Thursday, October 01, 2009

To Ban or Not to Ban

A friend and I recently discussed book banning. He’s fairly liberal so, unsurprisingly, we took opposing sides of this issue. He recently posted this link to someone’s blog post arguing against this WSJ op-ed that claims the whole book banning fear-mongering movement is based on fallacy and misinterpreting the term “censorship”.

I have to say this is one of the most misguided, wrongheaded blog posts I’ve ever read. To say that I disagree with the ideals behind it would be a massive understatement. I would go so far as to say that the writer of this blog is ignorant of a parent’s daily life with a young child. Here are a couple of her choicer quotes:

Intellectual freedom is not an American ideal however - it is a human one. It's
about having the right to read what is written, even if you can't afford it.

The statement is ambiguous, but I’m willing to bet the author means to say that governments worldwide (starting here, of course) should provide unfettered access to all books to all people. Does that sound like I’m blowing her statement out of proportion? Read on.

Librarians are trusted to purchase the books, and shelve them and make them
available because, frankly, when it comes to intellectual freedom parents are
not always right. Parents are biased and racist and discriminatory in a thousand
different ways.

Okay. Our primary responsibility as parents is to raise our children in the way that we deem best. As there is no definitive manual on childrearing, my wife and I have to do the best we can with what we have. What do we have? A smattering of books and (in the case of my wife) quite a few classes on child development and psychology. More important than those are our own experiences, beliefs, and morals, and it is primarily from these resources that we guide our children through the formative process in the hope of raising autonomous, productive members of society who have the groundwork for raising families of their own.

Part of that responsibility involves limiting the materials and topics to which our children are exposed. If we believe that any given subject would be harmful to their development then it is our duty to prevent their access to that subject before we can imprint upon them a moral framework from which to view the world. This holds true even if others find our beliefs “biased and racist and discriminatory in a thousand different ways.”

Anti-book-banners claim that banning books is effectively imposing our moral choices upon others by limiting their own choices or the choices of their children to various subjects. I agree with this point, and this is where the democratic process kicks in.

Public libraries and the libraries of public schools should meet the standards of the community in which they are located. If the community is more conservative, don’t stock, say, books involving S&M by A.N. Roquelaure. If it is more liberal, well, I’ll disagree like crazy, but stock the library in a way that better fits those beliefs. Either situation should include a democratic type of process in which the community as a whole gets involved. The community’s involvement is critical due to the difficulty in determining what falls into such vague categories as “pornography”, “hate speech”, and “obscene” (here is a good article on the history of the definition of “obscenity” and it outlines some of the difficulty in defining such terms). If some books get listed as “controversial”, then either put them in age-restricted sections or, yes, remove them from public access.

Even if you disregard the protection of children, there are other reasons for banning books. There is more than a little risk in allowing public access to such subjects as nuclear engineering and viral manipulation. In a similar vein, the movie and game industries have rating systems that allow parents at a glance to see whether a certain movie or game is likely to contain material that might be considered inappropriate for children. The public generally trusts these rating systems and recognizes their value.

My friend has claimed that the charge of anti-banners having an “everything goes” mentality is false. I’ve seen precious little to support this. Furthermore, I can’t see a compromise between the ability to ban and open access to everything. Finally, if I have to choose between providing a relatively safe environment for my children to develop, and possibly offending someone else who doesn’t mind letting their children read up on the finer points of bondage erotica, I’ll choose to offend all day long.


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