Should Governments be Able to Ban Books?

As of 2017 the most commonly banned book in America is a graphic novel for teenagers, This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki. All of the top five most banned feature LGBT characters. Out of the top ten all but two were written for grade school students (Banned). The censorship of books is a global phenomenon, employed by the governments of some countries like Iran and Russia to limit available knowledge to the public as a way of furthering their own agenda. In America it is often employed as a means of shielding the young or the imprisoned from topics that might negatively affect them. This restriction of information, be it through the lens of fiction or presentation of fact, is mired in controversy.

Many feel that taking books off of the shelves just because someone feels threatened or gets offended by their contents cannot be justified. The free expression of ideals cannot be curbed simply to cater to one person’s beliefs over another. It is argued that books present new viewpoints and facts that provide beneficial information to readers and that authors’ artistic visions should not be infringed upon either. There is also a common correlation that several books featuring marginalized characters (I Am Jazz, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, etc.) are routinely banned. Conversely, many do not view literary censorship as inherently wrong because it is often used to limit children’s exposure to subjects that are too mature for them. Is there really anything wrong with making sure one’s child is not reading Fifty Shades of Grey in seventh grade? Books are most commonly banned for explicit sexuality, unhealthy lifestyles, profanity, and racial issues that are not suitable reading material for younger people. Book censorship in prisons is also often approached from the standpoint of not providing inmates with books that could incite violence. The issue boils down to freedom versus protection, and whether preserving innocence or peace should come at the cost of the right to speech.

On the side supporting censorship the primary concern is the protection of children. According to Butler University’s Libraries and Center for Academic Technology, a college organization dedicated to informing others about the availability of information, books are most commonly banned for including racial issues, encouraging damaging lifestyles, blasphemous dialog, sexual content, violence or negativity, presence of witchcraft, religious affiliations, political bias, and not being age appropriate (Banned). The site explains that people on all sides of the political spectrum have gotten books banned; the right in order to purge books that conflict with Judeo-Christian morals and the left to eliminate material that is culturally insensitive. It is also apparent that the group of people most likely to ban or challenge a book is parents of school age children (Challenges).

It is postulated that restriction of damaging information protects the innocence of children, so that they are not exposed to the harsh realities of adult life. The idea that the well-being of children is more important than artistic integrity is an understandable one. This viewpoint is expanded upon by an article in the Federalist titled In Defense of Book Banning, where a father addresses his concerns with the reading material made available to his kids. The author makes the point that while exposing kids to controversial topics is not necessarily a bad thing, some books are needlessly explicit or provocative as a selling point. He references Tintin in the Congo (racist depictions), Rainbow Party (teenage sex parties), and ttyl (poor grammar and excessive sexual references) as positive examples of literary censorship. We need more involved parents and authority figures acting as responsible gatekeepers, he argues, and we need to be having more conversations about what constitutes an appropriate cultural climate for children in an era of information overload. The key statement in the article that sums up the author’s point is this: To say that knowledge never hurts is to deny that books have any power to influence people at all. So in the author’s opinion, books are not inherently bad but they do have the power to negatively affect young people (Hemingway).

This way of thinking is common among parents. The author’s arguments appeal primarily to the emotions of the reader, coming across as impassioned and coming from a place of sincere concern. The points Hemingway raises over children not being exposed to sexual content are also persuasive. There is no pressing need for younger readers to have detailed knowledge of sex, and the same can be said for crude language and slurs. Racist depictions that were not considered inappropriate at the time of publication are also argued to merit censorship because society as a whole is attempting to move past its former racism, and exposing children to offensive stereotypes, slurs, or statements that some races are superior to others only serves to set progress back. However, it is questionable whether banning a book for all children at a school or public library is better than not allowing only one’s own child to read it.

Furthermore, another battleground of literary censorship is the existing government funded prison libraries. Many countries do not provide prisoners with reading material, but in the United States of America there are typically areas with reading material for prisoners. These libraries are much more heavily censored than public libraries, primarily in order to keep the peace and avoid encouraging any further criminal activity. In an article in Airship, an online literary magazine, it is explained that many books involving issues of racism, witchcraft, and homosexuality are kept off the shelves. Prison officials fear these books would incite riots, lead inmates to start practicing witchcraft, or use the prison library as a gay bar of sorts. While the sentiment of preventing violence is a noble one, but it is somewhat reductive to assume all incarcerated persons have a monkey see, monkey do approach to reading.

Nevertheless, those who are in prison have forfeited many of their rights because they refused to adhere to society’s laws. Thus, censorship in prison libraries is justified as punishment. In terms of credibility, information from Butler University is presumably reliable as it is an informational supplement. There is no apparent slant apart from putting quotation marks around the word damaging when discussing damaging lifestyles, which include drug use, premarital cohabitation, and homosexuality. This could indicate a more liberal viewpoint, but it does not affect the accuracy of the information provided. The Federalist is a different case. The article itself is an opinion piece so there is bound to be bias in its arguments but the publication is considered reputable with an obvious conservative tilt. The author, Mark Hemingway, is a founding member of the Federalist and writes frequently about matters of religion and books. His religious views may cloud his assessment of the merits of books that do not adhere to what he believes, but his knowledge of literature compensates. Overall, his arguments come from the perspective of a parent who is trying to protect his children which gives his points more emotional weight.

The Airship is an online blog that is supported by a publishing company and the article’s author is a college student studying English and literature. While the site’s reliability in this respect is questionable, it is also worth noting that it actually argues for the opposing side. The information used was supplementary. Even so, the authors cited within the article have greater credibility and are experts on prison literacy. This lends more validity to the information in the article. On the other side of the issue, many feel there should be freedom for people to read what they wish and that allowing governments to prohibit certain reading material gives them undue control of the flow of information. A prime example of such a regime is in Iran, circa 2007. In an article affiliated with Radio Free Europe, Faraj Sarkouhi describes how many books banned are banned arbitrarily as a means of obfuscating the true condition of the nation. The majority of forbidden books are written by Iranian authors rather than by foreign authors. Presumably this is done to prevent the spread of new ideas within the country and keep things as they are. All books awaiting publishing must pass through multiple checks that content does not conflict with the regime’s views and that the author is not on the blacklist. The effect is that the public only has access to books that do not conflict with the views of the regime. The article argues that these aims are unjustified and that freedom of information is integral.

Furthermore, the existing limitations are detrimental to Iran’s development. The presentation of censorship as harmful to a nation’s progress supports the idea that governments should not be able to censor books for no reason other than that they do not agree with its content. In places where literary censorship is not as total, such as the United States, organizations like the American Library Association feel that the only instance of book censorship of someone other than one’s self is a parent preventing their child or children from reading a book, but not other children. They also believe that censorship by librarians of constitutionally protected speech, whether for protection or for any other reason, violates the First Amendment. The US First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech is a common rallying for those against the censorship of books. Because Americans have the right to express their ideas and opinions, censorship of someone’s publicly expressed ideas is directly contradictory to the country’s fundamental laws (Banned). The argument that free information should be a right is persuasive in that one does not want to be limited in the pursuit of knowledge.

Additionally, authors like Jay Asher (author of the young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why) feel that the focus of literary censorship on books for young people can have detrimental effects. In an interview with PBS Newshour he expressed that, If we (adults) say issues of teen suicide, drinking, sex or sexual assault are inappropriate, we’re telling teens who may identify with those themes that there isn’t a safe space for them. By limiting the representation of real issues in books for teenagers, he argues, it makes it harder for them to know what to do because they have no frame of reference for what is going on. Preventing young people from reading about characters that have similar experiences to themselves can make them feel isolated. These ideas appeal to that same sentiment of save the children, but supports a method of open acknowledgment of real life problems, rather than simply pretending that they do not exist. The reputability of various cited sources stand up well to scrutiny. Faraj Sarkouhi was an editor of a periodical in Iran, but was arrested for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran.” He now lives in Germany. So it is reasonable to assume that the author does not have a positive view of the Iranian government, but he also has firsthand experience with what is described in the article.

 

Likewise, The American Library Association is naturally predisposed to not support banning and is also the organizer of Banned Book Week, encouraging people to go out and read books that were once or are currently banned. As an organization they exist to inform as well as to promote activism, making most of the information provided likely to be reliable. The sway is inherent but it provides insight into a specific side of the debate. Finally, Author Jay Asher’s claims are not backed by hard data per se but rather by personal experience. It is one person’s opinion but it has the unique perspective of coming from a banned author. He supports his statements with background information that goes with his experience. PBS is generally considered to be a reputable news source and the cited interview is presumably accurate. Jay Asher is most likely representing his own views correctly. It is the conclusion of this research paper that censorship of books is not an ability that should be available to legislative bodies. It comes with too many options for corruption, alienates those who find themselves reflected in banned material, limits the author’s creative liberty, and restricts the free flow of information. While persuasive points are made for protecting the innocence of children, such concerns are covered by the American Library Association’s interpretation of the US First Amendment which suggests that only one’s own child can be restricted in what they read, not all children. This preserves both personal freedoms and children’s ignorance of mature topics.

 

There is also the accounts of censorship in Iran that indicate the dangers of allowing the government to censor books unchecked. It is worth examining the effects of literary censorship on the development of children, so as to consider whether preserving innocence longer leads to a happier life. However, this line of questioning would be difficult to pursue as happiness is subjective and there is no way to completely control what a child is exposed to. The issue overall is primarily discussed in the context of America, but other countries with more restrictive governments are worth examining, especially with the inherent lack of data on their practices and resulting effects on the population. With further research into the subject there could be a greater public understanding of how acknowledging difficult issues impacts society.

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