What Books Would I Ban?

People who want to ban books are a little hard for me to understand. I hear about them and I think "Are your personal beliefs really built on such shaky foundations that they can't be challenged? Are you really so scared of ideas?"

Detect a little self satisfaction in there? Yeah me too. I mean, surely I would never be so weak as to consider banning a book. Surely I'm better than these heathens. Right? Eager to pierce my own smug certainty, I decided that for Banned Book week I would try to find a scenario where things might not be so clear. 

There was a case in Fairfax, VA where a religious group tried to get works with an anti-gay message into libraries to counter what they felt was a pro-gay bias. They were rebuffed and quickly cried that their books were being banned. The exact details of the story don't quite fit the typical banning story. These were books that didn't fit the libraries inclusion guidelines for technical reasons like not having at least two positive reviews from reputable sources. Also, not being included in a library's collection is not quite the same as being in it and then being thrown out.

But, details aside, it made me think. Hypothetically speaking, if these anti-gay books did fit the libraries guidelines and were made a part of the collection how would I feel about that? What if I had a gay son or daughter and these were in their school?

Like most writers I'm viscerally against the banning or censoring of books. When the ideals that are being attacked are my own, I'm the first to call wannabe book banners cowards who are terrified of ideas. Repressive ideologues. 

But I'm also a huge supporter of gay, lesbian and transgender rights. Pro-gay marriage, pro gays in the military. All of that. I think the kind of crap these anti-gay groups pedal is repugnant and helps create an atmosphere that leads to bullying and self hatred and eventually the rash of suicides we've seen from gay teens.

It's tempting to tell myself that these anti-gay books are different in some essential way from the pro gay books my opposite numbers would like to ban. Anti-gay books abuse teens. They can help create real physical danger. I believe that. But the thing is, I know that people on the opposite side of the argument from me are just as sure that  "pro-gay" works irreparably harm kids as I am that "anti-gay" works do the same. Their desire to ban is motivated by feelings as intense and honestly felt as my own. I can disagree with them, I can say I'm right and they're wrong, but I can't deny the sincerity of their beliefs.

So, what to do? Would I work to kick these books out of libraries? 

When I think I wouldn't I feel like I'm betraying all those abused gay kids, people who are having a pretty rough time of things right now. When I think I would I feel like a complete hypocrite.

I guess on balance I'd rather feel like a hypocrite but no matter how many ways I work around the idea I just can't get comfortable with it.

What about you all? What would you do in this situation? Can you imagine a situation that would make you a book banner?


Wen Baragrey said...

I think you win for most thought provoking post of the year :) You are quite right, in fact, and I've never stopped to think about it.

I think sometimes we're so sure of our beliefs, especially when they are the popular ones, that we fail to understand that those on the other side feel equally as passionate.

Popular does not always equal right, the world wars have been proof of that.

You've certainly made me think. I admit, my reaction to an anti-gay book like that being put in my school's library would get a similar reaction from me, too.

As you say, I think the main difference is that the anti-gay message is hurtful and harmful, whereas the pro-gay message clearly is not. The pro-gay message aims to include, not exclude--to heal, not to cause further hurt. Other than that, wow, you've really made me think.

B.E. Sanderson said...

Great post.

I think it's a matter of 'who decides what's offensive and isn't'. Should it be based on what's offensive to the greatest number of people or to the people who squeal the loudest or to the ones with the moral high ground (and then who decides where that high ground is)? It's a sticky situation - especially where a publicly-funded library comes into play - and one that requires a lot more thought than most people give it. Thanks for making people think, Jeff.

Jen Chandler said...

Oh dear. A real "Catch 22" post if ever I read one!

There are things I don't agree with. There are things that I do agree with that most people I know don't agree with. My gut answer is that every voice has a right to be heard. Even those voices that I would consider ignorant and bitter and self-righteous.

Perhaps the only way to get over the whole book-banning epidemic is to simply allow people the right to disagree. As adults, we have the obligation to help children grow into competent, open-minded adults. I'm not a parent and I say this in all honesty: I admire parents and what they have to do to keep their kids educated and yet safe.

It is a sticky situation, as another commenter has said. Thank you for making us think today. This question really does merit more thought!


Matthew MacNish said...

I would never support banning any book. Not Nazi Propaganda, not the Anarchist's Cookbook, nothing.

The problem with our world is that parents don't spend any time with their children, teach them what is right and wrong.

I let my kids read ANYTHING they want. If I'm worried about the content, I read it myself, so we can talk about it. It's called parenting.

There is one book I would like to ban though: my book, assuming I can get it published. There is nothing more bad-ass than having written a banned book. All the coolest books get banned.

Donna K. Weaver said...

You hit the nail on the head, and therein lies the challenge. Some books don't fit the criteria for school libraries in nothing than age appropriateness. I guess the hopes are that parents are going to be actively involved with their children . Issue get hard when you're dealing with kid libraries.

Not so much with adult libraries. But, the kids could have access to the same books at the adult library. Who's going to police what they check out? Their parents.

Author Dan Wells wrote a wonder blog post about this.


Jana said...

Awesome post! I did a Banned Book booktalk with 8th graders this week. It would have been interesting to hear what situations they could come up with that would make banning ok.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jeff, interesting post. J.M. Coetzee in his book Giving Offence defines something as offensive when it threatens the dignity of a group or undermines the innocence of children (I am paraphrasing of course). I am tempted to include those as the same thing because I would argue that part of the dignity of children (or any group that we feel patriarchal toward) is due to their innocence.

Interestingly this definition essentially requires that you become offended on behalf of another, since we usually feel we can defend our own dignity - we are rarely offended when it is threatened, we are angered.

It is only when the dignity of groups who we feel are incapable of defending their dignity are threatened that we become offended on their behalf.

So how does this relate to your example? On one level I would say that patriarchal behavior toward children is appropriate so I am justified in censoring the books that my child reads and thus I don't need the library to do it for me. However the bigger picture relates to the broader group over whom I have no patriarchal authority (the gay community in this case).

My own conclusion is that since censorship, and the offense on which it depends is based on threats to the dignity of a marginalized group, acting on the desire to censor reinforces the perception that the group needs defending. In other words, perhaps an important step in the assertion of the unassailable dignity of the gay community is resisting the temptation to protect that community from criticism. Especially if this is coupled with equally aggressive direct assertion of their unassailable dignity (i.e., the it gets better campaign).

BrittLit said...

Fantastic post. I see where something like that can seem to lead to a gray area. Even those anti-gay books though, don't have to be read by people who don't want to read them. Just like pro-gay books don't have to be read by people who don't want to read them. We have a human right to self-censor, if something is going to offend us, we don't have to read or watch it. If puppies playing on rainbows offended me I could just not read those books, there would be no need to have them all taken out, because one person or hundreds are offended. As long as the subject matter isn't illegal I think it should be up to people to select material that is appropriate for themselves.

Melody said...

I like this post, mainly because you're bringing up something that's left largely unsaid in the We Hate Book-Banning argument. Because of course we all disagree with the banning of books we like, or that we approve of, or that we think change the world for the better. Of course we do! And when someone bans them, we are up in arms, because THAT IS A GOOD BOOK AND IT WILL CHANGE SOMEONE'S LIFE FOR THE BETTER! Makes sense. Everybody does that.

But in the interest of fairness, we MUST be willing to not ban books that we don't like, don't agree with, even books that influence people for the worse.

So which is it? What's the right answer? We can be hypocrites, as you said, and fight for the books we like and ban the ones we don't, but then we are no different from those who are banning the books we like - because they feel EXACTLY AS WE DO.

Is there a right answer? Maybe not. But I think we should examine ourselves during this anti-book-banning week and realize that we could someday suddenly find ourselves on the other side of the fence.

Marva Dasef said...

I wouldn't ban books, but I might skip the old Dewey Decimal System and put books into category groupings, like a shelf or two, with a clear sign of what's in the group.

Our library has a children's section, so I'd be concerned that the Marquis de Sade didn't get a place in THAT area.

I did ban some books from a library myself. I was the library helper in 8th grade. That gave me access to new arrivals, which I was to plastic cover and Dewey. This meant I got to read the books first (sneaky little devil). I suggested to the librarian that a couple of the books were a bit risque for middle-school. But notice I didn't think them to risque for my own perusal. After all, I read the Decameron in the 55h grade (not a school assignment!). In other words, I had a lively double-standard going.

Beware of banning based on bias.

Jenny S. Morris said...

This is a great argument, and really thought provoking. When it comes to books I have to look at them from not only a writer's perspective, but a parent’s. When it comes to school libraries, I think there are inappropriate books. I don't want my 7 year old walking into the school library and picking up a kama sutra book. And I really would prefer if he didn’t have access to books that spread hate. I think I would choose to fight to keep anti-gay books out of the school libraries.

But, when it comes to public libraries, I don’t think a book should be banned. Unfortunately, you can check out a book that spews hate like, Mein Kampf. But, if you ban one, then you have to ban the other. And who decides?

Jessi said...

Very interesting question. I’ll say right now, being against homosexuality, I don’t like the idea of banning anti-homosexual material. I also doubt these people were trying to harm children with their anti-gay material. More than likely, they were trying to help them change their sinful ways and live happy lives.
In my mind, if parents don’t want their kids reading something they find offensive or they think it could harm their kids, they should just tell the kids not to read it. They don’t need to make laws against it.
Since I’m against homosexuality, I might like to see pro-gay material banned because I consider it harmful but I feel torn about the issue because if one book is banned, that means another can be banned and once the banning starts, where will it stop? People have very different views on what is harmful and offensive, so if every book that is deemed harmful or offensive is banned, there wouldn’t be any books left.
Instead of banning books, perhaps there should be something written in the beginning of the book saying something along the lines of, “Warning: this book contains violence and strong profanity.” If the parents can know what is in the book that they’d object to, and the children would know too, it might help them avoid books they would find offensive. (The biggest problem I’m seeing right now is that it’s hard to avoid books with certain material because you don’t know it’s in the books until you read them, something hard for a busy parent to do.)

Tere Kirkland said...

In my mind the difference in this particular case is between banning a book that is someone's labor of love, months--perhaps years--of someone's life, versus a book that was written with propagandist intents.

While I would be loathe to ban an already cataloged work of fiction from the library, no matter how graphic (I usually give an author the benefit of doubt that it was written that way for a reason), for me a non-fiction "text" such as the one mentioned above ought to be fact-based to be allowed in a library. It is not censorship, but scholarship, that would keep a library from acquiring such "books".

Very thought-provoking post!

Jeff Hirsch said...

Wow! If any of you are checking back in I want you to know I'm just blown away by the depth and thoughtfulness of your comments. Thanks so much for coming by and lending your two cents!

Ultimately I'm swayed by the non-banning side.You have to defend the rights of people to say things that you find repugnant. It's tough, but what choice is there?

@KennyPeanuts. Hi Brother. First, I knew you'd find a way to bring it back to Coetzee. Second, interesting point about fighting the perception that a group needs defending. I get this as it relates to adults, definitely, but I guess I find it more difficult when we're talking about kids who are in a difficult, transitory phase. In many cases they're alone, besieged,confused and incredibly vulnerable. They need their dignity but not protecting them can mean, as we've seen, their abuse and even death. How do we deal with that?

Anonymous said...

Hey Jeff, Sup? I was going to say that Cotezee was a wise man but I am not sure if that's true. He is fearless when it comes to writing uncomfortable things however.

I have been thinking about what you said and I agree that we need to acknowledge that these are not purely academic arguments but situations with very serious consequences.

That being said, I think it comes back to what you indicate at the end of your comment. As you say, these kids are "alone, besieged,confused and incredibly vulnerable". As a result we are offended by assaults to their dignity, by speech that attempts to dehumanize them.

If we recognize that many of those who produce this offensive material are the result of past success in dehumanizing the group, our goal should not be to marginalize them further (and thus galvanize their movements) but rather expose their basic premise as false and hopefully change their mind. If we continually and openly counter their dehumanizing language with the assertion of the inalienable dignity and humanity of the gay community then we force them to defend their indefensible position. Furthermore we show the alienated teens in this case that they are not alone and that they do have inherent dignity.

This can only be done if the dialog is open and if we can show that there is nothing to fear in these books because their foundation is groundless. If we can organize a boycott, we can just as easily organize a reading group where we read the offensive books and make their arguments withstand scrutiny and comparison with more scholarly works.

So that's where my thinking is on this - I am not sure if it is complete but I just keep coming back to the thought that so much offensive speech is built on such shaky foundations, that its suppression only makes it more powerful.