In my April 13th post I mentioned the supposed end of a perfectly ridiculous challenge to Sonya Sones’ One of those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies. A mother in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, had challenged that book at a school library, and had dug in her heels about it. On that same date, an article in the Fond Du Lac Reporter noted that the challenge had gone through multiple levels, the challenger being unwilling to accept the decision of a review committee and then of the superintendent to keep the book. When the school board also voted to keep the book, the newspaper declared that the “parent's mission to remove a book from Fond du Lac middle schools has ended.”
This may have been premature.
Those who want to censor books are of many types and have varying motivations, but the Fond Du Lac situation seems increasingly typical of the worst aspects of censors as a group. It starts with a parent who has a tiny sliver of a legitimate complaint: a book that he or she finds objectionable by personal standards. But any hint of reasonableness disappears the moment that parent refuses to accept personal responsibility for his or her personal values. A personal objection becomes a public debate when the parent demands that a public institution, ordinarily bound by the ethics and legalities of Free Speech, impose one person’s values on an entire community. The book is reviewed by others, discussed, and voted on, and (almost always) is retained, which should be a process that educates the challenger about Free Speech in a pluralistic society. But the censors don't get educated by that process. On the contrary, they just get more intransigent.
And so we come to the May 3rd letter by the same book challenger to the Fond Du Lac Reporter, in which she repeats the empty platitudes we’ve seen in so many failed challenges elsewhere. “It was never about ‘banning books,’” she declares, even as she tries to ban books, apparently comprehending neither the meaning of the word “ban” nor the gravity of her demand. She writes, “I realize there are parents who disagree with me,” and adds “to them, I say your children can visit the public library for that type of book.” Here we see the very essence of the censors’ worldview, a belief that a whole community should have the job of avoiding offense to the peculiar sensitivities of one individual. Of course, both ethics and the law demand exactly the opposite, that especially sensitive individuals should take steps to shield themselves from unwelcome materials, without burdening the community at large. But a censor cannot be bothered with such facts.
Undeterred by three levels of failure, the letter-writer points to a petition she is now circulating. Her petition is shockingly inane, revealing a lack of thought that is nearly absolute. It reads, in its entirety:
We the citizens of the Fond du Lac School District are asking our local school board for a change in policy in how literature is selected in our schools. We ask for a committee to read and select books for our children. We also ask for a book content rating system to be put into place.
Could she have been more hopelessly vague? How many people will be on her proposed committee? With what qualifications? Will they be elected or appointed? By whom? Will they be paid for their services? To whom will they report? Are their findings to be final or will they only be suggestions? What guidelines will they follow to decide which books the school should acquire and which the school should not? Who will get to define those guidelines? Similar questions are instantly apparent for the rating system she fails to define. Who will rate the books? Into how many categories will books be rated? What specific characteristics will determine the rating category into which a book is placed? Who will decide on the number of categories and define the characteristics of each category? How will a book’s rating be communicated to a potential reader? Will it affect a potential reader’s borrowing privileges? If so, how?
An inability or unwillingness to think logically is part of most censorship attempts at every step, and the Fond Du Lac situation is certainly no exception. That refusal to think is present at the beginning of every challenge, when someone first makes an unrealistic assessment of the offensiveness or harmfulness of a piece of literature. It’s present every time book challengers refuse to recognize that they don’t have a right to dictate public policy or refuse to acknowledge what the law plainly says about Free Speech. It’s present when censors insist that review committees and rating systems are simple, uncomplicated things, and can't be bothered to get specific about what they really want. Censors just don’t think.