If you follow my blog or my podcast then you’re aware of my thoughts about freedom of speech. In the book, The Friends of Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That sums up my feelings quite nicely.
So it’s understandable that I have issues with censorship of any kind. And yes, that does put me into uncomfortable territory on occasion. For example, I support the right for someone to write an article that tries to promote an unpleasant idea – hate or prejudice – but I also support the right for another person to write an article explaining the stupidity and small-mindedness of that idea. Freedom of speech means you’re free to say what’s on your mind, but it doesn’t mean that you’re free from the consequences of those words.
When it comes to the written word, specifically with fiction, I believe that authors should be able to write about anything they want. Fiction is an art form and art is supposed to push boundaries and make us look at things in a different light. On the flip side, I don’t believe that simply writing about something means that the author is promoting it or encouraging it. Fiction, and fictional characters, are products of the imagination. Stories are like funhouse mirrors held up to reality. They bend and distort, but there’s still something tangible there.
Over the years I’ve read about the attempts to ban books in our public libraries and public schools, in both local and chain bookstores, and even at universities. The catalyst for these attempts are usually an extremely vocal minority who feel that because they don’t like something then no one else should like it. It’s childish behavior, in my opinion. Unfortunately, the loud voices often catch the ears of decision makers and we end up with government stepping in and trying to regulate art.
According to the American Library Association, all the books that were challenged in 2018 were children’s books. In September of last year artist Christy Chan had her art project, Inside Out, censored by the Richmond Arts and Culture Commission because it included sentences that were critical of the current President of the United States. In June of 2019 a San Francisco school district voted to remove murals painted in the 1930s from one of their high schools because they depicted violence against slaves and Native Americans. And finally, we have an author in Canada who has been arrested for a single paragraph from his retelling of Hansel & Gretel because one person was offended by the subject matter.
None of these works of art hurt anyone or promoted illegal activity. It was all artistic expression, attempts to try something new. But instead of ignoring them or trying to understand where the artist was coming from or what message they were trying to convey, a small group (and in one case, a single person) had them censored. And it’s not just that the art was blocked or censored or removed, but it also hits the artist in the pocketbook. They lose money because they can’t sell their art and they lose money trying to defend it.
Of course, I’ll admit that I always have a good laugh when some group decides to have a book burning. First, it’s so terribly medieval, like burning witches. I often wonder if they checked to see if the book weighed more than a duck (a la Monty Python). Second, the participants go out and buy copies of the books to burn. I guess they don’t realize that once they buy the book, the author doesn’t care what they do with it. Burn it, use it to level a wobbly table, or use it as a door stopper. If I have money in pocket, then they can burn my books, too.
Just because you don’t like something written in a book doesn’t mean it should be banned or censored. If that were true, our bookshelves were be mostly empty. Why not simply ignore it? If you aren’t giving the artist your money, then what’s the big deal? The irony here is that calls for banning and censorship bring more attention to the art in question. It’s free publicity. People are going to be curious about what all the fuss is about. Between buying copies to burn and the free marketing, it does sort of work out for the artist. Sometimes.
Take Salman Rushdie and his novel, The Satanic Verses. I’m sure you’ve heard of it, but if not, click the link. It’s partially based on the life of the prophet Muhammad. It created quite an uproar in the Muslim world back in the late 1980s and was banned in several countries. Additionally, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie…basically, calling for his death. All over a work of fiction. He ended having to hide for years, hire bodyguards, and live without a social life. Even being near him was dangerous.
It’s a shame to know that people can get so worked up over fiction and art to the point that they want to have the artist arrested or killed. It seems a bit extreme when they could simply ignore it or write an angry letter to their local newspaper. Wouldn’t that be easier?
For what it’s worth, Banned Books Week will be held on the last week of September here in the U.S. For fun, you can always peruse a list of the most frequently challenged books (by decade!) and add a few to your personal reading list. That way you can see what all the fuss is about. Plus, buying a few will help support the authors.
Also, I’d like to recommend a wonderful book on fighting censorship, Stifled Laughter, by Claudia Johnson. This is a situation that occurred just a few miles down the road from where I live, so it hit close to home. Additionally, for full disclosure, Ms. Johnson was my screenwriting instructor at Florida State University. It’s a great read and shows how passionate people can be on both sides of an issue.