A few days ago, the Chicago Tribune‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic Julia Keller spoke out in favor of Banned Books Week:
That day marked my first encounter with banned books.
I probably don’t need to point out that my mother’s efforts were utterly counter-productive, that her prohibition only made true-crime books seem even more alluring. Human nature, for all of its rumored complexity, is a simple thing: Tell us we can’t have something and we suddenly want it more than we’ve ever wanted anything else in our lives. Put something out of our reach and we grope and strain and pant for it with all of our might.
The groups that keep Banned Books Week front and center want to remind us that freedom of reading, like freedom of speech, is crucial to a democracy. Books are worth fighting for. The release of the annual list of controversial books is a great opportunity to renew our commitment to unfettered access to books.
Books don’t kill people; people kill people. In other words, I didn’t become the ax murderer that my mother feared I might. And if I had, I don’t think we could’ve blamed the books…
Sounds reasonable. If I were a child, I’d be eager to find out what was so dangerous about a book that someone (i.e. probably a conservative Christian) wanted to keep it away from me.
So guess who’s all offended by this article?
Welcome back, Laurie Higgins. We missed you.
Higgins and the Illinois Family Institute issued a rebuttal to Keller’s piece. They don’t find anything wrong with censoring certain books from children.
Here’s what [Keller] fails to address:
- Ideas do, indeed, have consequences. Keller’s personal experience that reading about serial killers, ax murderers, and remorseless poisoners didn’t turn her into a murderer is lousy evidence for her unproven implicit claim that literature has no capacity to change people.
- Not every novel, play, essay, or short story is appropriate at every age.
- Books that never appear on the shelves of libraries, that is, books that the ALA’s de facto censorship protocols (aka “Collection Development Policies”) never allow to be purchased can’t be banned.
- Banning a book, or more accurately, making a book less easily accessible to children, may keep dangerous, destructive, deviant ideas and images out of the minds and hearts of children or delay the age at which they’re exposed to them.
Of course literature can change people. Keller of all people wouldn’t say otherwise. But a book alone isn’t going to turn you into a monster. There are always other factors in play. And to shield a child from every potentially damaging factor is to remove that child from the world itself.
Is every piece of writing appropriate for every age? Not necessarily. But no one should be making that decision for someone else’s children.
As for sheltering the children from harmful ideas, we’ll get to that later.
Higgins goes on to talk about “inappropriate” books assigned in school:
Keller seems to employ a red herring argument when she cites To Kill a Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn while, for example, ignoring a play like Angels in America that includes extraordinarily obscene language and graphic sex and whose author Tony Kushner displays some rather virulent anti-religious sentiment.
She makes it sound like some teacher forced that book upon his unsuspecting students. Not true at all.
Some backstory: An Illinois teacher was under attack from conservative groups when he assigned Angels in America last year. The lady leading the charge (*surprise*) once worked with IFI.
The teacher didn’t force the book upon the students and he gave them an option to read an alternative book (Camus’ The Stranger). In addition, parents had to “opt-in” to the play and sign a permission slip if they were allowing their children to read Angels in America.
This is what the teacher wrote in a letter to parents:
“If I have any agenda, it’s this: kindness and compassion are virtues to celebrate, forgiveness is always preferable to revenge, hope is powerful and lasting, and what we do for the greater good is what will define us and our legacy. If any work of literature can be demanding, complex, and nuanced in helping me express those values, then that is an exciting prospect. I believe that Angels in America is all of these things, and that, above all, is why I teach it.”
How dare he…?
(And what’s with Higgins attacking Kushner’s religious beliefs? An atheist wrote a book, therefore it should be banned?)
Higgins finally gets to the part you know she’s been waiting to get to — The Homosexuals:
In addition, [Keller] fails to acknowledge that many of the most frequently challenged books are ones that affirm controversial ideas about homosexuality, and that many of those are picture books intended for very young audiences. The frequently challenged books Heather Has Two Mommies and King and King embody unproven ontological and moral claims that many parents consider radical, subversive, and perverse. The implicit claims are far too abstract and complex for the very young audience for whom these picture books are intended, which leaves just squishy, emotional non-arguments to shape the feelings of young children. I think this could reasonably be called propaganda.
You know what Heather learns in that book?
She learns that “the most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love each other.”
Damn radical, subversive, perverse propaganda…
And then, as she’s done before, Higgins goes down the slippery slope and brings in false analogies (like racial superiority and paraphilias):
The epithet “book banner” is hurled at conservative parents as a tactic to humiliate them into silence. Would parents who object to picture books that explore the sorrow of children who have been deliberately created as motherless or fatherless children be called book banners? Would parents who object to picture books that affirm polyamory be considered book banners? Would parents who object to public school teachers enthusiastically and positively teaching a play that affirms and celebrates racial superiority be considered book banners? Would parents who object to public school teachers teaching a novel that graphically depicts and celebrates paraphilias as normal variations of sexual practice be considered book banners? Would parents who object to the teaching of a book whose author attacks or ridicules Orthodox Judaism or Islam be considered book banners?
Of course, no teacher is encouraging racial superiority or celebrating paraphilia. Just because a book discusses those ideas in a certain way doesn’t mean it’s an endorsement of said ideas. (And what the hell is wrong with affirming polyamory?)
We can argue over the phrase “book banner.” Maybe “book denier” is better.
The problem I have with Higgins throughout her piece is that she and IFI are not simply concerned with what their own children read.
Their goal is to control what your children read. If they’re offended by it, then they don’t want your kids exposed to it. That’s why we raise a fuss. And that’s why we should be embracing Banned Books Week. Parents have a right to control what their children should read (key word: THEIR). I would hope they don’t censor anything, but it’s each parent’s decision.
And smarter children will find their way around the barriers surrounding them. Children, with their almost unlimited sense of curiosity, ought to read books they think are interesting. If someone else is trying to stop you from doing it, it’s all the more reason to find out why that is. (Want some advice? Try Judy Blume. She’s fantastic.)
I do agree with Higgins when she implies that parents should be concerned with what their own children read.
The way to handle that, though, is not by censoring their kids from tackling controversial subjects. Let your children read what they want. But keep an eye on what books they choose. Read it yourself, if you can. Discuss the subject matter with them. Don’t let the book be the last word on the topic.
You know, If IFI were truly concerned about children being exposed to violent imagery, graphic sexuality, and complete fabrications about the world around us, then they would focus on banning the Bible.
When they get around to that, maybe I’ll take their other concerns more seriously.
Julie Clawson, a Christian, has a few thoughts about Banned Books Week and how it relates to her faith:
There’s good reason why people lose their faith in college -– when confronted with the messiness of religion, or theology, or textual studies their sheltered minds are taken by surprise and they feel lied to and betrayed by the church that did it’s best to keep them from encountering reality. But some still think it’s better (or at least easier) to pretend than to deal with the messiness that is reality. Instead of wrestling with church history or helping our kids respond with love to all the people they encounter, the very discussion gets banned. So kudos to Banned Books Week for forcing us to face those fears instead of hiding from them. For not letting ideologies be used as silencing weapons of oppression.