This Never Ends Well
Book Banning Ramps Up
Book banning. Again. Honestly, it might be funny to watch people work so hard to remove books in the age of the internet if it wasn’t so disconcerting.
I was reading an article to my teenage son that Maus had been banned in a school district in Tennessee. He rolled his eyes and immediately said, “Do they not know about the internet?”. One Google search later on his phone and he had the entire plot outline, pictures from the book, and an interview with the author. We also happen to own Maus, but he didn’t need the hard copy to get the gist.
It reminded me of the Streisand Effect; the Streisand Effect is a phenomenon that occurs when an attempt to hide, remove, or censor something has the opposite impact of increasing awareness of that information, often via the Internet. I have witnessed this in my own life; my son asked for one of the lists so he could look up all the books. He was genuinely interested to see what constituted a ban. My daughter, not yet a teenager, also wanted to look at the list. She wrote a few things down before heading to the computer for a Google search of her own.
I saw meme after meme with a common message: just tell kids to go to the internet! Make sure you encourage them to read these books! Send banned books to libraries all over the country! Make Maus #1 on Amazon! That’ll show them.
This can’t really be solved with a Donors Choose project or awareness of the books for kids. Book banning is a stifling, awful act; it takes something as innocuous as a book and makes it dangerous. I can’t think of anyone in history that has banned books and come out on the right side. Information should flow freely, even if we don’t like it. At the end of the day, book banning is about power. Who controls the information? That’s what we are really fighting about when we talk about removing books.
After all, not everyone has access to the internet. You can’t expect that kids have expendable income to buy books. Banned books are often tantalizing, but that doesn’t mean they are always accessible. And kids shouldn’t have to search all over to find these books; they should be available in the library. That’s what libraries are for!
As a sociology professor, I teach my students one of the Big Three theories of sociology: Conflict Theory. Now, the students often become a bit combative whey they realize that the founder of Conflict Theory is none other than Karl Marx! The original *gasp* Communist! What’s funny about books and access and Karl Marx is this: throughout my undergraduate and graduate work in sociology, I bet I read The Communist Manifesto six to eight times. Not one of those readings made me want to become a communist; if anything, I became more wary of Marx’s ideas about humanity. How could the Proletariat overthrow the Bourgeoisie and not just become the new Bourgeoisie? The more I read it, the more I challenged its tenets. My familiarity with the text bred a natural skepticism. Just by reading a book, I was able to shape my world view a bit. That’s the power of books.
Kids need to be challenged; they need to see different viewpoints and experience all the wonderful weirdness of this world. If we remove all of the books that make them feel uncomfortable, their adult lives are going to be difficult. I see it with my own students. The ones that have read fewer books are less prepared for challenging ideas. They often don’t think about the other side of an issue because they weren’t taught to do so. The simplification of their experiences is problematic. They see the world as black and white with little inclusion of any gray areas. If every story has to have a clear-cut hero and villain, that leaves no room for growth.
Maus is a great example of this; it is messy and gray. There are clear “bad guys” (yup, Nazis are always the baddies), but the “good guys” are sometimes cruel and unreadable. They do things like survive a horrible situation, but they do it with sheer luck. And that luck brings with it a trauma that can never be healed. The beauty of that graphic novel is that it doesn’t paint every character with a broad brush; people contain multitudes. It also doesn’t have a clear “hero”. In so many tellings of the Holocaust, there is a clear hero that saves the day, or the lesson is rosy: people are inherently good. Maus is different. It doesn’t really take a stance about humanity; it just tells the violent, terrible, awful truth. It clearly illustrates humanity at its darkest, and it doesn’t end with “they all lived happily ever after”. In fact, it wrestles with intergenerational trauma, racism, bias, and a real sense of, “where do we go from here?”. People don’t always like that because it makes them uncomfortable.
That discomfort is touted over and over again with book bans. The books make us feel something that isn’t great; our cognitive dissonance starts to poke at us, and we don’t always like it. So, the solution seems to be to get rid of it. Books about racism? Nope. Those make white kids feel bad. Books about LGBTQ youth? Nope. Those make parents feel weird; what if their kid gets ideas? Books about trauma? Whew. Nope. Those are too harsh for kids to handle.
What I have learned over the years of teaching college students is this: kids can handle a lot. They recognize nuance. They can see that something in a book is just that; it can challenge their views, and it can even alter them, but it rarely reveals something that wasn’t already there. Books that make us uncomfortable teach us valuable lessons. A society without those lessons is one that is less prepared for the future.
And, as a final question: when the books are gone, what happens next? We’ve seen this story before; it never ends well.