Wednesday, October 15, 2008

about censorship

Psychomamma made a good post about Sarah Palin and censorship. Her point, which was echoed in comments, is that even *considering* censorship is bad. Which I generally agree with.

But while i abhor censorship in general, and think that 99% of speech/writing must be protected in a free society, i've come to believe that a blanket no-censorship stance is too simplistic.

If someone wrote a book that included the addresses of local police officers and instructions on how to kidnap their children, for example, I find nothing wrong with refusing to publish it. If it were published, I would happily pull that book from my library shelf. Likewise kiddie porn.

And once you've appointed yourself guardian of the public good (ie, you lose your anti-censorship virginity, as it were), it's hard to stop. It's no stretch to also pull from the shelves the newsletter of White Aryan Resistance, on the grounds that it serves no legitimate social purpose, and contributes to social pathology.

IOW, as in everything else, there's no simple rule that covers every case; instead of simple black & white, the world continues to be frustratingly gray.

So on the censorship question, I've decided that the key question is not "whether" but "where do you stop?" and one measure of a free society is how wisely it balances freedom of expression vs the public good.

What do you think?


At Wed Oct 15, 05:18:00 PM PDT, Blogger blogball said...

Bryan the 2 types of books you cited as examples are illegal to start with and you would not have to pull them from the shelves because the FBI and the other law enforcement agencies would pull them off the shelved for you.

If you draw a line at certain books or newsletters that serve no legitimate social purpose,
you would have to pull half the books in the library.

At Wed Oct 15, 06:48:00 PM PDT, Blogger unca said...

As a librarian, I'm supposed to get my professional knickers in a twist when anybody mentions censorship. For the most part I do. A large part of ALA money goes towards fighting censorship efforts and "raising peoples' consciousness" about the dangers of censorship, etc. etc. via the ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom and this is how it should be.
However I agree with Bryan on his 99% statement. It's very easy to condemn all censorship and simply become a FAF (First Amendment Fundamentalist--my term). What I have discovered, however, is that everybody has his/her limits and it often depends on whose ox is gored.
Every year, ALA launches "banned book week" in libraries around the country. The exhibit usually consists of a table on which is placed a variety of works, including things like the Bible, To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Color Purple. Sometimes there's a sign on the exhibit that states something like: "warning -- some people consider these books to be dangerous." The unwritten tag line is, of course, "aren't these people being silly and close-minded?" My arguments with this approach, and the manner in which most FAF's frame the censorship discussion are as follows:
1. It's easy to point to the finger at people who want to ban "Catcher in the Rye." But people have also tried to ban other works that are pretty loathsome. If ALA really wanted to present an honest exhibit table there would be a copy of "Hustler" in the pile, preferably open to a graphic pictorial depicting an incestuous orgy. I've often wanted to "add" this kind of stuff to the "banned book" table, but I'm pretty sure it would be censored. Ironic, huh?
2. These exhibits and the accompanying literature make no distinction between outright censorship and the exercise of discretion when it comes to various age groups or circumstances. Any book that comes under question for any reason becomes a "banned book" and any effort to shield any user from its contents is simply and summarily condemned. Even books that were never banned but simply "challenged" are included. And the circumstances and locale don't seem to matter. The parent who questions the wisdom of including "Heather Has Two Mommies" as a required part of the third grade reading curriculum is considered to be as close-minded and censorial as the bigot who wants all copies of "Notes of a Native Son" removed from all public libraries.
3. By sarcastically dismissing the notion that books can, indeed, be harmful ("warning, some people consider these books dangerous,") the ALA is also denying the power of books and the ideas they contain. If books can edify and uplift, it is folly to deny that they can also do great harm. Acknowledging this fact doesn't mean we should censor such books; only that the risk of doing so is more dangerous than allowing the dangerous ideas to be expressed.
4. By arguing that patently obscene materials deserve the same measure of protection as does, say, a political tract, we trivialize the notion of a free press and the suffering and oppression of those who brought it into being during the early days of the republic.
5. Little or nothing is heard from the ALA with regard to the barefaced suppression of ideas as practiced in other countries. Such censorship is not confined to totalitarian regimes (although ALA doesn’t pay much attention to these regimes) but is beginning to surface in countries that have previously embraced freedom of expression.

At Wed Oct 15, 11:01:00 PM PDT, Blogger blogball said...

Wow unca that was excellent. This might sound dumb but would the ALA ever consider putting something like what you just wrote as an editorial in their web site?

At Wed Oct 15, 11:01:00 PM PDT, Blogger bryan torre said...

blogball, thx for the comment. i think making certain things illegal *is* censorship, no? so i guess you're saying that you approve (as i do) of that type of censorship?
FTR, the thing about "no legitimate social purpose" for me has to be coupled with "and also does significant harm". sorry if i didn't make that clear.

unca, thx for a really thoughtful post. (not that your others aren't...) i was hoping to get your perspective since i knew this issue is significant in your profession.

At Wed Oct 15, 11:01:00 PM PDT, Blogger bryan torre said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At Fri Oct 17, 05:31:00 AM PDT, Blogger SafeLibraries said...

Finally, common sense. Finally, honesty. It's very rare when the pressure from the ALA to propagandize is so intense.

And that comment by "unca" was outstanding. Unca, if you publish something on this, please send me the URL.

What a breath of fresh air.

At Fri Oct 24, 10:24:00 AM PDT, Blogger blogball said...

I would say this is pretty bad reporting and a misleading interview

And no apologies from CNN


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