What Makes Books Dangerous?

by Jenn Monroe

This is the question I pose to students in my Banned Books course as their final exam. I ask because I know they are hungry to tell me why sexuality, race, religion, and politics fire people up, and what the attitudes toward censorship indicate about the interplay between these things.

We’ve been talking about this since day one, when I gave each student the list of the American Library Association’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books. They were not surprised to find many of their favorite authors—J.K. Rowling, Judy Blume, Kurt Vonnegut—or noted classics—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye—but others totally shocked them: “Who would want to ban Captain Underpants?”

Literature has been suppressed since at least the advent of the printing press, and for one (or a combination) of four “reasons:” religious, political, sexual, or social. While few books in the U.S. are actually banned today, ALA statistics show many are challenged every year. The majority of these challenges are made to materials in schools or school libraries, by parents.

These figures do not seem to surprise my class. Collectively they express an understanding of a mother wanting to shield her own child, but they bristle at the idea of complete censorship. Some ask how banning can be possible with “free speech” protected by the First Amendment. What perplexes most, however, is why anyone would care about what they wanted to read.

As we begin to read, the answer takes shape. To examine literature suppressed on religious grounds we read Confucious, Kant, Darwin, Luther, Goethe, and Nawal El Saadawi’s The Hidden Face of Eve. Then we tackle those suppressed for political reasons: Machiavelli, Marx, and Dalton Trumbo’s, Johnny Got His Gun. Next, we move to those considered obscene: Go Ask Alice, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. We end the semester with one text suppressed for “social” reasons: To Kill a Mockingbird.

Along the way we take up the “free speech” question considering cases from recent news and Nat Hentoff’s Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other. At the end of his prologue Hentoff welcomes readers with this: “As you will see in the chapters ahead, censorship…remains the strongest drive in human nature, with sex a weak second.”  We also debate Stanley Fish’s There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing Too. In his introduction he argues “…the First Amendment does not in and of itself…direct a politics but will display the political ‘spin’ of whatever group has its hand on the interpretative machinery…”

In the early days of book banning, religious leaders and monarchs alike maintained control of vast populations as long as they controlled the messages about God and country. It was in their best interest to ban, and burn, contradictory texts (and often their authors). Later, more democratic governments concerned about obscenity and controlling the spread of Communism, banned texts that promoted those ideas.

My students see the relationship between controlling messages and power, and agree this cannot be the reason why individuals work to remove books they deem dangerous. Eventually we decide people must feel threatened by texts that offer ideas counter to their own. This, however, confounds my students even more. Most say they have read materials they disagree with, yet they did not, and would never, try to ban them.

Thus another question arises: how does someone move from simply holding a different opinion about sex, religion, politics, race, gender, etc. to pushing for a ban on the materials that put forth another perspective? What is so scary about diverse ideas? What are they afraid will happen?

I am lucky. My students are all studying to become creative writers or visual artists, and most of them were allowed to read whatever books they found interesting. Few come from dogmatic backgrounds, and if they did, they have done enough individual exploration to come to my class with a wide-open mind.

Because of this, it is not easy for them to grasp that many people find the unfamiliar scary and often reject “the other” out of protection. One could assume, however, the more experience with people and ideas that are different, the less frightening they would become.

But are we naturally drawn toward those experiences?

I ask my students how often they read articles or listen to programs that offer ideas, beliefs, and opinions that differ from their own. Then I ask them to consider whether or not the messages that support their thinking offer facts to bolster their opinions or simply deny the validity of “other” ideas. Do they promote their position as “right” and others as “wrong?”

We take it further: what would happen if we chose to censor all other points of view? If we insulated ourselves only with messages and people who agree with us, closing ourselves off from opportunities to learn about alternate approaches. Would we ever overcome our fear of difference? Would we ever not feel the need to protect those we love?

From this perspective, a book that promotes a reality counter to our own is inherently dangerous. It is a direct threat to our core beliefs and suppressing it would appear the most effective way to keep it from doing any harm to our family and community.

My students understand, but they cannot accept how someone could ever be that afraid. I know their struggle is personal—they cannot see themselves taking that step—so I joke that if they want to be famous, they should write a book that will be banned. We laugh, but I silently wish none of them will ever need to.

Jenn Monroe’s Banned Books course syllabus

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What Makes Books Dangerous?