My problem with Banned Books Week

Some of my colleagues in the Progressive Librarians Guild used to complain that Banned Books Week was an unfortunate distraction from the greater problem of a propagandistic media system. I shared that view and still do, but it is not the objection that I want to explain today.

My problem with Banned Books Week is one that is probably shared by some conservatives, and it has to do with the loose definition of what a “banned book” is, and what a “challenged book” is. Over time, as I have come to understand my own politics better, I have realized that what I care about is rational discourse as the basis for a democratic society. 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. The Banned Books Week project, well-intended as it may be, is a propaganda exercise that fails to model good standards for democratic communication.

Here is what I mean.

The history of book banning is a history of inspiring stories, stories of mass suppression of ideas, copies of books collected so that they can be burned, publishers incarcerated, often ultimately to no avail as the power of an idea proved greater than the power of the state or of a fascistic party. Book banning, good people agree, should be fought against, and is a source of inspiration to fight for what is right. Banned Books Week taps into people’s response to these historical narratives and aims to prevent the suppression of ideas from recurring. A noble intention and a narrative resource.

The problem that I see with Banned Books Week is that what counts as a “banned book” is actually a “challenged book,” and what counts as a challenged book is something quite different from an effort to prevent a book from being published, sold, or even made available in a library. Most of the cases of challenged books that are reported as a part of Banned Books Week are cases where a parent of a child objects to a book being a part of their child’s school curriculum, or at other times in the school’s library, on the grounds of “age appropriateness.” Defenders of intellectual freedom, to my dismay, have an unwritten policy of never addressing the question of age appropriateness, leaving it as an unstated assumption that anything selected for the curriculum by educators as opposed to by parents is automatically age-appropriate, as though educators are incapable of error.

School districts have policies in place for reviewing challenges to books on the basis of age-appropriateness. Challenged books are reviewed and evaluated by committees that are charged with that responsibility, and then the school district makes an official decision regarding the book. Regardless of what the school’s decision turns out to be, regardless of its reasonableness or unreasonableness, and regardless of the objectivity or bias within the decision-making process in a specific case, all challenges to a book by a parent get counted as an attempt at book banning.

Personally, I agree with intellectual freedom orthodoxy that says that one family should not have the right to determine what other students are taught, and this is part of what public education is. But when a book is challenged and reviewed on the grounds of age-appropriateness, it is ultimately not the family that brought the challenge that makes the decision. The decision is made by the educational institution itself. We can hope that more often than not these decisions are well-informed and based more on educational psychology than they are on pressure from an ideological community group. They may not always be. But the decision about whether a book should remain a part of the curriculum or not is ultimately made by the public institution that put the book in the curriculum in the first place, which means that book challenges happen as a part of a process that the institution puts in place in order to get feedback from the community on the curriculum. (In some other areas, we on the left are fighting for more opportunities to influence local policies to meet local needs.)

What I want to emphasize about this is that the “book banning” that is the subject of Banned Books Week is not book banning as we understand it historically but part of the cultural fight over the school curriculum. Now, I am prepared to fight hard to keep rationality and science and humanism in the school curriculum, against the theocrats who seem to be making incredible progress in rolling back not only 20th century liberalism but the values behind the Constitution itself (i.e. secular democracy). But in fighting that fight over the curriculum, what I am ultimately fighting for is rational discourse as opposed to irrationality. If I give up basic standards of rational discourse and resort to strategic communication and propaganda… well, as we said about Al Qaida during the debate over the PATRIOT Act: “They have won.”

18 comments on “My problem with Banned Books Week

  1. I would argue that even the concept of “age-appropriateness” is as much a construct as ideology. What constitutes a “youth” or a “tween”? Do we agree on these age designations? Who should decide what is appropriate for them to read?

    It might be that age-appropriateness is used as a cover for an ideological challenge. A good example of this are challenges to “It’s Perfectly Normal” a book about sex that is intended for children but often challenged as age-inappropriate because of its subject matter.

  2. My point is that a challenge based on age-appropriateness is not an attempt to prevent a book from being published or sold or stocked in a library available for adults. Whether a book is age appropriate can be a valid question, and so far it is still the institutions that in charge of making the decisions. I acknowledge that these challenges are part of ideological conflict. But that doesn’t mean they are about banning books. They are more about controlling school curricula.

  3. Rory, let’s be clear that people know that I did not write this article for you. It is exactly what I have been saying. It supports what I have been saying 100%.

    Actually, what I have been saying is largely reporting on what the ALA’s OIF has been doing. You apparently have observed the same behavior and have come to the same conclusions that are simply inescapable but few are willing to admit (as Will Manley has noted).

    Rory, Judith Krug is no longer with the OIF. She’s the one who started the propaganda you identify. Now that she is gone, why doesn’t the ALA restrain the OIF from further besmirching the ALA’s reputation in the manner you describe? Why doesn’t the ALA start taking censorship seriously instead of allowing the OIF to use it as the propaganda tool you describe? There comes a time when you have to lance the boil and move on to better days.

    I am not trying to bring disrepute to the ALA. The OIF does that fine without my help. I am honestly trying to get the ALA to wake up to what the OIF has been doing and set a new course. Everyone marched to Judith Krug’s tune. The new leader is but a shadow. Now’s the time for the ALA to rethink the OIF, as least regarding the issues you have raised here and that I have been observing and describing for a long time.

    And let me say that Judith Krug never behaved deceptively on behalf of the ALA, unlike at least one of the current leaders at the OIF. Something should really be done about the OIF, or the behavior about which you complain will never stop.

  4. Dan, to be specific, I think we would disagree about the age-appropriateness of most of the books you want to see challenged in libraries, and we disagree about the intentions of ALA.

  5. Rory, I bet we really are not far apart if we talked instead of commented or tweeted. And the ALA is well intentioned, but the ALA’s OIF is not. I don’t call plagiarism, astroturfing, censorship, defamation per se, pushing admittedly low quality material, faking the yearly Top Ten Challenged List, etc., well intentioned.

  6. Dan, the reason I think we’re far apart on this is that I think I’d be in favor of keeping the vast majority of the challenged books on the syllabus or library shelves, where I think you are motivated by a desire to take them out and a belief that they are inappropriate for kids. We agree that it’s not about banned books, which is a different issue. I think you’re more motivated by the movement to take liberal books out of the curriculum, where I’m motivated to to build a more rational, less rhetorical political culture.

  7. Rory, now I KNOW we would agree a lot.

    If things were up to me and I had power over my own school and I were part of a proper committee, I would remove only materials containing sexually inappropriate material for children, and I would first read the book entirely through before making a decision, and I would remove such book while the decision is being made. And I would remove the book, but I would expect it would be, as Judith Krug points out, “on rare occasion.”

    I would not remove books for the political ideas they might contain.

    I would strongly consider removing material that might lead to criminality, like the Anarchists’s Cookbook, etc., but that might depend on the curriculum.

    I would not take liberal books out of the curriculum just for being liberal, as you suggest. But if a “liberal” book contains inappropriate sexual material for children, given the circumstances above, I would remove that book and fend off the false claims of the book having been removed for political reasons.

    While discussing this, note that public libraries go out of their way to find excuses that Judith Krug already said are improper to keep out any books relating to ex-gays. Books by ex-gays and their view that accepting Jesus has helped many people overcome homosexuality are actively blocked by many public libraries. It is an action the current OIF supports and yet another in a long line of double standards for the OIF that makes it look very bad.

  8. We would probably disagree about what is “sexually inappropriate” for children of an age group that is the intended audience of a book that educators have selected for the curriculum or the school library. How do you determine what is “sexually inappropriate” for children? I agree with Emily Knox above in her observation that it’s an area that is ideologically charged.

  9. Such a determination would be made by committee. Consider the case of Push by Sapphire. That is a book that the ALA said was both perfect for everyone and also that it should be restricted to grades 11 and 12. So even the ALA itself gave the book two separate reviews and even the ALA would have restricted it to 11th and 12th graders.

    I would view a book about a father raping his daughter and his daughter’s baby (by himself and his daughter) at the same time while the baby was still in Pampers, then the mother seeing this or something similar and getting jealous and forcing her daughter to perform cunnilingus as being sexually inappropriate for children.

    Of course, on rare occasions, there is the case where such a book helps a person who has loved through that to understand things better.

    Add to this the good material not being read while the sexually inappropriate material is studied, and that makes it worse.

    And remember, most oppose explicit materials in schools, according to a recent Harris Poll:

    If anyone argues it’s a slippery slope and no one is in a position to cast the first stone, then that person has essentially found a clever but logically fallacious way to join the “anything goes” crowd.

  10. I don’t think “sexually explicit” is such an objective category. You have to consider the whole range, variety, intention, and context. Same with the category of “children.” Sometimes people use the word children to apply the standards we all share regarding young children to older teens. Clearly there is a lot of ideology going on. I think that in most cases, what educational psychologists will say about a books is very different than what someone from a conservative religious community will say about it. I put my faith in educational psychology.

  11. My objection to BBW has always been that it is phony PR for librarians making it look like they themselves don’t do the banning when they do the selection. All of us who are librarains know we make those decisions, many of them based on our personal values, all the time.

  12. Rory,

    My question to you and the readers is; why won’t the school board and library boards issue a simple warning to parents?
    With every new library card they could very easily provide that warning. In doing — they would literally be putting the responsibility back onto the parents. As it stands now parents only know what they remember? They can only recall their experience in libraries, when such material would be kept behind the counter, or in the adult section.
    You know, back when the pregnancy rate, drug and alcohol usage was at a low, and back when the graduation rate was much higher.
    Might it be because parents would NOT allow their children in the public library, and school boards members might get hounded? As well they should be…
    Propagandizing minor children behind the backs of their parents must be exposed and stopped!
    Great point Dan… they’re big on promoting free expression, as long as it agrees with they’re propaganda. Where are the books, to help young people that want out of the homosexual lifestyle? If such a book is even available in your library—it’s guaranteed to be in the adult section—even when it is written for a younger age group.
    Enough evidence for a guilty verdict!

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