I’m interrupting my usual posting of book reviews to write about a troubling trend occurring in towns and state legislatures across the country. Book banning. There have long been challenges to books selected for school classes, usually centered around race, gender, and sexuality. In the past, it was a parent or group of parents. Rarely was a book actually banned. Rather, it was challenged. I joked that it was really just a ploy to sell that book. Booksellers featured “banned books,” sometimes bolstering the sales of books that likewise would have not gotten a lot of notice.
It’s not a joking matter any more. States are threatening criminal charges against librarians who place certain books in circulation. Books, such as The 1619 Project, which chronicles the presence of slavery in our country’s earliest history, and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, have been banned by state legislatures on ideological grounds. It extends to novels as well, including Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and even, in Washington State Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, recently voted the best book of the last 125 years by The New York Times Book Review.
It seems to me that the fundamental notion is to protect students from exposure to certain ideas and materials. The problem is actually a version of my joke about bans promoting sales. When Art Spiegelman’s classic graphic fiction work Maus was recently banned in a Tennessee school district, the book immediately topped Amazon’s best-seller lists. One comic bookstore in Tennessee has offered the book free to anyone in the school district.
What is most troubling is the use of state power to dictate what books will and will not be permitted in libraries and classrooms. I am troubled because it seems that the targets are often frank discussion of matters of religion, of race, and sexuality. To limit the ideas that may be explored and discussed seems to me to be a profound abridgement of the First Amendment.
I know. Years ago, I was associated with a group facing loss of its privileges for what I would call view point discrimination. One of our allies was a First Amendment attorney who disagreed with our perspective but believed we needed to be free to hold and advocate it. I believe the same applies with books. We may not agree with the content of books but I believe we need to fight to protect access to those books.
You may have wondered about the picture of the Bible associated with this article. At least some who are seeking to criminalize defying a legislative ban claim to be Christians. I wonder if they understand how vigorously through history many governments have banned ownership and distribution of the Bible, and people have literally died to make the scriptures available or to obtain even a portion of the Bible.
And it can happen here, especially if we cross the bright line of protecting free speech in written as well as spoken form. The Bible, if one actually reads it, is not a tame book. It has unblinking accounts of rape and violence as well as elevated discourses on the nature of love. I know those who believe it is actually a danger to society. And I can easily see that if it becomes acceptable to criminalize the distribution of certain books, the same argument could be applied to the Bible. And any student of our politics knows that the pendulum will swing. We, of all people, should most oppose bans on books.
In the past, at least, the solution for speech that offends is not to ban it, but to allow more speech, where this does not incite violence or slander or deliberately mislead to the harm of another. It is to allow discussion and protect difference. With students, it is to teach them how to think critically–to recognize fundamental premises, to understand various rhetorical devices and when rhetoric substitutes for reason and evidence. The sad thing is our social media echo chambers only allow for more speech that agrees, that echoes the prevailing view. The danger is that we want to turn schools and universities into the same kinds of places, echo chambers of the left or right, rather than examine argument and counter-argument, narrative and counter-narrative. And so we perpetuate and deepen the divides so troubling us.
Working in college ministry, especially in the age of the internet, I’ve learned there is no way to “protect” people from ideas. As a parent, I concluded that we could not protect our son from any idea. Rather, we talked about them. And if I didn’t like the choices of books in every instance (and many times I did like them and discovered he was reading things I was interested in reading), I would share about others I thought were better. The truth is that to this day, we don’t agree on some things, and I’m glad. I oppose cloning human beings, especially our children!
Ultimately, the use of state power to ban books seems both to open the door to tyranny and is a concession of the weakness of the ideas behind such efforts. Instead of the power of an idea, we resort to the use of force and threat. And what we have lost as we do so is our democratic republic. Tyrannies of both the left and the right are tyrannies. The banning of books is the first step in silencing and marginalizing the people we don’t like. It is but a further step to strip them of their rights, and then their humanity or even their lives.
As I conclude, I would speak to my book-loving friends, many of whom cringe at even the destruction of books that cannot be sold. We have varying tastes and varying convictions. At very least, we ought be committed to affording protection to those of others that we would want for our own. None of us wants to see a beloved book banned, whether that be Fifty Shades of Gray, The Invisible Man, Pride and Prejudice or The Bible.
We cannot take comfort with the libraries with which we’ve surrounded ourselves nor the friends with whom we talk books. If this movement grows, we too could become a danger to the state. These efforts need to be resisted, challenged in court, and subverted, as did the comic book salesman, or those who slip banned books into Little Free Libraries or those at great risk who have smuggled Bibles or as those in Fahrenheit 451, who memorized great books. After January 6, 2021, I’ve concluded that the unthinkable can happen. Edmund Burke’s warning does not seem cliche’: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”