Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Let's Just Call It Obscene!

Given that there are no books in the West Bend Library that can legitimately be called obscene or pornographic, why would Maziarka and the WBC4SL claim there are? What motivates such obvious hyperbole?

The simple answer is that it works.

Not that it will get books labeled or re-shelved. That would require a practical set of detailed standards for real-world decisions about which books go where, and the WBC4SL have yet to get specific about that. No, the obscenity claim doesn't work in that sense.

What claiming obscenity does accomplish, though, is create an environment in which people stop thinking clearly. It assures that a significant percentage of the population will react from their gut instead of their heads. It puts censorship opponents at a disadvantage because they have to use logic and reason to battle adrenalin. It pits explanations against sound bites.

To understand why it works that way, we have to recognize that the claim isn't just about obscenity or pornography per se. This is not a rarefied debate about the value or harm of pornography and its consumption. When we're talking about public libraries, children's books, and young adults, the debate is about obscenity and children.

You probably felt your own visceral reaction on reading that last phrase. And that's what Maziarka and the WBC4SL are counting on. Human nature. We all (well, nearly all) have an instinct to protect children, certainly to protect our own. All the would-be censors have to do is touch that instinct, poke a stick at that almost universal and all-too-human fear, and our rationality flies out the window. That protective instinct is as much a weakness as a strength, and they're exploiting that to the fullest.

It has worked, and worked well. Look at some of the YouTube videos of the public meetings in West Bend, or some of the blog posts. Maziarka scored a home run! At least some citizens believe that the library has materials that are as frankly objectionable as pornographic movies. Some think there is something terribly dangerous to children in the library. Some even believe the library is breaking the law, as one blog commentator wrote, "I think the Librarians ought to be held accountable according to state and federal laws that protect children from such strong sexual content."

The key to the success of the obscenity battle cry is that it gets people to overlook their own awareness. They have a feeling that something doesn't quite add up here, doesn't quite make sense, but they ignore it. The energy created by poking a stick at our defensive instincts goads us to action. We experience cognitive dissonance but override our usual reaction to it, which is to stop and think.

For example, most people realize they ought to verify the obscenity claim. They realize that those claiming obscenity should state an author and title and say unequivocally that this book is one of the ones they think is obscene, and not dance evasively about whether the books they've identified are "just examples." Most people realize they should go to the library and look at the whole book, and not just take the WBC4SL's word for it, nor accept a few out-of-context excerpts as evidence. But not everybody will take that step. Their instincts have been provoked so their bias is toward action, even though somewhere in their heads they realize they should check the facts.

One very clear example can be seen among those who believe that the library holds materials that violate obscenity law. They say this is criminal, and yet refrain from filing a formal complaint with the police, a strong example of living with cognitive dissonance. Of course, they won't file a formal complaint because they fear the real-world consequences of filing a false police report, and that means that at some level they realize that the obscenity claim is false. But the energy created by touching the child-protection instinct is so strong that it keeps that realization from coming too close to conscious awareness. The goad to action overrides the awareness that something here just doesn't add up.

Another result of the energy created by the obscenity goad is that the many nuanced issues surrounding library books and children are reduced down to the pornography issue. For example, if you talk about "appropriate" and "inappropriate" materials, many immediately think about sexual propriety and impropriety, a gross oversimplification of the issue. It suddenly becomes binary, either-or, right or wrong, instead of including many shades of gray. Of course, age-appropriateness is about a lot more than that. Most of us realize that you don't give a college chemistry book to a ten-year-old. It isn't age-appropriate because the child's cognitive abilities aren't at that level. But suppose that ten-year-old is some kind of prodigy; then the same book becomes appropriate. The point here is that each parent must evaluate the age-appropriateness of material on the basis of the developmental path of an individual child; there is no one-size-fits all rule. But just mention obscenity and our ability to see that age-appropriateness comes in many degrees and levels immediately shuts down. Suddenly, we act is if a seventeen-year-old and a seven-year-old are cognitively equivalent, as if Jeannie and Johnnie can read the same things just because they're both eight, or shouldn’t read the same things just because they're both eight.

In the battle between wrath and reason, reason is at a clear disadvantage. Nonetheless, I think that with time and persistence, cooler heads can prevail. In part, this is a matter of insisting always on the practical details, something I've tried to focus on in many of my posts on this blog. Although it is a valid line of public discussion, I try not to get too caught up in the absolutes or legalities of what obscenity is, or what is appropriate or inappropriate. Common sense can win out by asking for clarification of the practicalities, the nuts and bolts of turning rhetoric into reality. What practical, doable standards will be used to decide which books go where and which books get a warning sticker or don't? What physical controls will be in place? What tangible goals will these achieve? Exactly which books are you saying are obscene? What standards of obscenity does that imply? If you take this out of the world of theory and bring it down to an action plan, you force people to stop and think. Eventually, they realize that their strong but vague imaginings do not correspond to any pragmatic reality. Our natural instinct to resolve cognitive dissonance can overcome our tendency to just shoot from the hip.