For those of you in the world who don’t live in a library (well I don’t technically live there, I go home every night to read more and then sleep) you may not be aware that it is Banned Book Week!! Yay! The week we celebrate how totally bogus Censorship is!
The thing is, censorship is a tricky issue. Yes there are some blatant occurrences that I find totally mind-blowing. Last year Texas voted to basically re-write history based on conservative ideology, which affects more than just Texas because they are such a large buyer of textbooks. And as evidenced by the 2011 Miss USA pageant clearly many schools still teach creationism in public schools (the key word there being ‘public’) which is a whole other, not remotely original rant from which I will refrain. These are some obvious and big hot button issues that we can clearly label “censorship” and be on our merry way. Other aspects, however, fall into a more gray area.
When the Catholic Church boycotted The Golden Compass, I was really angry. The His Dark Materials series are amazing books, really fantastic. The prose is rich, the characters engaging, the plot well structured. Set in a fantasy world with its own version of the Catholic Church I found it interesting and thought provoking. The Catholic Church was offended. To start off:
Is the Magisterium (books version of the Catholic Church) painted as a power for evil? Yes.
Are most of the characters that work for the Magisterium painted as evil? Yes.
Do those characters do terrible things to children? Yes.
Does the Magisterium attempt to control the people of Lyra’s world? Yes.
Is this a mirror of SOME people connected to the Catholic Church? Yes.
Is this a mirror for EVERY single Catholic on earth? No.
I understood this. I finished the books and thought “Huh, that was interesting.” I didn’t think that every Catholic in the world was inherently evil, or that every person on earth should be atheist. I thought “Huh, that was interesting.” Perhaps if we taught people to read every side to every issue and come to their own conclusion, we wouldn’t all be screaming at each other over a fantasy novel.
I think the biggest problem with sending the message that “this presents views we don’t agree with, so don’t watch/read it” is the assumption that we are all mindless sheep who will just nod and agree with whatever is placed in front of us. This view isn’t just limited to the Catholic Church, there are many religions and organizations that feel this way.
Disclaimer: I’m not trying to rip on Catholics or suggest that everyone who is Catholic feels this way, or that Everyone who is Catholic is bad. Neither of those things are true. I know many Catholics and they are nice people.
A complication of this argument is that we all want our First Amendment Rights. If I want the right to tell the world that being homosexual is totally fine, then someone else has the right to the world that God created Adam out of dirt. I don’t agree with that, and would tell anyone who asked that I don’t think God did create Adam out of dirt, but I don’t have the right to silence opinions with which I don’t agree than the other side does. A person can choose not to see or read The Golden Compass just like I can choose never to shop at Wal-Mart.
The problem comes when choices aren’t available. When in the entire School District Library system (of my “home” district for example) there are 115 books about LGBT life and issues out of hundreds of thousands of other books? When Heather has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman and Diana Souza is housed at the High School rather than the Elementary school. When there isn’t a Planned Parenthood within driving distance of a woman in need of its services (only 3% of which are abortions, but that is a whole other blog post). A classmate of mine pointed out yesterday that while the visual of a display that placed Sarah Palin’s book next to a book about marriage equality might initially make her angry, it is important for librarians to show all sides. It’s important for us to not push our agendas (as much as I might like to) anymore than we would want others pushing theirs.
I completely agree with this fantastic classmate of mine, but where I struggle is the issue of visibility. Hetero-normative, male-dominated culture surrounds us so completely we aren’t even aware of it. You don’t have to go to the library to check out a book about heterosexual families—just turn on the television for 2 minutes. Ever noticed that every “mom” on a commercial is wearing a wedding ring? Or that its always “mom” who is giving the kids their cold medicine or breakfast and dropping them off at soccer? You don’t have to go out of your way to provide your children with examples of a nuclear family unit, just whip out Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad, Day. Meanwhile, And Tango Makes Three has been the #1 challenged book for 3 of the last 10 years. The more people know us (us being the dreaded Gays), the more accepted we are. Is the answer to shove all Sarah Palin’s books to the back and only put up displays of underrepresented people and issues? Probably not. Is it my responsibility as a librarian to put up SOME, even many displays of underrepresented people and issues? YES!
Another aspect of censorship that is a fuzzy grey area is that of ‘age appropriateness.’ There is discussion and debate, even among librarians on this one. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, for example, might be deemed appropriate for a sixth grader, but not a third grader. I think that if a person- child, teen or adult- picks up a book and reads it through then it is appropriate for their age. If they are inclined to read it they will, and if they are not they will probably put it down after a few pages. Personally, I tried to read Les Miserables about three times before I made it though. The first three times I wasn’t ready. The fourth time I was. In an age when we are constantly talking about ways to actively engage kids in reading, when we are always complaining that books don’t hold their interest, why do we assume that they will plow through something they don’t understand and can’t relate to? If they can relate to it, they should be reading more about it! If they are confused, they’ll ask (or go online and Google it). If it interests them and it’s a little over their head then the answer is not to forbid, or even discourage them from reading it, the answer is to try to provide a safe place for them to ask their questions and have a discussion.
So where does my rant about censorship land? Let’s provide choices, instead of restricting them and let people decide what is best for them. Instead of forbidding different opinions, how about we teach youth to examine all sides of an argument and come to an informed and personal conclusion? The world is big and complicated, so lets stop trying to boil down important issues with many valid points of view into a six-word answer. Let’s stop assuming that everyone is stupid, and start assuming that they can handle contradiction. Arguing with some of my very religious friends has strengthened my own atheist opinions. Talking to pro-lifers and understanding where their logic comes from has made my own pro-choice position stronger and more to the point. Having parents who are so fundamentally against my being a lesbian that they refuse to believe that I am convinced not only me but also people around me that being gay is a biological fact, not a choice.
Open minds, people. That’s the key.
And to end, just a few others of my favorite, and sometimes ironic banned books of the past:
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Harry Potter and…. by J.K. Rowling
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
It’s Okay if You Don’t Love Me by Norma Klein
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Our Bodies, Ourselves by Boston Women’s Health Collective
The Bastard by John Jakes
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by Judy Blume
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare