it's totally different from people trying to block a book from being sold at all."

"The interest in protecting young library users from material inappropriate for minors is legitimate, and even compelling, as all Members of the Court appear to agree." - Supreme Court of the United States, US v. American Library Association.

Nomi said...

Given the inherent complexities of human nature and human condition, and the limitations and ambiguities of the written and spoken word, it is no surprise that interpretations and implementations of First Amendment will sometimes cause major controversies. But such dialectical progress is precisely the mark of an evolving nation. “My definition of a free society,” said Adlai Stevenson in a speech in Detroit in 1952, “is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.”

Courts across the country grapple with the First Amendment controversies and constitutional clashes on regular basis as evidenced by the free-press vs. fair-trial debate and the dilemma of First Amendment liberty principles vs. the equality values of the 14th Amendment. As Ignazio Silone said, “Liberty is the possibility of doubting, of making a mistake, of searching and experimenting, of saying No to any authority - literary, artistic, philosophical, religious, social, and even political.”

The First Amendment therefore is not an absolute dogma that it requires an anything-goes attitude. For instance, there is a compelling and justifiable parental concern in protecting children from materials that might cause emotional or psychological harm. However, the presence of First Amendment stands as a broad prohibition against government involvement in constricting the universe of communicative materials available to the public of a free nation. Although there are some defined exceptions, but that due consideration does not amount to a license that enables the exceptions to swallow the rule.

Anonymous said...

About 5 years ago, I cam across a heart-warming children's picture book. Named "And Tango Makes Three", it told the story of a gay male penguin couple (Silo and Roy) in the Central Park Zoo who hatched an abandoned egg and lovingly raised a baby penguin. It taught that families could be made, not just born.

I was therefore somewhat stunned when it became a heavily banned book. Americans love penguins. They visit them at the Central Park Zoo. They cheer them on in "March of the Penguins". They fight global warming so that penguins don't drown due to lack of ice or starve to death from lack of food.

The problem, of course, is that many Americans don't like GAY penguins. It is impossible to tell the sex of a penguin when you look at it. Until "And Tango Makes Three" came along and blew the lid off penguin sexuality, we could imagine penguins as happy heterosexual couples. What made the book so threatening is that it revealed that animals could have successful gay relationships and raise children within them.

Ironically, banning "And Tango Makes Three" was to lead to an increase in articles and documentaries about homosexuality and bisexuality in the animal kingdom. The NY Times even did an article (complete with photo) when, after 6 years, Silo dumped Roy and ran off with a female penguin from California. Evidentally penguins also get seven-year-itch.

You could argue that the book censors were concerned over exposing their children to unsuitable material. On the other hand, you could also say that the censors are people whose sole expose to nature happens when they walk past The Nature Store while visiting the mall.

Anonymous said...

I think we would be remiss to not recognize the life and work of one of the 20th Century's most important banned authors, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died on Sunday at age 89. His obituary can be read here.

Anonymous said...

A comment for safelibraries--

It's one thing for a parent to challenge what they consider to be an age-inappropriate book that is being assigned or read in a classroom -- and another to challenge a book that is sitting on a shelf in a public library and must be selected by the child (or parent) before being read.

Libraries must be free to offer all published books. Children must be guided by parents or guardians to select books that are appropriate.

As a child who was several grades above the reading level for my age, I read a number of books that would be considered inappropriate for my age-- that's part of the experience of growing up.

Experimentation is normal and healthy, and should not be discouraged by others who believe they know what's best for someone else's child. said...

To the last anonymous:

You said, "Experimentation is normal and healthy, and should not be discouraged by others who believe they know what's best for someone else's child."

I agree with you completely. However, what is obvious is that materials inappropriate for children are inappropriate for children. You are expecting children to judge for themselves what is inappropriate for them. They do not yet have the maturity to do so.

And besides the obvious common sense that children should not have access to sexually inappropriate material, you have the weight of the law of the land in support of that position.

The US Supreme Court in both US v. ALA and Board of Ed. v. Pico fully support keeping children from sexually inappropriate material.

It is the ALA itself that on its own decided to change the rules of the game. Only the ALA now says it is age discrimination to keep a child from anything whatsoever. Only the ALA says, as you say, parents are the only ones responsible for keeping sexually inappropriate material from children, and only their own children.

So your argument that children should choose for themselves has a lot of merit. But it lacks the qualification supported by common sense and by the law, among other things, that those choices should not include sexually inappropriate material.

Anonymous said...

Actually, most TV shows and ads aimed for kids are more sexually inappropriate than any children's books that I've read. In fact, the CLOTHING in many children's sections is more inappropriate. Look at ads for clothing for girls in particular - they are expected to dress in a sexual manner at younger and younger ages. Parents might want to censor their kid's shopping, the music they listen to, and their TV watching more than their book reading.

Safe libraries, you might want to get out of the library more often.

Anonymous said...

I once lived in a place where children were forbidden to enter the the adult section of the library no matter what the circumstance. I had read the children's and what little teen books there were in those days and was ready for my parents to help me choose something else for me to read which would have to have been adult books. No matter how they vouched for my behavior or explained that I was an advanced reader the librarians insisted on the ban. Think what a loss it was for a child ready to expand her horizons through books. It was was so wrong to make a blanket rule even if was based on maintaining quiet rather than protected me from harmful material. I certainly was not going to start my adult reading with Henry Miller and I would have had my parents overseeing and suggesting material.

Anonymous said...

Librarians say that it is not their job to supervise children, it the parent's job. When the children are in the library, are they always with their parents. Let's accept the fact of life that most parents are unable to adequately supervise their children. Why is there such a demand for safety-locks on guns that parents have in their house. Why have a safety lock. Shouldnt it just be up to the parents to supervise their children. The First Amendment was not constituted so that big corporations could reap huge profits while passing off low quality and morally repugnant entertainment to a public long manipulated into accepting it. Corporations say that they are satisfying the consumer demand in a free society. But so is the cocaine dealer and the arm supplier. There will always be demand for self-destructive products as there will always be need for controlling that demand through legal and political processes. All of us have a baser side to our natures, and the appeal to what is worst in us is the source of pornographer's and arms dealers profits.

Anonymous said...

Hitler delivered speeches that stirred hostility against the Jews in already brain washed patriotic Germans. It was accomplished through German government's pervasive control of images and ideas. Patriotic propaganda that children are subjected to on long term basis, has caused more bloodshed in the world than pornography has caused rape. said...

Anonymous said, "Actually, most TV shows and ads aimed for kids are more sexually inappropriate than any children's books that I've read."

I agree. But it's irrelevant to what's happening in a library. Unless your argument is that everything is out of control, so why even try.

Another anonymous said, "All of us have a baser side to our natures, and the appeal to what is worst in us is the source of pornographer's and arms dealers profits."

I agree. It is also likely why the ALA reaps profits from George Soros, the ACLU, etc.

Another anonymous said, "Patriotic propaganda that children are subjected to on long term basis, has caused more bloodshed in the world than pornography has caused rape."

Don't you love all these anonymouses?

Anyway, I agree that is likely. But again, it's irrelevant to what's happening in a library.

Anonymous said...

Protecting children from certain materials in the library has heated up to a point where it far exceeds the relative weight of the problem. Is there a real need for moral panic over this issue? But moral panics can serve different purposes. They can provide a sense of importance that compensates for a sense of personal underdevelopment and political powerlessness. They can also obscure and displace a range of abuses. The problems of gun control, environmental degradation, economic inequality, homelessness, domestic violence, health care, drug abuse, ignorance and war are far more tangible and urgent. said...

Anonymous said, "Is there a real need for moral panic over this issue?"

I am not suggesting anyone should panic. Rather, I am suggesting they learn the issues involved then arrive at a logical choice. Panic has nothing to do with it.

And the existence of far worse problems in many other areas is irrelevant to solving problems in a more limited area. However, it is a constant excuse I hear for why children should be allowed access to sexually inappropriate material--because so many other things are so much worse. Okay, so waht? So let's start in the smaller areas. Mayor Giuliani cleaned up New York by concentrating on the smaller offenses. You can't just allow things because other things are so much worse, as anonymous has suggested.

Anonymous said...

i hope that the event is well attended, especially by younger readers who can share what they have gained by reading "inappropriate" books.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Mayor Giuliani really cleaned up NYC. He concentrated on graffiti and hid the corruption and abuses of Kerik, paying for his girlfriend's social life with tax-payer money, cheating on his wife with one of his employees who made a nice six-figure salary,etc.

It's easier for you to attack libraries rather than advocate for parents to actually take some responsibility for their children, the media (including publishing houses)to clean up its act, and for people in America to take a really good look at their society. Libraries give in relatively easily to pressure- corporations don't. Go after the big guys - not the little non-profits. Except that might actually take some work. said...

Anonymous said, "i hope that the event is well attended, especially by younger readers who can share what they have gained by reading 'inappropriate' books."

I agree. It might be eye opening for you.

Anonymous said...

Since blasphemy is no longer a universally acceptable position to ban a film or burn a book, children remain the last sure fire refuge of the censor. Censorship of public school curriculum materials and library books had become so common in the United States by the 1990s that some of the great works of literature such as Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Toni Morrison's Beloved, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn etc. have been frequent targets. Even if adults could "agree" on what is inadvisable for minors, the rarely asked questions remains: In what sense is it harmful? And does it justify censorship? Is censorship based on some universal criteria which could be applied across human cultures? i.e. What would American censors think about erotic sculptures on Hindu temples or Roman erotic fresco paintings found in pre-modern public spaces in Pompeii?

There are major cultural differences between US and other countries regarding what is considered harmful to children. Such cultural differences suggest that we really know very little about how sexual, violent or other media content will affect any individual young person. Are the effects of mere exposure to words and images really so harmful? Isolating cause and effect from other contextual factors in psychological development is notoriously difficult. Suggesting a predictable causal relationship between "inadequate-for-minors" media content and probable occurrence of "improper" behavior, blinds us to the immensely complex way in which information, ideas, images and stories may affect particular individuals, and makes us unmindful of perhaps more significant factors, from genetic predisposition to long term family and community environment that influence child and adolescent development.

Perhaps there are better ways to socialize and educate children such as training in media literacy, critical thinking, creative thinking, comprehensive sexuality education, literature classes that deal with controversial topics rather than pretending they do not exist or wasting huge amounts of time and money to suppress them in vain. In situation like this one can't help but ask: Is censorship as being practiced in USA a forcing of tribal, provincial, parochial standards of taste, morality and child rearing on diverse American people? said...

To the latest anonymous commenter:

That was a really well thought out, well done comment. It's too bad you don't identify yourself and take credit.

Assuming for the sake of argument that you are correct, your reasoning totally nullifies common sense. And it totally nullifies the law of the land.

Look at Board of Education v. Pico, for example. The US Supreme Court said you may not remove books from children because you disagree with the content or feel it's inflammatory or antireligious or antiAmerican, whatever. (Substitute actual language from case here.) However, books that are educationally unsuitable and pervasively vulgar may be removed from public schoools at the drop of a hat.

Given your argument, books legally removed from public school libraries may no longer be removed.

Personally, I prefer to follow common sense and the US Supreme Court than be guided by your anything goes reasoning/advice.

Anonymous said...

This discussion seems to have gone off on a children's-issues-only tangent, but to offer a break in that discussion and bring up something else equally important - -

I'm a public librarian (not from BPL, though...) and Banned Books Week has always made me uncomfortable. The same titles tend to be trotted out as examples and used in displays year to year: books that have for the most part been banned or challenged in school rather than public libraries, and in states other than NYS (at least recently), such as Forever, Huckleberry Finn, or The Chocolate War. We don't talk about what is currently left off public library shelves not because it has been challenged per se but because public libraries have been too wary or too corporate-publisher-centric to purchase it in the first place. The use of large, non-local vendors by collection development departments and the dominant place national reviewing tools such as Booklist and Library Journal hold mean that when an independently published or small-published book comes out, it's truly difficult to get it onto library shelves -- even when it would help fill local history or local interest needs in branches. Is this censorship, or just a lack of awareness? It's actually censorship -- you'll find that even when a title or genre has proven its popularity or social merit via local media coverage, patron requests and buzz, you still can't get it in the library -- or if you find it there, it's purchased in inadequate quantities. Politically radical authors fall into this category frequently, but so do titles and genres of particular interest to various subcultures living in the city. It would be brave of ALA to start examining the blurry line between conservative, big-publisher-driven collection development and "censorship". said...

Excellent suggestion!

Analogously, while the ALA complains that filters block a few web sites, libraries do not make the "Deep Web" available to patrons. The "Deep Web" is the 7/8ths of the Internet that Google does not reach but is sometimes reachable by other means. Libraries do not make those other means available. Libraries therefore prevent access to 7/8ths of the Web while at the same time complain about about a few web sites being blocked. "It would be brave of ALA to start examining" the means to make the "Deep Web" available to patrons.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the "law of the land" and "common sense" arguments proposed by Safe Libraries for justification of censorship, one can find much illumination from some objective, open-minded reading of human history in general. It has been demonstrated time and again through genuine scholarship that what we call "common sense" and "law of the land" are mostly subjective cultural constructs and have much to do with power structures prevailing in a given society.

In the history of the United States Supreme Court -- Loving v. Virginia, is one such example. Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving committed a felony under state law. After getting married in the District of Columbia, they lived together as husband and wife in Caroline County, Virginia. Doing so violated the state's antimiscegenation law--The Racial Integrity Act--which prohibited any white person from marrying someone black. Virginia judge sentenced Loving to a year in prison. The judge also lectured them on the importance and justifiabilty of the state's policy, asserting that the fact that "Almighty God" had initially placed the races on different continents "shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

Would you have accepted such a law of the land as based on "common sense?"

And was it not "common sense" to believe that Earth is the center of the solar system? said...

So you are saying it is NOT common sense to keep children from sexually inappropriate material? Then I see no further need for discussion with you.

Anonymous said...

Safe Libraries, you seem to have thought much about this issue. Would you like to share your views regarding the following relevant questions which were stated in an earlier post, before you desert the discussion. It will help the discourse if you express your opinion and support it with some warranted evidence.

"Even if adults could "agree" on what is inadvisable for minors, the rarely asked questions remains: In what sense is it harmful? And does it justify censorship? Is censorship based on some universal criteria which could be applied across human cultures?" said...


First of all, let's not get trapped by your words. You use censorship constantly. Let's be clear it is NOT censorship to keep children from sexually inappropriate material. If it were, billions of people would be guilty of censorship every day.

I am not justifying censorship. It is simply NOT censorship to keep children from sexually inappropriate material.

That said, I'll move on to your question, clever as it is. It is a clever question in that it asks something very complicated -- are children harmed by inappropriate materials -- that is almost impossible to answer in a few short paragraphs on a blog.

It is also clever because it implies that if I cannot fill this tall order, then my arguments that children should not have access to sexually inappropriate material are bogus.

I am not a social scientist and I am not going to research and write that treatise here. That does not mean children are not harmed by sexually inappropriate material. So don't even go there.

However, I will say this. Even children recognize the harm from such material. See "Student Decries School P-rn Pushing Policy and Calls for Book Ratings."

And this may be relevant: The Toxic American Public Library: Violating Children With Harmful Matter" "A Clear & Present Danger."

Anonymous said...

you should have a choice to what you read if you dont like what the author is saying DONT READ IT thats why god invented hands to shut the book oh wait a minute, im using religeous terms so you should ban me!