Inspired by the Banned Books Blog Party hosted by Hannah Givens.
It would probably take me quite some time to go over every book that heavily influenced me over the years, especially those that appear on numerous banned book lists. Instead, I’ll finish off this week with a reflection.
The most common theme for book bans, at least in my part of the US, centers on if the book contains objectionable material. Yet, the question here is what do people consider objectionable?
Words hold power, and books often can hold tremendous power in the ability to put a reader in the protagonist’s shoes. It allows people to really feel for the character, to experience their suffering and their joys, and it lets them try on a worldview for a little while, even if they may not realize it. Stories can challenge our most tightly held beliefs. They can also reinforce those tightly held beliefs.
If we go through our history, you’ll notice that what is deemed objectionable shifts based on the culture of that time period. For much of American history, novels and stories about African Americans, especially any that had interracial couples, were seen as objectionable, and often called amoral and dangerous. Books about LGBTQ people often fell into similar categories, where even the existence of an LGBTQ character may cause the book to be banned. Another target is minority religions, such as paganism or wicca, which the majority religion may view as evil or bad; often times books will be banned for having imagery that might relate, even remotely, to those unpopular religions. Yet another reason may be the politics within the book itself, which people may deem as dangerous for whatever reason.
This link provides a synopsis to commonly heard reason for banning books: Reasons for banning books. Violence and sex is also a fairly common reason. Yet, what do all these books hold in common?
They challenge the reader to think, and to put themselves in another person’s shoes. All books do it to some degree, though how much they challenge the reader depends on the genre and how the book is written. It also depends on where the reader is, what they personally believe, and what their worldview is, as to how challenged they are by the book.
Although people will cite that the primary reason for banning books is to protect children, the truth of the matter is that it’s not really about children at all. It’s about the control of ideas. Some people want to control what ideas a child is exposed to and the reasons for this may differ depending on the group. Control of ideas allows people to stay in power, to exert their influence, and to propagate the beliefs they find most important.
When we examine whether a book is appropriate for a child, we are exerting our control and power over that child, whether we realize it or not. Is this always a bad thing? Not always, because sometimes a child may not be able to handle the material within the book. It’s up to the child, their loved ones, and their teachers to determine what is best. It’s often not necessary to ban the book outright for that child, but instead to have them wait until they are at an age where they can emotionally and intellectually handle the book.
However, there are a great many times when exerting our control and power is a bad thing. By banning books, people are controlling the flow of ideas and this exerts their power over others in their communities. It’s a form of forcing others to conform to their view of the world,regardless of the damage that may cause to those around them. This excerpt from On Liberty John Stuart Mill sums up a few reasons why this is harmful (found at the ALA website):
If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
We need to be challenged in order to grow as people. Children, especially, need to be challenged in order for them to learn. By being exposed to multiple viewpoints, children learn critical thinking skills and how to differentiate between arguments. They are better equipped to handle differing point of views as adults and discern truth from propaganda, which is necessary if we wish to uphold and strengthen our democratic society.
Children also need to be exposed to a diverse group of people in order to learn and expand their ability to empathize. Everyone is capable of empathy to some extent; we evolved with it (and it’s also present in many different species of animals as well), but the issue here is that empathy also requires a choice, to mentally put yourself into another shoes. If you don’t do that or don’t know how to do it, then you are less likely to seek understanding, less likely to view that person as an equal, and often times it can cause people to view others as less than human and not worthy of their respect or caring.
By reading books from diverse point of views, children learn how to put themselves in another person’s shoes. They are able to see, through the eyes of the protagonist, a different point of view, one that may be wildly different from their own. Stories often present their protagonist as someone that is relate-able or sympathetic to the reader, in order to get readers to care enough to read to the end, and by doing so, it helps teach children and adults alike ways to empathize with others. It also provides them a chance to understand someone else’s perspective and allows them a chance to reevaluate their own views and opinions.
In order for us to grow as individuals and as a society into a more caring and accepting world, we need books that challenge us, that provide diversity in protagonists and perspectives, and we need the freedom and access to be able to read those books.