Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Some thoughts on censorship

In honor of Banned Books Week, I would like to offer some thoughts on censorship.

Censorship is, of course, the act of censoring. And to censor means "to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable" (Merriam-Webster). (In the Roman republic, the censors kept a count of those who met birth and property requirements to enter the Senate; the basic idea is still roughly the same - taking a measure of, for example, a book to see if it meets certain qualifications, whether these be moral or literary).

Censorship is such a contentious issue, in part because it touches on our values, and our values are often tied to our deeply felt emotions.  It is also contentious because various kinds of actions are often grouped together under the heading "censorship." To keep them clear and distinct, I find it helpful to ask what, exactly, is being censored, the user or the material itself.

First, there are cases in which both the user and the material are being censored. A clear example is child pornography: because of the vile nature of the material itself, no one should ever, under any circumstances, be allowed to see it, unless they do so in order to help prevent children from being exploited in this manner.

With the second kind of censorship, it is not so much the material itself that is being considered, but the persons to which such works may be made available. For example, while I can sit down and enjoy watching Braveheart or Saving Private Ryan, I would not want my four-year-old to see them. There is no problem with the movies themselves;  my kid has simply not developed the maturity to understand what he is seeing (whereas I at least like to think that I do).  Now, this is alright as long as I am the one determining what is appropriate for my own kid; the problem arises when someone tries to make this judgement.  

The third kind of censorship is based on the nature of  the works themselves. In this case, the censor does not so much object to the words or images on a page, but to the ideas that the words or images convey.   Words are, after all, merely black marks on a page if they are spoken without meaning. However explicit or offensive, a word or image is relatively harmless until it becomes a vehicle for ideas. Ideas which cause persons to act. Ideas which lead to unforeseen consequences. Ideas that contain unseen dangers. Perhaps all of our books should have some kind of warning label:


Take, for example, the book, To Kill a Mockingbird. This book has been challenged since it was published in 1960, and still makes it on the list of top ten most challenged books.  Why?  I think it is the ideas the book conveys:

[Scout] "Well, most folks seem the think that they're right and you're wrong . . ."

"They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions,' said Atticuls, "but before I can live with other folks I've go to live with myself.  The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's sconscience."

History is full of examples of what happens when people like Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr. have abided by their consciences. Do not underestimate the power of a book to change yourself, to change the world.

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