Monday, November 30, 2009

Troubling Last Thoughts

Reading these contemporary articles on the banning of saggy jeans, cursing, and etc. has really opened my eyes—and made me look upon banning even more critically than I had before. On the whole, I was disturbed by what I read—how are bans like these allowed in a country which prides itself so heavily on personal liberties?

There were three sentences/phrases that I came across in my reading that particularly struck me as off-putting:

From Pinker’s “What the Fuck – Why We Curse”:
“The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) […] is charged with monitoring the nation’s airwaves for indecency […]”
“The ideal of sex as a sacred communion between a monogamous couple may be old-fashioned and even unrealistic, but it sure is convenient for the elders of a family and a society.”

And from the article “Are Your Jeans Sagging? Go Directly to Jail.”:
Debbie Seagraves, the executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Georgia said, “I don’t see any way that something constitutional could be crafted when the intention is to single out and label one style of dress that originated with the black youth culture, as an unacceptable form of expression.”

***

I think that these three phrases essentially sum up what is bad about and at stake in banning of any kind. The first, describing the duties of the FCC, sounds like something ripped out of the pages of Orwell’s 1984. A bureau checking our airwaves for undesirable content makes me uneasy, though I will fully acknowledge that the FCC can be useful—particularly in helping keep kids’ shows kid friendly, for example. And while I could certainly see having, perhaps, a rating system for books like the one we have for movies and television shows, I just can’t say that I agree with the total removal of any book for any reason. Yet, it seems that the potential for censorship is in the FCC, looming ominously overhead, threatening to remove the perceived indecency from every corner of our lives.

The second two sentences, beyond giving me the “watching-my-liberties-go-down-the-drain” creeps, really speak to the heart of why we ban books: they either aren’t convenient for us, or they represent undesirable lifestyles labeled unacceptable for mainstream children. This is the idea I’ve just mentioned—the idea of removing what the majority sees as indecent from all of our lives. What troubles me most about this idea is the removal of personal choice. If I personal find a book disturbing, I don’t have to read it, and I can certainly advise my own children, friends, and family to avoid it. But no over-arching system should be in place to determine what is generally disturbing and remove it from our hands.

Nearly everything we’ve read this semester has fallen into one or both of the two categories mentioned above, though one book sticks out in my mind: The Color Purple. The lifestyles and people presented in this book, as well as the ideas and even the way the book is written itself (i.e., in the epistolary form), are immediately pegged as incendiary and kept as far out of reach as Constitutionally possible. Yet, the Color Purple is lauded as a classic, and there are valuable things to be gained from reading it. How can a school district, a church diocese, or the government declare at what point the “bad” in a book outweighs the potential “good” you get from reading said book?

I think what has surprised me most this semester is reading the reasons that people give for banning books—sexual themes, racism, foul language—because I don’t think those are the real reasons they're out banning books. As we’ve mentioned in class, these things, as objectionable as they may be, are not present in books without good cause (for example, the use of the “n word” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), and are easily found without having to give a book more than a passing glance. We’re so quick to diagnose a thing as malignant that we’re losing touch. We can’t be like the citizens of L’Engle’s Camazotz, lazily willing to give up all decision-making powers for ourselves to some higher being(s); we’ve got to stop allowing outsiders to skim books and use those brief findings to declare what is, and what is not, indecent.

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