I’ve been talking about banned books here for quite some time. Australia does it, USA has an annual banned books week (1, 2, 3, 4), and without fail, the reasons for banning books are stupid.
If there is any one term to summarise why books are banned it is because something in the book makes someone feel uncomfortable.
Don’t particularly feel like discussing historical and contemporary racism in the USA, especially if this discussion highlights current social and personal failings to address the issue? Then ban Huckleberry Finn (or just drop it from the curriculum) because it uses the N-word.
Does discussion of sexuality and sex make you blush or feel inadequate for only knowing one position (facing west and thinking of England)? Then ban books that mention sex. Or nudity. Or sound like they might be.
Is the book you’re reading treat LGBTQI+ people as (shock horror) people? Then quick, ban that thing before anyone has a chance to empathise with a marginalised group and think that treating them poorly shouldn’t be happening.
Since at least 213 BCE, book burnings have been a reaction to the power of the written word. When roasting paper in a giant circle went out of style (at least in the intellectual sphere), the governments would take it upon itself to ban books. However, when we talk about book bannings today, we are usually discussing a specific choice made by individual schools, school districts, and libraries made in response to the moralistic outrage of some group. This, while still hotly-contested and controversial, is still nothing in comparison to the ways books have been removed, censored, and outright destroyed in the past. So on that happy note, let’s … explore how the seemingly innocuous book has survived centuries of the ban hammer.
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Recently in Australia, there was a lot of moralising outrage about books being banned in school libraries. Was this Political Correctness Gone Mad?
No. No, it wasn’t.
Yes, that’s right, the moral outrage brigade hadn’t even bothered to check any details. That shouldn’t be particularly surprising to anyone who, you know, thinks, but what I did find interesting is the sort of hyperbole used on this issue that never seems to make it to the actual censorship that exits.
When you read through the lists of books that were previously banned in Australia but are now available, you can see how we aren’t/weren’t allowed to talk about sex. We also don’t talk about Aboriginal history. Not talking about sex is still a common theme in today’s Australian censorship standards:
Publications will be refused classification (RC) that:
describe, depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults to the extent that they should not be classified; or
describe or depict in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult, a person who is, or appears to be, a child under 18 (whether the person is engaged in sexual activity or not); or
promote, incite or instruct in matters of crime or violence
Publications (except RC publications) will be classified as Category 2 Restricted that:
explicitly depict sexual or sexually related activity between consenting adults in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult; or
depict, describe or express revolting or abhorrent phenomena in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult and are unsuitable for a minor to see or read
Publications (except RC publications and Category 2 restricted publications) will be classified as Category 1 Restricted that:
explicitly depict nudity, or describe or impliedly depict sexual or sexually related activity between consenting adults, in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult; or
describe or express in detail violence or sexual activity between consenting adults in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult; or
are unsuitable for a minor to see or read. Source.
Now obviously the classifications could be very broadly interpreted and implemented. Plenty of books have themes around drug use and abuse, crime is an entire genre, cruelty is in any political memoir, and violence could be retitled thriller. We don’t tend to see those titles banned or restricted. So what does get restricted? As an example, American Psycho has a Category 1 restriction on it and is sold in shrink-wrapping… you know, just in case the words leak out and accidentally encourage someone to take up cannibalism or investment banking.
The number of books impacted by an RC classification is minimal. The 2016-17 figures show none were banned, as compared to video games which had 2 titles banned.
But it does show that a large number of titles were restricted in some way. This is without even touching on the censorship that occurs in access to titles, such as which titles are stocked in stores, which sites can be accessed to buy books, and what ends up in libraries. The restricted categorisation is clearly going to have impacts on where those titles will be available. So I wonder where the moral outrage is over this. Isn’t this Political Correctness Gone Mad? Or is it okay because the people who got outraged in the above video would be the “reasonable adults” who would be offended by these restricted titles?
Or maybe this would all require too much reading on behalf of those wanting to complain about books being banned.
Banned Books Week is an American event, but us Aussies have been known to ban books for silly reasons as well. As such, I think this should be a global event. So read something that some overbearing busybody decided was offensive today.