Let me start by making clear I do not think that there is one “Christian answer” to this question. This is truly a complicated and heavily context-dependent topic that, it seems to me, requires much wisdom (for example, read this nice First Thoughts piece Stewardship of the Reader’s Eyes: How the Case Against Censorship Goes Too Far). One thing I know for sure though: Christians should be keen to exercise critical thinking about the whole enterprise of Banned Books Week. The program itself is supposed to encourage critical thinking but I submit that, ironically, it often does just the opposite (and given the kinds of things Rod Dreher reports on here, this should hardly surprise us). Rather, it can all too readily become an unthinking form of propaganda which simply coddles our minds…
I’ve thought about this topic quite a bit, and primarily from the perspective of the libraries of Christian colleges and universities. What follows are two approaches I have come up with. The first, I’ll admit, is simply a rather hard-nosed argument – featuring rather definite conclusions – put forward with as much logical force as I can muster (this does not mean that I am not very open to hearing alternative voices that would also assert that they are a faithful Christian approach). Alternatively, when it comes to actually inviting others to begin thinking about the issue in a critical fashion, its likely most would prefer to take a softer and more open-ended approach – this is what I try to do in approach #2.
Here is approach #1, my “op-ed” (“Why Banned Books Week and Some Private Schools Do Not Always Mix”):
In September of every year, libraries around the United States try to make news by celebrating “Banned Books Week”. The main goal is to inform people about the fact that libraries – particularly in recent years – have often had to deal with individuals or groups who have wanted certain books removed from their shelves.
No doubt, the idea that there should be a “freedom to read”, based on our country’s notion of “freedom of speech”, is an important issue. As a serious Lutheran, I am well aware of various historical attempts to either “ban” – or at least discourage the reading of – various books that I think are valuable to read, particularly the Bible. I do not know any Christians who are not fully supportive of free speech, and I think most all of them would like to see that reflected in public libraries and universities to the greatest extent possible.
That said, my contention here is that the idea of Banned Books Week, as put forth by the American Library Association, is actually contrary to the mission of many a private school in general, and many a Christian school in particular.[i] Here, library collections are established particularly to support the aims and values of the school. As such, these librarians, even more so than others, can be expected to perform all manner of “self-censorship”.
In any case, there should be nothing terribly shocking about this. Nearly all librarians would admit, when pressed, that it is a good thing that we want to discourage some things and some ideas – like advocacy for racism, sexism, terrorism, child predation, and slavery, for example – from spreading or being widely accessible. In short, there are some things that are “beyond the pale” and do not even warrant our discussion.
Likewise, nearly all librarians would agree that there are some books that are not appropriate for young children. The “Library Bill of Rights” might actually put in print the radical notion that “a person’s right to use a library should not be …abridged because of… age”, but I wager no librarian would dare take this literally.
So, when some librarians say things like “In order to get these kids to read, I have to give them books which will speak to them and reflect their world” (p. 128, True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries, ALA, 2012), or “We have students who live what is in these books!” (p. 126), or “…I believe that every book has a reader and every reader has a book. When you deny that person, especially that teenager, his or her book – when you ban that book – you ban that kid.” (p. 117), a public librarian might understandably want to “think again”, but a librarian of a private institution or school can more readily dismiss such flawed and unconvincing arguments (that can only be pushed so far before becoming absurd…).
Arguments like the one I am making will certainly offend many today – even many librarians – but, frankly, this is one area where the offended should “think again”. While some private schools have goals and values that are more or less indistinguishable from those of the wider world, not all do. The idea that sometimes, in some places, we really should “do as the Romans do” is not rocket science, but should be basic respect and decorum.
What do I mean? Just this: nobody attending a school that asserts that it is explicitly Christian, for example, has the “right” to have that school advance their particular viewpoints or even represent them (which of course does not mean that the school can not be eager to accurately represent those views in particular contexts, even if they will not advocate for them).
Perhaps an illustration will help. If you come into my [private] home for dinner, there are certain things that you can expect. First, before we eat, I will say a prayer to my God, and also make it clear to you that you may – but are certainly not required – to join in. Second, in the event that you start insisting that I run my household in a more tolerant, diverse, and open-minded way – one that takes all of yours and others’ rights into consideration – please do not feel surprised if I feel judged by you. Clearly, much of what I do I do because I think it is right to do so – your “rights” notwithstanding.
Truly, my default orientation is to support others’ rights to do consensually what they want to do in private, and I would expect them to do the same. Not to say that it might not, in some circumstances, be beneficial for me to be more open-minded – and yet, perhaps those eager to make such a point might consider “two-way streets” here?
Now, if I insist on looking at things in this way, does this mean that persons who disagree with me can never be welcome in my house? Of course not! I suggest that recognition of this reality can go a long way in improving relationships – encouraging mutual understanding, civility and respect.
And so, in the end, our hypothetical visitor in the story above might indeed find that their hosts are particularly interested in them (loving all – even one’s enemies like their Lord – is a serious charge!) and also what they have to say about all manner of interesting and important topics. But that is an altogether different matter than the one we have been discussing – that is, a person’s supposed “right” to have their own views advanced or even considered by those who might be strenuously opposed to them.
Here is approach #2, my “softer”, more “Socratic” approach (for abbreviated form, just read italicized questions):
Title: G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17 Ratings for books? Answer this question and others challenging “Banned Books” week!
1) According to a recent Harris poll, “more than seven in ten US adults believe a rating system similar to that used for films should be applied to books.” What do you think?
2) Librarian Rory Litwin, speaking in regards to Banned Books week, says: “In rational discourse, as I see it, it is important to be clear about what you are actually saying, to ask critical questions with a patience for detail, and to reject strategic communication and to minimize rhetoric.”
3) The American Library Association defines censorship as: “a change in the access status of a material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives. Such changes include exclusion, restriction, removal, or age-grade-level access limitations.” What do you think of this definition?
4) There are certainly broader definitions of censorship. What do you think censorship means? What constitutes “censorship”?
5) Are there any situations you can think of where censorship might be warranted? Can you give some examples?
6) If books are permitted to be freely published in America – but may not be chosen for library shelves – should we say they are being censored? What about “banned”? Why or why not?
7) If a library patron thinks that a book should be relocated to a different section (for example, the children’s section to the adult section), is this censoring the book? Banning it? Why or why not?
8) If so, does this mean that the movie rating system (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17) is a form of censorship as well? Is trying to label movies in such a way unfair? Prejudicial?
9) Why did the author of these questions feel compelled to put quotation marks around “Banned Books”?
10) One has said: “…I believe that every book has a reader and every reader has a book. When you deny that person, especially that teenager, his or her book – when you ban that book – you ban that kid.” What do you think of this idea? Is it always wrong to want to discourage teenagers – or at least younger children – from being exposed to certain ideas?
11) Should libraries, for example, obtain materials that are clearly constructed for the particular purpose of sexually arousing and exciting, or to advocate for things like female genital mutilation, racism, child predation, sexism, terrorism, and slavery?
12) If they do not represent constituencies of their public who are for, or considering these things, are they acting as censors in this case? Why or why not? And if so, is that a good thing?
13) Is it a good thing to want to discourage some things and some ideas from spreading or being widely accessible? Is it reasonable to think that some of these can be widely agreed on?
14) Is it ever reasonable to try and appeal to “common sense” when it comes to determining these issues? Or is this always only a subtle way that the majority continues to exercise its power over minorities and their viewpoints?
15) If this is true, does this mean that our ideas of what is right and what is wrong are only determined by who holds power – and that there really is no actual right and wrong we can possibly agree on? Why or why not? (How about this?)
Feel free to steal my ideas for your library. : ) Finally, for those interested in doing a bit more digging and thinking on this topic, you can also read a piece I wrote about “neutrality” in libraries here, responding to the book, Libraries and the Enlightenment.
[i] One certainly can make a case that Banned Books week is pedagogically irresponsible as well, in that it can mislead students to think that all challenged books are banned, or that certain books are actually able to be banned in America, as in other countries, which of course is not true. “Banned books” should perhaps bring to mind countries like North Korea, where in Nov. 2013 eighty persons were executed – some for possessing Bibles (see here). This however, is not the focus of this argument.
Image credits: Banned Books Week – https://c2.staticflickr.com/8/7281/8744335537_dcb4218348.jpg ; http://www.webphoto.ro/poze/avramescu/catalin_avramescu.jpg