Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Destruction of Knowledge

Sometimes it's important to step back and look at the big picture. While a topic like censorship in libraries is expansive enough, it is not an isolated phenomenon. It takes place within broader social trends that I'll call "The Destruction of Knowledge." By destruction I mean a deliberate, planned effort to limit what others know, an intent to narrow the available range of information and opinion.. By knowledge I certainly mean factual information, but also social perspective, an understanding that human societies are diverse, that opinions vary. By knowledge I also mean an aesthetic appreciation, an understanding of human experience as expressed art and literature. Knowledge, after all, is not just a collection of facts.

The many(!) attempts in recent years to remove or limit access to books in schools and libraries is a serious problem. Such efforts fail far more often than they succeed, but few censors seem ever to learn that. They mount campaign after campaign, dividing communities, wasting the time of public officials, and exhausting activists on both sides, mostly in efforts that accomplish nothing. It is difficult to comprehend such relentless futility without taking note of the deep distrust that political and religious conservatives have of an informed public, their fear of knowledge itself.

A brief overview of anti-knowledge trends includes:
  • Further reducing already limited public spending on education at all levels.
  • Vouchers and other methods for shifting tax dollars out of public education and into private hands.
  • Sanitizing great literature into mind-numbing pap, as is too often done in the classroom with the writings of Walt Whitman, William Shakespeare, and other masters.  
  • Attempts to remove education about basic human sexuality from public school curricula, including removing information about abortion, birth control methods, and prevention of disease, or replacing medically sound curricula with abstinence-only "education."
  • Attempts to remove education about human evolution from public school curricula by watering down information on evolutionary theory, injecting unscientific doubt, or adding materials on the pseudoscience sometimes called Creationism or Intelligent Design.
  • Lawsuits and other pressure by private schools that teach Creationism to force accrediting agencies or universities to accept the notion that their students are adequately educated.
  • Pressuring school and public libraries to reduce or eliminate books that portray homosexuality in a positive, or even neutral, light, or that give factual information about variation in human sexual expression.
  • Pressuring school and public libraries to carry more books on pseudo-scientific "ex-gay" therapies.
  • Demanding that schools and libraries impose internet filters that go far beyond protecting children from sexually explicit material, blocking access to information that both adults and minors have a constitutional right to access.
  • Pressure to keep worldview-challenging curricula out of the public schools, including courses on comparative religion, comparative political systems, and many aspects of history.
The motivations behind these attempts to narrow the range of available knowledge also motivate the more mundane processes of:
  • Attempting to remove or restrict access to books in school curricula.
  • Attempting to remove or restrict access to books in school libraries.
  • Attempting to remove or restrict access to books in public libraries.
It is often in these mundane book challenges that the true political and religious motivations are most honestly revealed. Some book challengers are genuinely concerned with protecting children from obscene materials, but these are few. Too often, a book challenger makes claims about a book he or she has never read, and relies on the ignorance of others not to get caught. If they have read the book, they grossly exaggerate the objectionable aspects of it, either taking quotes out of context or outright lying about the contents (like calling The Bluest Eye the "bestiality book" or calling Heather Has Two Mommies "sexually explicit"). From time to time the challengers are more honest, clearly stating that they object to a book because they see it as un-American, anti-religious, challenging to authority, glorifying criminality, promoting homosexuality, or any of a long litany of complaints that are excruciatingly documented in endless letters to library directors, school boards, and city councils (and all of which mark a work as constitutionally protected speech).

Underlying it all is the inability or unwillingness of the censorious to live in a modern, pluralistic democracy. They are unwilling to acknowledge that one society can include multiple values and opinions. They are unable to understand that democracy implies that others have a right to make choices different from their own. They fail to grasp that the mechanisms of the state do not exist for the purpose of promoting a single worldview, and assume that the single worldview that should be promoted is their won. They want to force everyone else to live within the same narrow range of knowledge to which they restrict themselves.

It is only in this light that any sense at all can be made of the claims asserted by People Against Bad Books In Schools, Family Friendly Libraries, Know Your Library, SafeLibraries, PFOX, West Bend Citizens For Safe Libraries, and others. Their claims that what they're trying to do is anything other than censorship is rational only within a worldview that does not comprehend a difference between private choices and public policy. Their claim that opposing them undermines democracy itself can only be counted as sensible in the absence of a commitment to pluralism. And to promote those views in a pluralistic democracy that limits what is controlled by public policy in favor of private choices they must drag everyone else down to their level.  To make their logic work we must all become unlettered, become ignorant of history and doomed to repeat it, to know nothing that might undermine a cherished political position or article of religious faith.  


  1. Well stated, and, sadly, too true.

    I grow more pessimistic with each passing day as I watch our nation seemingly slip more and more into the grip of an irrational rightwing extremism that distains science and knowledge, and glorifies the social and political strictures of the 1880s.

    We have a Republican Party intent only on obtaining control with no thought on doing anything that could be construed as improving the lives of citizens. A Democratic Party too weak and timid to fight back. And both parties in the thrall of corporate money. There are Christian fundamentalist intent on turning our democracy into a theocracy -- and nothing but worldwide calamity could come of that. And we have a population more interested in counting the number of mistresses Tiger Wood has than paying any attention to its political leaders.

    We live in an age when disinformation can be disseminated more swiftly than information.

    I once thought, despite its foolishness, mankind always managed to muddle through, recovering from its historic mistakes and tragedies, and stumbling forward to advance its knowledge and technology. I once thought the 21st Century would be a watershed where humankind would finally begin to shed its divisive tribal impulses, prejudices, and reliance on ignorance and superstition.

    I no longer believe that.

    I now believe the United States is on the verge of a great step backwards, and the world will suffer.

  2. Thank you so much for telling it like it is. I'm so glad there are people out there like you.

    The "challenging authority" one makes me laugh a little, isn't that what Christ did?

    And isn't the point of "values" to see what you don't agree with, and say "I don't like that," rather than blindly following it? If their children are so susceptible to blindly following differing influences, they have much bigger problems than books in a library or school. I'll have to write a full blog post on this, I've been meaning to for far too long.

  3. Thank you both for commenting. I think my position is more positive than Anonymous', but only slightly. I think there is still a chance that enough Americans will sober up to the present, and maybe embrace the future. But I agree there is a high risk that this won't happen. So many want to cling to their romantic fantasy of what the past was like.

  4. As long as we keep working against censorship I think we have a chance :)