Discover more from MILLER’S BOOK REVIEW 📚
What Else Can We Censor While We’re Here?
The Complications of Banning Books, Restricting Speech, and Canceling Proponents of Views We Disdain
There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.
—Ray Bradbury, afterword to the 1979 Del Rey edition of Fahrenheit 451
History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.
―Ian Fleming, Casino Royale
Anyone that says words hurt has never been punched in the face.
—Chris Rock, Selective Outrage
I’m sure you’ve noticed it too, but there’s a curious divide in American culture. It’s easiest to see by caricaturing both sides.
On the one hand, we’ve got conservative parents and politicians who want to ban anything in classrooms and school libraries with sexually or racially charged content. See, for instance, the incendiary rhetoric around critical race theory. The debate reminds me of the line from Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff: “All holes in the argument were immediately vulcanized by the heat of the emotion.”
On the other hand, we have progressive activists and sensitivity scouts who want to erase offensive and insensitive langauge, works, and sometimes people from public view. See, for instance, the campaign against Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt and the crusades against comedian Dave Chappelle and novelist J. K. Rowling.
While it’s tempting to focus on the two sides of this split, I’d downplay the distinction and focus on what both have in common, especially at the extremes: their reactionary impulse toward art and artists, scholarship and scholars whose output differs from their approved views. The underlying assumption? People shouldn’t feel uneasy or unhappy with what they read.
Both groups easily spot—and usually decry—the censoriousness of the other, sometimes amusingly so. Possibly, these views are justified. Arguably, they’re not. It’s not as straightforward as it might appear. There are several complicating factors worth discussing.
Who Owns the Words?
Social media feeds ran every shade of red last month about Roald Dahl’s children’s books being reissued in bowdlerized editions. Various expressions and invectives deemed too harmful and insensitive for young eyes have been excised and overwritten like disagreeable members of Josef Stalin’s inner circle. Ian Fleming’s publisher recently announced the same treatment to his James Bond books, cleaning up the late author’s free-and-easy racist characterizations.
To appreciate the decisions, it’s worth focusing on that adjective: late. Both Dahl and Fleming are dead, and the companies responsible for the ongoing publication of their works approved the scrub. Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. hired sensitivity readers to scour the Bond books for insensitive language and to recommend edits.
In Dahl’s case the Roald Dahl Story Company worked with sensitivity readers to remove descriptors such as “fat” and “ugly,” introduce gender-neutral language whenever possible, and rewrite passages to avoid unnecessary offense. Hundreds of changes were introduced across the corpus.
The Fleming and Dahl companies, along with their publishers, are working to protect their assets and ensure their revenue. If, for instance, parents, schools, and libraries were to find Dahl’s language distasteful and stop purchasing his books, their incomes decline.
Of course, there’s the risk fans of the original will reject the changes and stop buying too. That’s exactly what happened with the Dahl announcement, and Penguin promptly announced a line of “classic” unedited versions: again, protecting their investment. This dynamic of market response plays out in other ways as well, sometimes exactly opposite as intended.
When novelist Jane Smiley recently discovered a school district in Idaho banned her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1991 novel A Thousand Acres, she was thrilled. “Most authors know that banning books can increase sales, so here’s hoping,” she said. It’s a reasonable hope.
When, for instance, the literary estate of Dr. Seuss ceased licensing a handful of long-tail titles with cringy, inappropriate cultural references, sales of the books took off. The same happened for the graphic novel Maus after a Tennessee school district pulled the title (see the chart below). Similarly, sales of The Satanic Verses rocketed to the top of Amazon sales and disrupted book inventories everywhere following the knife attack on Salman Rushdie.
I’m not arguing whether parents have a right to determine the contents of their children’s education. I am suggesting this particular tactic seems ineffective—maybe laughably so. Banning books doesn’t keep kids from the ideas they contain. Instead, it reinvigorates book sales.
It’s probably easier to sympathize with bans for sexualized content; the intersection of public education and sex has been a battleground in the culture war for decades. But, according to PEN America, racial themes provide the other primary reason for banning books. Given our country’s history, banners inadvertently create a moral imperative to engage with content they want excluded.
Pointing to the history of African American thirst for literacy during slavery and long after, Atlantic writer Imani Perry justifiably argues people should seek out banned literature.
The point is that struggling against those who would keep us from learning and from being studied—and by us, I mean Black people here, but also all marginalized people—is nothing new in this country’s history. The forces of exclusion are old and resilient. Then, as now, the only way to defeat them is to pursue that which has been prohibited. We read the banned books, we study the verboten topics, and we share them, still.
If you’re opposed to certain ideas, it would seem the last thing you’d want to do is ban them. And encouraging consumption of the very books banners are trying to avoid isn’t the only unintended consequence.
Limiting Speech Weakens Society
“Book bans inhibit a core function of public education,” says David French, writing in Reason magazine. “They teach students that they should be protected from offensive ideas rather than how to engage and grapple with concepts they may not like.” In making his case, French points to “a quirky and mostly forgotten Supreme Court case that is suddenly relevant once again.”
What makes Island Trees School District v. Pico (1976) both quirky and relevant? In this case, students actually sued their school district for pulling books. They argued that denying them access to information undermined their First Amendment rights. The court agreed and did so in part part because the ban would impair their development as citizens.
“Just as access to ideas makes it possible for citizens generally to exercise their rights of free speech and press in a meaningful manner,” ruled the court, “such access prepares students for active and effective participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society in which they will soon be adult members.” In other words, if students can’t handle uncomfortable content, there’s no way they can handle the rough-and-tumble of democracy and civil engagement.
I can’t disagree, and the racially-driven bans provide perfect test case. How are we going to navigate difficult local and national conversations about racially charged policy when sheltering people from the subject? Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird provides a manageable, if challenging, entry point for conversation, and yet schools regularly ban the book because it makes students uncomfortable. Welcome to life. It’s got sharp edges.
Whatever one thinks about the merits of pulling any particular book, it’s worth remembering one basic truth: Any library large enough to serve more than one or two people will contain something to offend everyone. And to one degree or another, that’s a good thing. “The strength of books is not simply in whom they please,” says Rafia Zakaria, “but also whom they enrage, those who agree and those who disagree.” Why? Because it teaches us to think, which is the basis of any fruitful engagement in the world.
So what’s the way forward?
Don’t Repress, Respond
When Ray Bradbury discovered an editor had “censored some 75 separate sections” of his anti-censorship novel Fahrenheit 451, he was less pleased than Smiley at the news of her ban. He was livid—as he was when considering any such efforts to soften or simplify his or other writers’ language.
“The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws,” he said. “But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule.”
This gets back to the question of who owns the words and points us to the most effective response. We all have the right to our own expression, including what we say and create and how we spend our money: Use it. “If Mormons do not like my plays,” said Bradbury, “let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent type‐writers. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture.”
Is this validating hurtful language? No, only the human right to speak one’s mind—the selfsame right that allows response to what’s spoken. Silence is easier. But it only sharpens the split. Societies talk—maybe loudly and raucously—but its members participate in dialogue. And when they can’t reach agreement, they leave space for difference.
If they don’t, the whole thing falls apart. And those edges are even sharper.
¶ If you enjoyed this take, try “Gag Order: The Limits of Free Speech,” my double-header review of Eric Berkowitz’s book, Dangerous Ideas and Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books. I also recommend this conversation between Reason editor Nick Gillespie and novelist Kat Rosenfield.
¶ If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks!
¶ If you’re not a subscriber, take a moment and sign up. It’s free for now, and I’ll send you my top-fifteen quotes about books and reading. Thanks again!