You see, I firmly believe that banning and/or burning things like books is one of the stupidest, least productive, and least useful ways for the folks who wish to control our thinking to spend their time, and, therefore, it’s a marvelous way for them to get it out of their system, while, ultimately, doing about as little damage as possible. Okay, so now someone wants to know how on earth I can say that with a straight face.
Well, my thinking is really quite simple, not profound in any way, not even particularly hard to explain. You see, it boils down to this; it doesn’t work and, especially in this day and age, it CAN’T work! I will admit that there MIGHT have been a time when one could actually establish some sense of control over what people believed and thought by controlling what they read, but I would suggest that that time (if it ever existed) probably hasn’t existed at least since the majority of the population became somewhat literate.
There WAS a time, as we all should know, when, because only a small minority of people could read and/or write, the vast majority of the population had to rely on an elite minority for all information. This provided an opportunity for that elite to decide what ideas would be allowed to be available to all.
Unfortunately, for much of the history of what is called “Western Civilization,” the chief elite was the Christian Church. Hence, virtually anything which could be construed as being in conflict with church teaching and policy was forbidden, anathema, not to be tolerated, as a guy named Galileo discovered when he started to espouse ideas as to the nature of the universe which conflicted with the church-accepted ideas of Aristotle.
Now it has been argued that some of the “church fathers” were actually willing to examine his ideas and his evidence and, while he was forced to keep his mouth shut and to not publish his ideas, the fact is that he was NOT put to death by the Inquisition. It has been suggested, I am told, that these “church fathers” felt that as long as the general populace didn’t catch on to this challenge to Church authority, it would help the church resist the growing forces of reformation which were in full swing. Galileo was, after all, born in the same year as Shakespeare (1564), who would live under the sway of the protestant, Tudor-controlled Church of England.
But, I would argue that it was probably already too late by the later half of the 1500s: too many people had at least some knowledge of reading and writing. That meant too many people were being exposed to ideas from sources other than just the “church-approved” ones. This certainly didn’t happen overnight, nor was the spread of literacy ever truly universal. I would even go so far, without seeing any real likelihood of being successfully challenged, to argue that universal literacy is still far from complete. The fact seems to be, however, that the quickest way to get people to read something is to tell them that they shouldn’t be able to get ahold of it, as anyone who has ever been a middle or high school student knows.
BUT, especially with the advent of the internet and digital transfer of ideas and images, to accompany the traditional sources of print, etc., it has become almost impossible to lose and/or hide an idea (or almost anything else), if someone really wants to find it. Libraries certainly have made things much easier for a long time, but libraries were fairly rare until relatively recently in history. Word of mouth has been around longer and doesn’t require anything but contact between two people to transfer ideas, etc. But, word of mouth is fairly inefficient, even if gossip travels at almost the speed of light.
However, newspapers, inexpensive books, radio, movies, television and the internet made high-speed access to vast quantities of information quite possible and relatively simple. And, the nature of the internet (which includes a reliance on redundancy and “tell me twice” notions) quickly assured that virtually nothing ever loaded onto it can be completely lost. I (and a good many other faculty I knew) used to tell students that they should always be careful as to anything they posted on the internet because once it was there, it was there forever. It may not be easy to find, but it IS findable. See the current legal/political news for numerous examples.
So what does all this have to do with banning books, other than providing me with a place to post the ALA’s wonderful “We Read Banned Books” banner?
Personally, I don’t think that I have any real reason to be ashamed of being “white.” I realize that it’s not very “woke” of me to admit it, but I refuse to accept responsibility for the possible actions of my ancestors, now dead. Hell, I’m not responsible for the actions of my parents (also, in my case, now dead), let alone ancestors further back. Am I sorry if they didn’t live up to what is the acceptable standard of behavior by today’s standards? Yes, but I can’t change what they did (or didn’t) do any more than I can make it rain two weeks ago during a dry spell. And, the fact is that today’s standards were not those of much of human history.
I find it sad that some human beings were, for many centuries, believed to be less than fully human and were simply considered to be property, but I don’t think that way. And I’m in no position to alter the facts of history which contain vast mounds of evidence about all sorts of historical ideas. Some of which (“All men are created equal…”) I celebrate and some of which I don’t.
But, some people figure that the best solution is just to destroy any materials they don’t like, right? Won’t work! Pick up your iPhone (or similar device) and ask Siri (or Alexa, or whomever) about slavery (for example) and, unless it’s been deleted from the entire internet (it hadn’t been when I wrote this), you’ll probably find out more than you really want to know pretty quickly. And from whom did we learn how to accomplish this? Perhaps by reading instructions, but most likely from our kids and grandkids, the very ones our “leaders” want to prevent from finding out about such things, but who tend to use the technology better than their parents and grandparents.
So, while I’m convinced that it’s a futile effort, some people insist on trying to erase the facts they don’t like. I think it’s stupid because it won’t (can’t) work and creating a method of “challenging” these “bad” ideas simply establishes a means by which ANYTHING can be challenged! Personally, I find it most amusing that The Holy Bible has had a place on the “Most Frequently Challenged Books List” since its inception. Of course, banning THAT book could lead to (some would say it required) the removal of ALL “religious texts,” which probably wouldn’t even make atheists happy.
Personally, I have always thought it rather sad that it’s become difficult to even find a copy of Huckleberry Finn anymore. It’s been suggested to me that it’s because Jim, the runaway slave, is virtually always referred to as N****** Jim. Now, I don’t like that term, I try avoid using it in public, and I don’t much care for people around me to use it. (Somehow, it was OK when Dick Gregory used it as the title of his autobiography, though, but, of course, HE was Black!)
However, I find it quite annoying that a book written in 1884 should be banned because it is historically accurate in the way it uses language. (How could we expect older authors to conform to the language usage of our time? Does this mean we should only allow the publication of Shakespeare, for example, in “Modern Translation”?) Somehow, I’d be less likely to attend any Shakespearian play in the “modern English” translations I’ve encountered. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that modern words don’t connote and/or mean exactly what they did in the Tudor age.
If we are going to be picky about language usage which is considered improper today, there’s a whole lot of what has been considered to be among the world’s greatest literature which we shouldn’t even acknowledge the existence of if all. Am I the only one who understands that Shakespeare has some “dirty” stuff in most of his plays? Clearly they should be banned, or at least Bowdlerized, before we allow them to be read, or performed, since the language used in them must be edited to suit the standards of the easily offended of today.
If we are going to refuse to acknowledge the right of people to have ideas with which we disagree, we are going to have a pretty unsatisfactory society. To me, it borders on the stupidity of suggesting that 𝚷 should be set at 3 because it makes the math so much easier
(Don’t laugh, that HAS been proposed!)
A society can only improve by being willing to consider new ideas, new concepts, new ways of looking at things. That’s why humans invented libraries; to have a place to collect facts and ideas for examination and consideration. That’s what education means. (Can you tell I’m the son and grandson of educators and librarians?)
I’m not convinced that I’ve said this all that well. Not long ago, I ran across a letter which former President Barack Obama wrote and the ALA reproduced earlier this summer. I won’t repeat all of it, but I found the first part quite worth reading.
From Barack Obama’s open letter to librarians (July 17, 2023):
To the dedicated and hardworking librarians of America:
In any democracy, the free exchange of ideas is an important part of making sure that
citizens are informed, engaged and feel like their perspectives matter.
It’s so important, in fact, that here in America, the First Amendment of our Constitution
states that freedom begins with our capacity to share and access ideas—even, and
maybe especially, the ones we disagree with.
More often than not, someone decides to write those ideas down in a book.
Books have always shaped how I experience the world. Writers like Mark Twain and
Toni Morrison, Walt Whitman and James Baldwin taught me something essential
about our country’s character. Reading about people whose lives were very different
from mine showed me how to step into someone else’s shoes. And the simple act of
writing helped me develop my own identity—all of which would prove vital as a citizen,
as a community organizer, and as president.
Today, some of the books that shaped my life—and the lives of so many others—are
being challenged by people who disagree with certain ideas or perspectives. It’s no
coincidence that these “banned books” are often written by or feature people of color,
indigenous people, and members of the LGBTQ+ community—though there have also
been unfortunate instances in which books by conservative authors or books containing
“triggering” words or scenes have been targets for removal. Either way, the impulse
seems to be to silence, rather than engage, rebut, learn from or seek to understand views
that don’t fit our own.
I believe such an approach is profoundly misguided, and contrary to what has made this
country great. As I’ve said before, not only is it important for young people from all walks
of life to see themselves represented in the pages of books, but it’s also important for all
of us to engage with different ideas and points of view.
It’s also important to understand that the world is watching. If America—a nation built
on freedom of expression—allows certain voices and ideas to be silenced, why should
other countries go out of their way to protect them? Ironically, it is Christian and other
religious texts—the sacred texts that some calling for book bannings in this country
claim to want to defend—that have often been the first target of censorship and book
banning efforts in authoritarian countries.
Well said, Barack….
I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with something else. I’ll try to find something amusing.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
— Nelson Mandela
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic; capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” ― Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
“Not everything which can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
— from a sign in Albert Einstein’s office
"The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”
— Daniel Patrick Moynihan
The whole principle [of censorship] is wrong. It's like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can't have steak.
—Robert A. Heinlein, The Man Who Sold the Moon