Columns > Published on October 19th, 2012

Should Some Books Be Banned?

Banned Books Week is over for another year. Did you strike a blow for freedom and read a banned book?

I didn’t.

The temptation in any article about book banning is to go all Listverse and lay out the top ten for readers' aghast inspection. Look around the web and that’s about the level of the debate: lists plus maybe a commentary on some obvious idiocies -- a Dr Seuss book banned because it advocates suicide, Black Beauty banned in South Africa during apartheid because the authorities believed it promoted miscegenation.

India’s fondness for banning books is not so much about cults of personality or propping up odious dictatorships; it’s about fear of violence. 

Those two examples are both urban myths, but you’ll find them repeated here and there with the status of Fact. Even if you visit the Amnesty International endorsed BBW website, the analysis about how and why book banning happens is confined to eye rolling horror. Book banning is BAD and it must STOP. We all hold this to be a self evident truth.

But should we? Read on and then decide.

Sedition

Banning books for political reasons is a practice as old as literacy. The Romans, otherwise liberal, did it. The Nazis turned it into a form of public display, burning 25,000 books on one night alone. And despite the fall of the Iron Curtain and the gradual relaxation of attitudes in countries like China, it persists to this day. Take India, for example. Book banning in India is very popular; as recently as 2010, an article in the Calcutta Telegraph, called it ‘the State’s favorite pastime’. 

How awful, you might think. This should be stopped at once. But ask yourself the question why a country which has an independent press, a secular government and which has operated as a democracy -- albeit of a shaky kind -- since the end of British rule in 1947 has this strange aversion to free speech, and a different picture emerges.

India’s fondness for banning books is not so much about cults of personality or propping up odious dictatorships; it’s about fear of violence. Take this quote from writer-historian Ramachandra Guha:

Every nation or rather community has its own heroes. But Indians do not allow scrutiny or scholarly inspection of their heroes. There is a deep sense of insecurity about our prominent figures.

India is a country riddled with stress fractures, both religious and cultural. Muslims, Hindus and Christians swelter together in an uneasy spiritual melting pot, each convinced that their particular brand of belief is under imminent threat of extinction. Throw in separatism, a caste system and a nascent Communist movement, and the picture that emerges is as stable as an Icelandic volcano field.

That’s the problem facing the Indian government. Criticism, however mild, of any group – religious, tribal, regional, political – is liable to set off major upheaval. The same is true in Pakistan, which also labours under the burden of a border almost guaranteed to cause trouble, because of how it divides tribal regions.

Look at it this way and book banning becomes a lesser of two evils, a way of keeping the lid on a situation which might spiral into bloodshed. And in practice, the Indian government polices its bans lightly. The point appears to be to reassure touchy factions that their concerns are being taken seriously, and so far, this is a policy which has worked. You might say that in other, more peaceful countries, banning books which incite hatred – racial, gender-based or religious – can be justified on the same grounds.

Consider another issue with regard to political dissent. Books can seek to obscure as well as enlighten. Is it acceptable to allow revisionists to publish their arguments? To deny the Holocaust happened; to downplay the massacres in Bosnia?

It's one rule for all. If we want the authors we approve of to have freedom of speech, that same freedom has to apply to those we don't approve off as well.

Obscenity

Which First World country has the worst record when it comes to banning books on grounds of obscenity?

If you answered ‘the US,’ go to detention and read Wikipedia for the rest of the day.

If we have a right to free expression, don’t we also have a responsibility to respect the beliefs of others?

The answer is Australia. In a period from 1933 to the early 1970s, Australia operated a system of censorship which would have brought an envious tear to the eye of Chairman Mao. Secretive, powerful and quixotic, the rationale behind a substantial proportion of the Australian Board of Censorship’s ban seems to have been intolerance of obscenity, a claim which holds water when you consider that in Australia’s Northern Territory, possession of topless photos can render you liable to two years in prison or a $22,000 fine.

In the US, by contrast, there are a grand total of zero books banned for obscenity.

‘But –' I hear you cry ‘-- that can’t be right! I read about US book bans all the time!’

What you hear about are books removed from school reading lists, or school libraries. The books concerned can easily be obtained from book sellers or public libraries, so any curious teen can still get access to the material. The issue is about what should be taught, not about what should be read, and it is an important distinction which all too often gets blurred in the heat of the moment. But what is true is that most of the books which are challenged (also often confused with a ban) or end up as proscribed, are challenged on the grounds of sexual content.

While I agree that withholding books from children is only liable to make them curious and that generally we ought to trust teachers to know what is appropriate, I don’t trust the list-inspired assumption that all books banned on grounds of obscenity (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses et al) are literary classics which have attracted the ire of the ill-educated or reactionary. Life really isn’t as glib or simple as this. Child porn doesn’t just exist in the forms of photos on websites. It circulates as books, magazines and pamphlets too. What about bestiality, rape, necrophilia? Are we really willing to allow this kind of material onto library shelves?

And remember, before you point out that no reputable publisher would take this type of material on, that the huge rise self-publishing now renders that argument null and void. The millions of eBooks on Amazon could contain just about anything, and while most of it is harmless, are we prepared to take a punt that all of it is?

Blasphemy

When it comes to banning books on the grounds of religious offence, this is the place, as Boyd Tonkin put it ‘we need to have a tougher discussion about the costs and benefits of free expression’.

Take this quote from a young British man, looking back at the Islamic world’s reaction to the publication of Salman Rushdie’s now infamous book:

 … it was in the heat of the Satanic Verses affair that we first saw the forging of a consciously British Muslim identity in the UK... it was a heady feeling marching and demonstrating alongside others who were from various ancestral backgrounds, including from the Indian subcontinent, north Africa, south-east Asia and elsewhere, but all united by their faith in Islam.

He goes on to admit that his and others’ calls to pulp all copies of the book were in retrospect ‘embarrassing’ but that’s with hindsight. At that moment, Muslims in the UK and other European countries needed a rallying point and Rushdie gave them one.

We might condemn the reaction, we might deplore the fatwa imposed on Rushdie which sent him into hiding, but do we support the writer’s slightly snippy assertion that publishers should be ‘braver’ about taking on books which are critical of Islam? Quite apart from the whiff of self pity which hangs about Rushdie (who according to one website is worth $15 million), does living in a free society confer on us, as he claims, the ‘right to do and say stuff’?

With rights come responsibilities. The strength of feeling aroused by Rushdie’s book may have taken the Western world by surprise, but read the quote above again. Those feelings were very real. Just as real as Rushdie’s wish to say and do ‘stuff’ in an unfettered way. In the west, Islam is a minority faith, liable to be overlooked and misinterpreted. If we have a right to free expression, don’t we also have a responsibility to respect the beliefs of others?

And there is another side to this. We might hate the death threats and murders which followed the Satanic Verses*, but how do we feel about Osama bin Laden’s Messages to the World arriving on the bookshelves? Or Sayed Qutb’s Milestones, which advocates the creation of a perfect Islamic state? If Anders Breivik wanted to publish his manifesto about the Islamification of Europe and incite others to follow his bloody example, how should we react?

Not so simple, is it?

Over to you. Should everything be published? If not, what should we ban?


*Before everyone feels too sorry for Salman Rushdie, bear this in mind:

1) There has never been an attempt on his life as a result of the fatwa;

2) The only death directly resulting from the publication of The Satanic Verses was the stabbing of its Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi;

3) Rushdie has never, so far as I can determine, expressed regret for that or any other attack inspired by the publication of his book; and

4) During his time in hiding (which he has now documented in a new book which he wants us to buy) Rushdie enjoyed U2 concerts as a backstage guest, appeared in a cameo in the film Bridget Jones and became a US TV regular, making him about as anonymous as Lena Dunham.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at LitReactor.com and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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