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Monday, September 29, 2008

Censorship - Is the American public demented? Seems like it sometimes...

The list of banned books is usually the first books your students will be excited about reading. This basic truth is something every high school teacher understands, but still, people insist on trying to ban books.

I'm probably nearly as amused as Phillip Pullman about the result of trying to ban his books. He recently wrote:

The censor's dark materials
by Philip Pullman

When I heard that my novel The Golden Compass (the name in the USA of Northern Lights) appeared in the top five of the American Library Association's list of 2007's most challenged books, my immediate and ignoble response was glee. Firstly, I had obviously annoyed a lot of censorious people, and secondly, any ban would provoke interested readers to move from the library, where they couldn't get hold of my novel, to the bookshops, where they could. That, after all, was exactly what happened when a group called the Catholic League decided to object to the film of The Golden Compass when it was released at the end of last year. The box office suffered, but the book sales went up – a long way up, to my gratification.

Because they never learn. The inevitable result of trying to ban something – book, film, play, pop song, whatever – is that far more people want to get hold of it than would ever have done if it were left alone. Why don't the censors realise this?

In the case of The Golden Compass, the reason the book was challenged is listed as "Religious Viewpoint", a reason that appears in connection with only one other book in the top five, a picture book called And Tango Makes Three. This is based on the true story of a pair of male penguins in New York's Central Park Zoo, who for a time formed a couple and hatched the egg of a mixed-sex couple who were unable to hatch two at once. This, if you can believe it, was challenged for six different reasons: "Anti-Ethnic, Sexism, Homosexuality, Anti-Family, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group."

Religious Viewpoint? Penguins?

I hope the authors have done very well out of the increased sales they'll have enjoyed, but this kind of thing only invites the rest of the world to consider the American public demented.

In fact, when it comes to banning books, religion is the worst reason of the lot. Religion, uncontaminated by power, can be the source of a great deal of private solace, artistic inspiration, and moral wisdom. But when it gets its hands on the levers of political or social authority, it goes rotten very quickly indeed. The rank stench of oppression wafts from every authoritarian church, chapel, temple, mosque, or synagogue – from every place of worship where the priests have the power to meddle in the social and intellectual lives of their flocks, from every presidential palace or prime ministerial office where civil leaders have to pander to religious ones.

My basic objection to religion is not that it isn't true; I like plenty of things that aren't true. It's that religion grants its adherents malign, intoxicating and morally corrosive sensations. Destroying intellectual freedom is always evil, but only religion makes doing evil feel quite so good.

So, once again, the most common net result of trying to ban a book is that you make more money for the author than they would've ever made if you'd just kept quiet. How many people read The Satanic Verses? Way, way more than ever would've if there hadn't been a jihad launched against the author.

Of course, I suspect the corollary to this is that enthusiastic protesters also do more harm than good for their causes. (Hello PETA!) It's time to reinvent the process for dealing with things you disagree with. Holding a picket sign is totally ineffective. Getting people to sign a petition is mostly useless. Making it financial beneficial for a corporation to do things differently is what really works. Threatening people or their creations because you disagree with them frequently generates the opposite from desired effect.


  • If we worked hard, do you think we could get Terry's book of Irish dances banned ? After all, there's kissing all over the place.

    It's worth a shot...

    By Blogger Chrisfs, at 1:53 PM  

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