Sunday, August 9, 2009

Insidious Self-Censorship

For a moment, a brief moment, I almost thought that the West Bend Library debate was over. I thought that Ginny Maziarka and the WBC4SL had thrown in the towel. But I was kidding myself.

Phase One started in February, when Maziarka attempted to impose her personal homophobia on the public library. She even went so far as to claim the library itself was engaging in censorship when they wouldn't give in to her demand to add books on "leaving homosexuality," a pseudo-scientific genre rejected by experts for decades (a rejection recently reconfirmed in a press release and 138-page report by the American Psychological Association).

Phase Two started when the library properly rejected her censorious and homophobic requests, and Maziarka switched to a more covert approach, rebranding her complaint as one of protecting children from "obscene" materials in the library, and hoping nobody would bother to check the facts. She hoped for broader appeal and got it, but still not enough to bully the library into submission.

Up to now, common sense has prevailed, if just barely. And Phase Three will be . . . ?

So why would I (or anyone) think they've given up the fight? That really comes down to comments left last Sunday on the WISSUP blog. We are told there that any lists of challenged books given to the library were just "examples," not a specific list of action items, and we're told it would be "absurd and silly" to offer specific criteria for deciding which books to label and re-shelve.

You see, I had thought there was an actual plan, and it seems I was wrong about that. And if there is no plan of action, it is impossible to bring about change, so the only logical expectation is that the library status quo will remain unchanged. The admission that there is neither a list of books to suppress nor a set of standards to apply for labeling and re-shelving amounts to a concession of defeat. But let's not get ahead of ourselves (or at least of me). The rhetoric continues to flow. What else might they hope to accomplish?

For one thing, Maziarka and the WBC4SL now have a giant soapbox to stand on, and nurturing that is an end unto itself. Vagueness is now their strength. As long as they don't get specific enough for people to check their claims or evaluate their proposals, they can (and so far, do) continue making groundless accusations about pornography in the library, dangers to children, and the need for scientifically discredited books and websites on ex-gay therapy. Such claims generate controversy, polarize communities, and stir up public ire, and those are all energies that can be turned to any number of political ends, mostly with little or no connection to public libraries. In other words, there's something to be gained just from stirring the pot.

But hey, that's politics.

There is another angle in play, though. If the WBC4SL haven't been able to impose formal censorship, they might yet bring about a kind of self-censorship.

Self-censorship comes into play when people get tired of the battle, and start avoiding conflict just to have a little peace and quiet. What that means in practice depends on the individuals involved. Maybe one day a librarian will catalog a new book as Adult rather than Young Adult, just to avoid a hassle. Maybe a few books more to Maziarka's liking will be purchased at the expense of books she objects to, just to appease her. Maybe some parents will be more sensitized to the issue and discourage their children from reading challenged books. Maybe the online list of gay-themed books that started all this will quietly disappear one day from the library website. Maybe more controversy-averse library board members will be selected. The possibilities are endless.

The word for this kind of self-censorship is INSIDIOUS. It comes sporadically, in small doses, flying below the radar, attracting little attention, but moving public discourse just a little bit in the direction that Maziarka and the WBC4SL would prefer. It isn't the victory they sought, but it allows the propaganda to continue indefinitely. It is hard to fight insidious self-censorship because you can't identify every instance in which it occurs.

But if it can't be fought directly, it can be countered effectively, just by choosing to be insidiously uncensored. Just as insidious self-censorship can happen in many ways, in small doses, barely noticed, you can choose any number of creative and unique methods to be insidiously uncensored. You might, for example, donate to the library a new book describing some aspect of the demographic, cultural, and socio-political diversity that makes up modern America. When you think it's right for your child, you might encourage him or her to read a challenged book. You could participate in the nationwide Banned Books Week activities. You could put up your own private website listing gay-themed books in the West Bend library, untouchable by the WBC4SL, and update it from time to time. Put up a website listing reviews of the books objected to: "Banned in West Bend!" Here, too, the possibilities are endless.

My personal preference is for a more direct and honest debate. But if it has to be insidious, then let it be insidious all around.