Banning Books

I think the most dangerous piece of this puzzle is the involvement of a state government which has moved the needle toward actual censorship in the form of banning books.
on Mar 22, 2021 · 11 comments

In the US, with the First Amendment protecting free speech, I have not imagined a time I would be discussing banning books, but here it is. I’ll be discussing some of the books that I read during my enforced time away from the computer, but another matter has more urgency, I think.

With little notice, society has taken upon itself the banning of certain books. I looked at lists from 2019 and from 2020 listing the top ten banned books, usually by some library. School libraries were the most apt to ban the books. Technically taking a book out of a library is not “banning,” because presumable people can go elsewhere and find the book or perhaps buy their own copy.

It is troubling that books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain ( a Bantam Classics, published in 1885); To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (publised by Harper Perennial in 1960); and Lord of the Flies, make these lists, but the idea that they are banned is not quite accurate. Rather, more often than not, concerned parents who found the content of certain books, often required reading, to be offensive, complained to their school and their library or administration removed them.

However, in 2019 the US moved a step closer to actually banning a book:

In 2019, two New Jersey lawmakers introduced a non-binding resolution calling on school districts in the state to remove the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—considered to be one of the greatest in American literature—from their curricula.

Government, “suggesting” to schools what people can or can’t read.

More recently, however, “cancel culture” has influenced the withdrawal of six Dr. Seuss books from publication. Complaints caused the organization to rethink the books they put in print:

As adored as Dr. Seuss is by millions around the world for the positive values in many of his works, including environmentalism and tolerance, there has been increasing criticism in recent years over the way Blacks, Asians and others are drawn in some of his most beloved children’s books, as well as in his earlier advertising and propaganda illustrations.(ABC news report)

Finally, last year the organization holding the reins of the Dr. Seuss legacy, decided to stop publication of a select number of titles.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises, working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong. (from the Dr. Seuss Enterprises statement, as quoted by Deadline)

And so the dominoes begin to fall.

The canceling of books in a little confusing. For instance, some of the books on the 2020 list of “banned” books were removed because Christian parents objected to graphic sex portrayed in the book, some because of vulgar language or similar questions about age-inappropriate material. Should parents be allowed to make those decisions for their children? Should they push for what they believe to be inappropriate books to be removed from their school library?

On the other hand should the hypersensitivity of a culture in the 21st century remove books written earlier, often with the very intent to eliminate the objectionable behavior about which people complain?

No matter where people stand, I think the most dangerous piece of this puzzle is the involvement of a state government which has moved the needle toward actual censorship in the form of banning books.

How can we discuss ideas if we are not allowed to read anything about those ideas?

As I see it, the same “banning” approach is being employed by the “legacy” media and the tech giants that control social media. How else is a story published by the fourth largest newspaper in the US squelched? If our approach to news stories comes under the control of those holding only one view, how are we not turning our those reports into propaganda? I have to admit, I am strongly reminded of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in which the protagonist has the job of rewriting the past to suit the needs of the Party in control of the government.

In other words, I see books as key elements of our society—on one end giving a prescient look at our society, and on the other end, receiving the brunt of criticism caused by a climate of offense. The latter should concern readers and writers alike. Even when no harm is intended, when humor and caricatures are widespread such as in the canceled Dr. Seuss books, when the subject of a book is purposefully to expose a wrong attitude which has become “sensitive,” books are subject to negative treatment, if not actual banning.

To be honest, I’m surprised that Gone With The Wind is not on a recent banned book list. I’m pretty sure that Uncle Tom’s Cabin found its way on one such list not long ago. These books show life in the South during the era of slavery. To Kill A Mockingbird showed life in the segregated South during the 20th century. How are we to talk about the whys and the needed changes if we don’t have some look at what those times were like?

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
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  1. I get it. Things were screwed up in the past, as they are in the present. But trying to rewrite history smacks of control. Both Huck Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird have become part of our culture, and they both reflect the times they were written about. Does forgetting that history help anything? /a lot of good classroom discussion is in order, not banning.

  2. Michelle says:

    Long comment. Sorry! This topic gets me going.

    Even when books blatantly go against my views & beliefs, I still would not say it shouldn’t be allowed shelf space somewhere. It’s important that people be given the choice to read what they want & to think for themselves, to make up their own minds. I do think that parents have the right to protect their children as they see fit & to keep things from their children if they see them as not healthy or good for them, but there does come a point when they start to think for themselves, to decide what they’re going to read, whether their parents approve or not.

    I grew up being allowed to read, & up until I was about 13 or 14 or so – maybe a bit younger – my parents were very careful about what they let me read. My brother has never been a reader, but the same thing went for him. At whatever age it was when I was given more freedom when it came to books, I did read some things I hadn’t been allowed to before, but that was my choice.

    Growing up, I’d been taught to think for myself, & my mom, with whom I share a passion for reading, would talk to me about things I read & was always there to answer questions if I had any. So in this way, she had helped me to learn to think & to read books in a way that wasn’t necessarily just for pleasure, but also to think & to get ideas.

    Some of the books I read might not be on any banned list right now, but they might be questionable by today’s standards. They helped me to learn & to form my own opinions, as well as to think critically. I was allowed to make up my own mind about what I read, liked to read, & whether something suited me or not.

    Censorship is something I disagree with heartily, & the current cancel culture is doing great harm. Parents & authorities who are overprotective & who are keeping their children from being able to make up their own minds once they reach the stage to be able to do so. I don’t think the books talked about her & other books should be removed from society. If someone chooses to not have them in their own homes, that’s fine. It’s their choice. If parents choose to keep them from their children, that’s their right.

    But there comes a point when you have to let others make up their own minds, to let them make choices about what they’ll read or not.

    A point in the article with which I also agree is that, by removing certain books, valuable resources are lost. How can we discuss the past & learn from it if we don’t have ways to learn from it? Also, there’s some pretty good writing, some wonderful stories that are being discarded because they offend some people, & that’s a shame.

    Just because society at large, or some small, powerful groups, see something as offensive or wrong by their standards doesn’t mean everyone else should be deprived of those things. Just because some people are determined to erase the past, to cancel aspects of it out, doesn’t mean that it should be allowed. We lose valuable things when such is done, & that’s a huge shame.

  3. What people don’t understand is that the underlying issues of ‘Cancel Culture’ are far deeper and more pervasive than a few classics being harder for children to access. Slowly but surely, people are forming narrower and narrower ways of interpreting people, situations, and stories… Often to the extent that they’re practically LOOKING for excuses to deem things ‘problematic’. And once they deem something problematic, they often want to destroy it, or at least force it behind a safety gate(like a content warning, or the library’s special collection. Content warnings can be warranted sometimes, so if someone wants to use them that’s fine, but it’s worth mentioning that they’re getting a little overused now.) The cancel culture mindset cuts down on our ability to engage with things in a healthy and constructive manner. It doesn’t help our political situation, either.

    Of course not everyone is so quick to attack things they disagree with, but the idea of destroying or at least hating things that bother us is becoming more pervasive. That tendency always exists in human nature, but we shouldn’t let it become the dominant one — not when there’s so many better ways to solve our current social issues.

    That said, even though pointing out issues with our current situation is good, we need to realize that this probably isn’t going to stop on its own, or at least not anytime soon. We need to start paying attention to and analyzing what’s going on, as well as learning better ways to respond.

    For one thing, we need to remind ourselves of the old adage ‘don’t believe everything you hear, and only half of what you see.’ Although we know to be skeptical of others, people are still too quick to believe accusations and rumors online, whether those accusations are directed at a person, group, or story. We should practice looking into the original sources thoroughly and considering all sides of the issue, instead of simply trusting the opinions/interpretations/accusations that happen to be circulating. Unfortunately, people tend to lie or interpret things based on a few surface level details that offend them, rather than what’s actually going on/whether something is actually a threat. When we don’t have time to look into situations thoroughly, we should exercise more caution when commenting on them.

    So, for example, if we hear a book is canceled, we should probably read it for ourselves and evaluate it based on our own reactions instead of immediately believing what we hear(or see in screenshots. Sometimes people use screenshots to isolate a short quote and make it out to be something it isn’t). If we don’t have time to read and evaluate a book in such a manner, we should realize we don’t have all the information we need to make an informed decision, and thus use more caution when discussing the book.

    Another thing is learning to strike a good balance between listening to other people’s perspectives and criticisms, but also developing and adhering to healthy boundaries. Unfortunately, social pressure is a powerful tool that some people will gleefully use if they think it will work. We as individuals need to have personal accountability as we try to become better people, and it’s important to take other people’s feedback into account. But people often use the idea of ‘accountability’ as an excuse to force or pressure each other into narrow mindsets, or even beliefs/behaviors that are wrong or unnecessary. When someone is unwilling to join in on those harmful mindsets/beliefs/behaviors, they are often accused of being all sorts of horrible things that aren’t necessarily true. Be prepared to handle the amount of hate cancel culturey people can hurl, otherwise you will be miserable, or pushed around and forced to live a lie.

    We also need to take note of why these issues come up in the first place. One reason people get caught up in cancel culture like mindsets is because they have suffered a lot and/or see social issues that seem to get ignored/not fixed fast enough. So we need to show/find/pioneer ways of solving these social issues without the use of cancel culture, socialism, etc. If we present such alternatives while also showing how their behavior actually hurts the causes they’re championing, we’ll probably see a lot more improvement in the world.

    Those aren’t the only things we can try, but they’re a start. This isn’t solely directed at the Left or the Right, either. These are things that could probably help a lot of people regardless of what side of the cultural or political aisle they’re on.

    • If we present such alternatives while also showing how cancel culturey behaviors actually hurt the causes they’re championing, we’ll probably see a lot more improvement in the world.

    • notleia says:

      I would phrase it differently. There’s lots of noise about cancel culture, but underneath all that noise, most of what succeeds in getting and remaining cancelled probably had a reason for it, almost “deserved” it. Even Huck Finn. There’s lots of good parts, but there’s also lots of tedious crap you have to wade through to get to the good parts. And even if it shows Black people sympathetically, it still centers white people’s experiences and concerns and reactions, which can be frekkin tedious in its own right.

      I’ve got some Zitkala Sa on hold at the library, and I’m hoping to find some stuff that isn’t entirely sadfeels and depression, which is what her most notable stuff is about, and how tedious would that be for BIPOC? That most of literature by BIPOC considered Worth Preserving is depressing/tedious af and all the cool, fun stuff is 95% appropriated by white people anyway. It’s only in the last couple decades that women’s literature has branched out and gotten snarky. BIPOC don’t really get to be snarky unless it’s niche enough that the bougie crackers don’t stick their nose in it.

  4. My high school/school district was at the center of a “censorship controversy” that went national. I remember a parent calling into a local talk show and trying to read a passage from one of the books at the center of the controversy and the radio host wouldn’t let the parent read the passage without reading a copy of it ahead of time because they’d get fined because of the graphic language, which was exactly the parent’s point, why is this on the required reading list?
    Fast forward a few years, and the children’ lit teacher at my fairly conservative Christian college held that up as an example of absolutely terrible censorship. Having been forced to read one of the books in question, and really not enjoying reading a graphic description of a child’s rape by her father, I was on the side of the people wanting to take it off the reading list and got into an argument with my professor.
    I really don’t care if the book was in the library, or was offered as extra credit, but there has to be a way to discuss topics with kids without having them read materials too graphic.

    • notleia says:

      Okay, but radio and broadcast in general have different profanity standards than text.

      And if this was a high school, that’s generally considered old enough to read depressing crap, like the Russians, or stuff with language, like Huck Finn or The Color Purple — tho I’ve never seen that latter one required, just on a list of Important Literature to choose from.

      Heck, the required ones like The Crucible has an entire plot centered around no-no content, and Shakespeare has plenty of sexual references. Is it just because they are couched in more archaic euphemisms than The Color Purple has?

    • Leanna says:

      Oh my word… 🙁 I really wanted that to be a joke or an example of fake news but he brags about the awful act on his government homepage. If only there was some sort of mandatory and effective self awareness test for politicians…

  5. Leanna says:

    I don’t think your specific examples are well suited to the points you’re making.
    The Seuss publishers no longer publishing books with horrific stereotypes in them and schools not requiring students to read Huckleberry Finn are not examples of censorship or banning books.
    Removing Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom and Mockingbird from curriculum leaves space for better books addressing similar issues written by people of colour. Those books aren’t going out of general circulation anytime soon so it’s a little ridiculous to act like they are being “cancelled” when there are simply better choices for school required reading.

    • Leanna says:

      And publishers stop publishing books for all sorts of reasons that aren’t strict supply and demand. They are not obligated to keep printing any book in their line up for all time and eternity. Cruel racial stereotypes are a pretty darn good reason to stop (yes I have seen specific illustrations from the books).

What do you think?