Leave Our Books Alone

Leave Our Books Alone

The last week of September is, for lack of a better word, “celebrated” as Banned Books Week. And here we are, in that week, and in the wide, wonderful word of censorship.

It seems things in America, and in some other countries, too, are going beyond banning books. Now we’re at the stage of banning speech we don’t agree with and, as if it’s already possible, to even banning thoughts. 1984, it seems, is coming about 23 years late.

Before I get too far into this, let me mention that my acquaintance Maggie McNeill has written a great and timely post on this subject on her blog, The Honest Courtesan. Read my piece first, but then click on this link and go read Maggie’s piece, too. Like here, you can subscribe there, too, and get Maggie’s words of wisdom right into your email, for free (she’s more prolific and disciplined than I am about this blogging stuff, and I admire that even if I can’t quite bring myself to emulate it).

Okay, now we were saying, this is Banned Books Week. Even the very words, “banned books,” reminds me of earlier and supposedly less enlightened times. They burned (and drowned and did some other nasty things) to witches, and heretics, and others who didn’t quite fit into the social mold. We cluck and think we’re so much past such stuff. But here we are, well into the 21st Century in an allegedly civilized country, and we’re still banning books.

In fact, it was Justice Louis Brandeis, in his concurring view in the 1927 case of Whitney v. California, who said, “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.”

That was then, but now, 90 years later, it’s even worse than that. Much worse. We – and by “we,” I mean those narrow-minded individuals engaged in this practice – are now teaching that intolerance of ideas that might clash with our own and which might be deemed less than gentile is more than okay, it’s the thing to do. And that, sad to say, is exactly what’s happening on college and university campuses, where such things should be anathema. But apparently aren’t, and less so all the time.

Let’s start with the book banning thing, and then go to that other, bigger issue.

While the courts, unlike in earlier times, are largely staying out of the book banning business, their role has been subsumed by school boards across the land. The usual rationale for why a given book should be banned nowadays is cloaked in the mantra, “But the children!” Protecting the little darlings is how modern-day book banners defend their mission. And too often, spineless school board members are all too ready to accommodate them.

I’ll be the first to admit that my approach to raising children is pretty far out of the mainstream, and my belief in freedom not only of expression but of the right to seek new knowledge and broaden one’s horizons far-ranging, far-ranging enough that it should extend to the young’uns among us. I find book banning not only an impingement on those young’uns right to read what they damned well please, but the height of hypocrisy on the part of their elders who wish to pretend that the subjects, acts, and words in those books they would keep hidden away don’t, in reality, exist. It’s kind of like keeping streets and hot stoves hidden away in the misguided belief that this will keep one’s offspring from the nasty realities that will confront them should they wander carelessly into a street or curiously grab at a hot stove.

We also should look at some of the ironies that this book banning represents. The first concerns the children, the second the children and their parents. Looking at the first, I don’t know about you, gentle reader, but as a child myself (as I am informed I once was), I was always seeking out the raciest, most stimulating, most provocative books on my parents’ book shelves. And among those books, the raciest, most stimulating, most provocative passages they contained, the page numbers of which I would commit, or at least try to commit, to memory, to save time on future reads. It didn’t even matter whether I understood all that I read, or not. I knew those were “the good parts,” and hell, I was going to read them. And I really don’t think I was or am alone in that. I’d be willing to bet that that is what most kids do, given a chance. And yet the species seems to survive this tendency, which, I would venture, leaves fewer scars than does the tendency toward book banning.

Which leads us to the second irony, the one involving both the kids and their parents. These same parents who are so concerned about their little ducklings’ ability to read, or not, certain books, are often the same ones who will leave said ducklings to their own devices on, yes, their own devices: Phones, video games, computers. Anything to avoid actually having to talk and engage with their kids. While one might argue that it would be more helpful to read a book with one’s kid and discuss certain aspects of it, including things that might raise questions, it’s easier and less inconvenient to just let the young’uns while away their time in front of a screen. And, of course, there are probably much stronger things to be found on that screen than in the book the parent wishes to ban. We are talking irony here, aren’t we?

I’ve read some of the books on the more recent lists of books being banned around the country, and if those banners think that the subjects aren’t already in kids’ minds, being discussed and, in more than a few cases, even practiced by the kids, they are deeply, deeply delusional.

Now, speaking of delusional, let’s move to the other area mentioned previously where the tendency to repress free expression and discussion of ideas is running rampant, and that is what is going on at many, perhaps most, college and university campuses around the country. And that is the repression of any speech or views that one deems “unacceptable,” “offensive,” or – the overall catch phrase – “hate speech.”

A recent survey conducted by John Villasenor, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a public policy professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, found that more than half of the 1,500 college students he surveyed – 51 percent – believe it’s okay to loudly and repeatedly disrupt a speaker who holds views they view as “very controversial” and known for making “offensive and hurtful statements” so an audience cannot hear the speaker. Another one in five college students — 19 percent – believe it’s okay to use violence to shut down a speaker they view as “offensive.” And 40 percent – these are college students, mind you – believe that hate speech is not protected under the First Amendment (it is).

Looking at what’s been going on on college campuses these days, these numbers might be on the low side. Even Villasenor said a presentation he was giving last year at the University of North Carolina was interrupted by members of the Black Student Union reading a list of grievances and demands. Villasenor, incidentally, is himself black, though that hardly matters.

I guess I’m showing my age again when I say this is a shocking development, and certainly doesn’t mirror the prevailing view when I was a college student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and even again as a graduate student in the 1980s. And we had plenty of controversy to deal with, particularly when I was an undergrad. Now I’m not going to pretend that acts of intolerance didn’t take place back then, since they did, and I can cite them, but generally speaking the university was seen as a place to hear, consider, and debate various views. It wasn’t seen as a place to shield oneself from life’s inconvenient differences, but rather to experience and explore and rationally challenge them.

What’s even more shocking is the fact that it is many college professors who are encouraging this narrow-mindedness, and even penalizing students who don’t adhere to their views. And, of course, it is college administrators who all too often cave to the demands of their intolerant, brain-washed students.

One hears again and again about professors who will only tolerate a specific view in their class, and students of a different view who tell of being put into a position of either going along with the prof’s view or being penalized in their grade for the course. What ever happened to the old meaning of education as being to lead forth, not to cram down?

I often wonder of what generation most of these professors derive. I think the trend may have started – I hate to admit it – with my generation, with the initial wave of post-Vietnam professors thinking they had some sort of lock on political or social truth. But I think the trend has continued and things have gotten worse with each successive generation of professors. And, not to absolve them of guilt, with each successive generation of students, too. To the point we’ve reached today where so many college students see themselves as frail little daisies who must be protected from any thought, word, or action that in any way threatens them or those they see as “protected” classes of people.

This is all a continuum, of course, from the books they were not allowed to see, the thoughts they were not allowed to have, the controversies and challenges they were shielded from as children, to the mindless conformity they were expected or allowed to adhere to growing up, to the kind of intolerant sameness of view we increasingly see on campuses across the country.

And it’s not just happening in this country. It’s probably even more advanced in other countries. We have our First Amendment here in the U.S. which makes it hard for government to control speech and expression (despite the professor’s survey results). But there are countries we sometimes like to think are like us – notably Canada and the United Kingdom – where there are actually laws against what is deemed to be “hate speech.” And cases and examples demonstrating the danger such laws pose to free expression, and the absurdities and injustices that can arise in their application.

It often is said that the answer to offensive speech is not censorship, but more speech. As a Constitutionalist, I absolutely adhere to that thought. But as someone who does not want to live in a 1984, who does not want anyone else, whether a government, a group, a university, a school board, society, or people I know, telling me what I can read, what I can write, what I can think, or what I can publish, the very notion of such restrictions is abhorrent. And this is something we need to keep before us, not just during the last week of September, but every day.

Much has been said about the key role of free speech in a democracy, but in closing consider the words of Frederick Douglass:

To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”

Can’t say it much better than that.

2 thoughts on “Leave Our Books Alone

  1. Thanks, Marguerite, and roger that. One would hope that Americans read more than Facebook messages and spend time with other than cat videos, but it might be a fruitless hope.

    I corrected a couple of errors in this post, at least one of which — see if you can find it — my journalism profs would be aghast at and would earn me the dreaded “E” (otherwise known as an “F”). This is what happens when writing and blogging from the road, as I am now.

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