Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Violating Ideas: Some Questions on Book Banning

A couple of weeks ago my French lecturer gave us an article about the publication of Kate Middleton’s topless photographs and asked us to discuss it. There’s a lot in that story to talk about, given the history the British Royal Family has with the press and everything.

What I find interesting is how universal the debate can be. It doesn’t matter if you get up in arms about the privacy of people being violated or defend the freedom of speech - the discussion can easily be applied to banning books, or any other attempt at censorship.

“The burning of a book is a sad, sad sight, for even though a book is nothing but ink and  paper, it feels as if the ideas contained in the book are disappearing as the pages turn to ashes and the cover and binding--which is the term for the stitching and glue that holds the pages together--blacken and curl as the flames do their wicked work. When someone is burning a book, they are showing utter contempt for all of the thinking that produced its ideas, all of the labor that went into its words and sentences, and all of the trouble that befell the author . . .”

- Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril

There’s a good reason why most, if not all dystopias, censure and/or restrict access to books. Books are dangerous. They put into words things that we don’t even dare think of, and in doing so, they make ideas real. It’s a flowery way to put it, but it’s true nonetheless. Ray Bradbury knew this when he wrote “Fahrenheit 451”. George Orwell knew this when he wrote “1984”. Hell, “Matched” shows this, and yet everyone I know on Goodreads rolls their eyes at that book.

Where there are ideas, there are also people objecting those ideas - hence why some books are protested over, even banned. Sometimes those ideas are incendiary, other times it can be a simple thing like a sex scene that sets people off. “Looking for Alaska” has so far been John Green’s most contested over book, even after all the controversy, and the objectionable material composes less than a page. It seems odd, to anyone who has read the book, that this particular thing would inspire so much ire, but how can you explain that to someone unfamiliar with the text?

“A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man's mind can get both provocation and privacy.”
- Edward P. Mogran

I wonder how many teenage girls were comfortable discussing their sexuality before “Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret.” How many people learned about rape myths and became more sensitive of victims’ experiences after reading “Speak”? Yet, two years ago, someone tried banning the book on the grounds of it being “pornographic”. The response, as you may imagine, was immediate and dramatic.

Is it better to bury our heads in the sand when it comes to dealing with difficult issues, instead of discussing them like adults? Are we afraid of knowledge, or of the unknown? Always, humans have been afraid of what they don’t understand - talking about something takes a little away from its “scary” status.

“A word after a word after a word is power.”

-Margaret Attwood

But are all books good? A few months ago, the Internet got up in arms over “Revealing Eden”, a book that was supposedly so racist it could only go on par with “Rise of the Nation”. The writer claims that she’s not a racist, yet reader after reader decried her book as such. What do we do with our freedom of speech in this case?

What about traditionally published books with popular appeal? Books like “Hush, Hush” and “Twilight” are widely hailed as “romantic”, even when some of the underlying messages are… not so much. (And, for all our sakes, let’s not even get into the whole Fifty Shades deal.) Can we, the readers of these books, accurately evaluate the content and say: “This is bad, we should ban it,” without effectively destroying a good chunk of our favorite genre? In many cases, the objective material is subject to an individual’s perceptions.

Let’s remember, however, that books like “Hush, Hush” and “Twilight” do not exist in a vacuum. They did not come from the ether, or sprung fully formed out of the heads of their authors. The reasons why these books exist, and why they continue to exist, is that society wants them. So… does that mean we should tackle the societal pressures instead of the books? Are we even equipped with the necessary tools for that?

These are all questions that need answering. Some of them are too loaded to tackle in one day. But to finish this rambly post off, I’d like to propose a little test for you readers, next time you encounter problematic material in a book:

“What is the purpose of this in the overall story?”

Does an objectionable scene/aspect/element add to the story? Is something bad treated with respect and consideration, or is it thrown in just to shock the reader? Those are the kind of questions we need to ask ourselves.

Going back to the Kate Middleton photographs, if we strip away all the talk about freedom of print and public figures, what is the purpose of those pictures, if not to scandalize? (”Just pictures? Whatever. Topless pictures? Oooooh!”) You can say that this (being followed by photographers around the clock) is what Kate signed up for when she married William, but that comes dangerously close to another, less savory, set of comments that women have to deal with on a regular basis. And Kate is definitely not responsible for some paparazzo’s decision to stalk her and her husband for the sake of a quick cash-in.

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