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.