Friday, October 2, 2015

Who Bans Books? Concerned Parents

Over the past three days, I've written about some large, powerful groups that have flexed and sometimes continue to flex their muscles to keep people from reading certain books. In the United States, though, the most common group seeking to ban books is described by the name "Concerned Parents." That's the subject of my final Banned Books Week post.

In the United States, parents and other groups can challenge a book in a public or (more often) a school library, hoping to have it removed. Whoever is in charge of dealing with such things — librarians, school authorities, school board committees, library subcommittees, black-and-white smoke-filled rooms occupied by well-dressed men from 1950s cinema — reviews the complaint and makes a decision. The burden of proof is definitely on the group trying to ban a book, though, and the great majority of challenges fail.
From the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association. Follow the last link in this post.

According to the Office of Intellectual Freedom, most challenges occur for three reasons:

  1. The material is sexually explicit.
  2. The materials contains offensive language.
  3. The material is "unsuited to any age group."
Those aren't the only reasons, of course. The Harry Potter series is one of the most challenged book series in the United States. Sure, there was a little snogging in there, but no clothes-off, horizontal dancing. Apart from the occasional "Merlin's beard!" and Mrs. Weasley's famous "Not my daughter, you bitch!" the language is pretty tame. And part of the success of the series as a whole was that it appealed to adults just as much as it appealed to children.

No, Harry Potter has been challenged — more than 3,000 times — for its "satanic undertones."

Set aside for a moment the argument of whether or not the books are satanic. Even if they were, should they be removed from school or public libraries? Do Satanists, Wiccans, pagans, and squibs not have the same First Amendment protections as Christian American muggles? Should school boards be able to remove such books from school libraries because they (and many others in their communities) disagree with the ideas that drive the story?

The Supreme Court has something to say about that. In 1982, in Board of Education, Island Trees School District v. Pico, they ruled that school officials could not remove library material because they disagree with the ideas behind it; a book had to be "pervasively vulgar" to be banned.

Rejoice in this triumphal defense of our freedoms for a moment, and then realize that 1982 wasn't all that long ago. Two Star Wars movies had already been released when this case made it through the courts.

Of course, most parents don't figure the US Supreme Court into their parenting styles. They are more concerned with protecting their children from danger, whether that's bullies, pedophiles, or difficult ideas. That's just good parenting, more or less. As a parent myself, I can tell you with certainty that I am raising my sons well, and almost every other parent on the planet is doing it wrong.

I also recognize that every other parent on the planet believes exactly the same thing about their own parenting skills.

So the problem comes when individual parents, or a group of parents with a shared moral outrage, try to apply their parenting decisions to the whole community. Like with most ethical situations, parents agree: Doing so is just wrong, except when I do it.

So we, as a society, will continue to wrestle with the sometimes contradictory goals of protecting our children and upholding the rights of those we despise. It isn't easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. But we should keep in mind these lines from an interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights:

Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents — and only parents — have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children — and only their children — to library resources.
In fact, everyone who wants to file a challenge against a book should be given a complete copy of the Library Bill of Rights and asked to read it.

What you allow your children to read is up to you. I believe what's more important than their choice of literary material is simply instilling in our children a love of reading. As a parent, it doesn't take a lot of effort to steer your children toward or away from specific books or genres, but it must be done in a way that doesn't hamper the joy they get from reading.

And remember, opposing viewpoints, different religious points of view, and other difficult ideas don't have to leave indelible stains. Talk to your children about what they read. Let them know how you feel about it, and explore meaning with them. But above all, rejoice in the fact that they are reading and thinking about what they read. That's what makes confident, thoughtful, intelligent children, which always leads to confident, thoughtful, intelligent adults.

And we all know how much more of them we could use.

The American Library Association has a lot of interesting resources about censorship and book challenges. Set aside a good chunk of time before diving in to some of their statistics about book challenges.