We human beings, especially those of us who are getting on in years, are always complaining that “anything goes these days.” It’s a habit that defines the species. Elderly Neanderthals probably tottered about fretting that the cave was going to the dogs and it was time for tighter standards and firmer discipline — to be enforced by themselves, naturally.
Nothing much has changed. In the West, at least, the conviction still prevails that standards have never been more free — or lax, depending on your point of view. Young people, that exasperating band of conformist freethinkers, read, write, listen to and do whatever they want, don’t they? Yet despite this, or because of it, censorship is as much in the air as ever. Every other day, discussion flares up anew about the permissible limits in this or that arena: the Internet, art exhibitions, film ratings, libraries and school reading lists, to name a few.
About the only exempt field in the developed world is politics, probably because its practitioners would not recognize a subversive thought if they fell over it. But there’s a lesson in this, which it might profit the culture-censors to contemplate. Maybe politicians only become subversive when subversion is not permitted. Maybe the most reliable censorship of all is the self-censorship (a combination of satisfaction, laziness and want of provocation) that follows on being allowed to think, read and say whatever one wants, short of slander. As in politics, so in art. How many people would have bothered to read “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” 70 years ago, had it not been for the incomparable promotion skills of the British and U.S. censors?
These thoughts were stirred by a report released last month by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom ahead of the 20th annual U.S. Banned Book Week. This document listed the top 100 titles that American adults agitated, often successfully, to have removed from schools and public libraries in the past decade.
The list is an interesting one. Parents anxious to shield their offspring from the world’s evils objected to books for an impressive variety of reasons. Violence, scariness and the fear that children might learn that “ghosts are actually possible” made the late Alvin Schwartz’s “Scary Stories” horror series the No. 1 bad books. Witchcraft and wizardry, confused by some fundamentalist Christian groups with Satanism, got the popular Harry Potter books banned in some places. Racial tensions kept U.S. librarians hopping throughout the ’90s: Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was taken off one school curriculum because it portrays whites as “horrible, nasty, stupid people,” but “Huckleberry Finn” was taken off others because Huck calls Jim a “nigger.” (Why not just read both and let their offenses cancel each other out?) Other problematic themes were that old bugaboo, sex (actually the commonest objection); anti-family scenarios (“Daddy’s Roommate”); and “general negativity,” which earned “Catcher in the Rye” a thumbs-down in one California school district.
Apart from the fact that if lifelike ghosts and sullen teenagers are deemed subversive, most books from the Bible to Shakespeare will have to be banned, any schoolchild could tell these parents where they are going wrong. The way to stop a child from being impressed by an “objectionable” book is not to get it banned, but to make it a compulsory classroom text, with summaries and quizzes after every chapter and an audiovisual project upon completion. No approach is better guaranteed to turn a child off an author for life. Even J.K. Rowling couldn’t withstand it. Conversely, the library book every child most wants to read (and will, at the earliest opportunity) is the one that’s been publicly denounced as “evil.”
In Japan, according to recent reports, the compulsory-textbook approach has been creatively combined with widespread indifference to keeping school-library holdings up to date, or even up to government requirements. The effect, if not the intention, has doubtless been to encourage an aversion to books that would gladden the heart of the keenest censor. Book-burners should take note of this subtle alternative approach.
The truth is, there’s nothing wrong with standards and discipline. Parents should teach their children that it’s wrong to lie, cheat, steal, bully, maim and kill. They might even pass on their own convictions about gods and ghosts and politicians and people of different colors and different sexual preferences. But if they want and trust their children to become independent-minded, well-informed, genuinely tolerant adults (just like themselves), they should then hand them a library card and say, “Now, go, read — anything and everything you can.” If not, of course, well, that’s a different story. That’s when you start banning things.
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