Ban books? What is this, the Dark Ages? Well, I guess if you want to determine what I should be allowed to read I won’t call you an idiot. At least, not quite yet… though you may infer my true sentiments before I do resort to name-calling. Actually, you probably can’t infer much if you are a book banning type, so at the risk of killing my punchline: You are an idiot.
We discuss censorship a lot in this part of the world. Primarily for how and why China applies censorship logic. And then of course there is that SAT essay prompt that asks if the government should restrict certain kinds of information from the public. [Most of my students here say yes. They view it as some sort of necessary protection without considering the issue of surrounding who we give the authority to determine what is okay for our innocent eyes and ears.] China has a strange censorship policy – like, it gives new meaning to the concept of arbitrary, but it does keep us guessing. I think they are aware they are fighting a losing battle especially concerning the internet and so they do that thing where they continue acting like they are in control of everything and then just sort of ignore the obvious evidence that they are not.
Recently a teacher was suspended for assigning a Chuck Palahniuk story called “Guts” in his class. This caught my eye for a few reasons (ok, yeah, it was brought to my attention by a Twitter tweet…) but more to the point, last year I had a student bring me the story and wanted to use it for a class assignment of his own. I read it and thought, “Wow. Okay, it is definitely an interesting piece of literature,” and frankly it was perfect for the project the kid had in mind, but was I comfortable telling him to go forward with in in light of the fact that he attends a “certain” school with “certain” religious overtones and a particular belief that they have some sort of high-end image to uphold? And what of his parents; would I be willing to defend the story if his fairly conservative Korean family came down on me about it? I paused. What were the issues here? This was a 15-year-old who was reading. Of his own volition. And, though clearly intrigued by the shock value of Palahniuk’s short story, he was interested and willing to talk about it. Isn’t that the point of having kids read? And, further, doesn’t that diffuse the potential for problems that generally lie in the misunderstanding in the first place?
I said go for it.
People have been banning books for ages. And most of the books that have received the most attention are extremely well-known works of literature. They are not banned for violence, or misogyny , or rape of the environment, or simply God-AWFUL writing [Hello Dan Brown and sarah Palin.] They are banned for exploring human sexuality, countercultural ideals, and questioning authority. Hm. How boldly dangerous. Most of the books on the 50 Most Frequently Banned Books List I have read. Beyond that, many of them are personal favorites. And I find it sadly telling that we ban books that deal with the human condition in ways that we are generally personally familiar with. [It is not without interest that I note how Shakespeare seems untouchable; he was the original ODB in literature… I mean, transvestivtes, adultery, murder, whores, incest, beatiality, magic… he quite literally ‘wrote the book.’] We don’t ban books that deal with the complete freakery potential of mankind, but what hits close to home. Seems illogical at best. Or like we are just a bunch of big babies living on a certain river in Egypt.
There is a very simple solution to the whole problem. If you do not like a book, do not read it. [Of course, you have to read it to actually have a valid opinion, but most of the banners opinions are, in MY opinion, invalid anyhow, so the fact that they decry what they do not know seems apropos.] You have the right to read what you want to read, (unless you are in a book group like I am and in that case you’ve gotta read a lot of shit you would never read otherwise…) and as a parent, you have a right to influence what your kid reads too. But I have litany of reasons why you all should avoid Prohibition. Really, folks, it doesn’t work. You know what does work though? Engaging with controversial works of literature and ideas and talking about them. Sort of diffuses the whole big fear that we are all going to turn into a whole bunch of pot-smoking, gay, magical, motorcycle riding, fat, free-thinking, naked, pacifist, indigent, black witches who have too much sex.
Where you fall on the censorship debate will most certainly color your opinion of book bans. I guess I sort of feel like people who feel censorship is necessary have one of two things going on: either they have huge unresolved issues of their own (who doesn’t), OR they really believe they know better than everyone else (how annoying, *ahem*). Ironically, I have just described myself, yet I do not support censorship at all, so I guess there is hope for those PMRC-minded folks out there. The thing is, what China and book banner/burners have not realized is that banning something makes it exponentially more appealing to those you are banning it from. In, like, ONE nanosecond. It is totally counter to their agenda.
The teacher who found himself suspended probably should have taken some peremptory steps, as anyone who works in schools knows. So, assuming he wasn’t trying to get busted to make a point [“Don’t taze me, Bro!”] he did sort of blow it because any sort of reasonable rationale for including the text would likely have allowed him to use it; in the worst case scenario they might have required permission. I faced similar issues using Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 in the public schools where I taught… but the heightened drama around their approval did wonders for student interest in the material. You know how many more kids in that school in NYC want to read “Guts” now? You can’t even count that high or that fast.
So, yeah. You people who ban books? You are idiots. Mostly because you make it so much harder for me to get my hands on them as they are flying off the shelves of every store after you declare them to be of questionable content.