Thoughts on Book Banning
Back in September, the NDSU Library held a special event for Banned Books Week (BBW). It is a week to acknowledge and learn about books that have been banned from schools and libraries across the United States. Looking at the current state of the world, when misinformation has become a staple of any social problem, why ban books that discuss these topics?
Why ban books that discuss white supremacy, violence, censorship, sexism and discrimination from the places that were created for learning? If these books are intentionally being banned from schools and libraries, what do politicians and school boards not want people learning?
According to Butler University, the most frequently banned book in the United States is 1984 by George Orwell, alongside his other works such as Animal Farm. Published in 1949, Orwell’s infamous novella has commonly been banned for being sexually explicit and being “pro-communist.” The ladder is a debatable critique, as many have also praised 1984 for being anti-communist due to its critiques of Stalinist Russia.
George Orwell, a democratic socialist, based the story of 1984 on the totalitarian regime of Stalinism in Russia, as well as the authoritarianism and fascism of Nazi Germany. The story examines the themes of social control, censorship, nationalism and surveillance. It examines how morals and truths can be manipulated by political powers to fulfill their need to be at the top of a hierarchy.
Another of Orwell’s novellas, Animal Farm, also examines the same themes and has also been challenged. Orwell’s thought-provoking world building has even prompted the creation of the term “Orwellian,” defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “Of, relating to, or suggestive of George Orwell or his writings; especially relating to or suggestive of the dystopian reality depicted in the novel 1984.”
George Orwell is not the only author whose themes have been heavily censored. Others include Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which puts a spotlight on white supremacy and prejudice, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies that examines the ways youth are affected by social conflict, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale that displays the dangers of misogyny, the subjugation and oppression of women and religious extremism.
The pattern of past books bans is clear and concerning. Young people comprehending how they can be lied to by those in power, made complicit in a social hierarchy that oppresses others, and pitted against each other for the benefit of the privileged members of society is a threat to, well, the privileged of society.
So, what about current book banning trends? Surely we have wised up and become more tolerant of challenging topics, right? Surely we have realized that no good ever comes from censorship?
Unfortunately, if you look at practically any school board meeting down south, it is clear we have learned nothing. Despite celebrations like BBW, banning books that discuss serious social issues have been banned, challenged, and even burned in multiple southern states as part of the mass-hysteria surrounding LGBTQIA+ people and the GOP’s “Critical Race Theory” tantrum.
For example, the most banned book of 2022 was Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, which examines gender issues in the present world. Further, schools in the state of Florida have also cracked down on books that discuss “Critical Race Theory;” essentially, any books that discuss racial and/or ethnic diversity. Because apparently, if kids learn to respect other cultures, people, and identities then all of civilization will fall. There is no way to excuse this pattern as anything other than prejudice against minority groups. Trying to limit and censor the stories of marginalized groups is dangerous and malicious. To put simply, it’s orwellian.
Ironically, historically challenged books tend to have themes that examine the dangers that come from censorship. The entire plot of 1984 centers around how limiting the freedom of information is used as a tactic of social control by The Party, whose only goal is to maintain their power and oppress its citizens.
The Handmaid’s Tale alludes to book burning as a tactic of what would become the authoritarian regime of Gilead, an extremist theocratic society that relies on the oppression of women, as well as warping information to become propaganda instead of knowledge.
Looking back in history, any country that excessively bans and censors books has never been the good guy. For example, fascist and/or authoritarian regimes throughout history start by enforcing strict censorship and book burning. Book banning does not just cause headaches for librarians and teachers, it is a tactic for fear mongering, propaganda, and disenfranchisement.
In the year 2023, when we are living in the Age of Information, book banning might seem innocuous. Yes, you can easily Google a book and read it for yourself if it gets banned at your school. However, that does not take away from the repercussions that these actions have. Hate crimes and speech against LGBTQIA+ folks and POC have steadily increased in the last few years; a spike that began right around the same time that books about diversity and social issues that affect these groups started getting banned.
There is no point in banning books unless information and critical thinking forces you to face your own privileges. There is no harm in kids reading books about racial and queer issues. Not wanting kids to learn about the dangers of propaganda and misinformation threatens the development of nuanced thinking and intellect.
So, when September rolls around, consider picking up a banned or challenged book and broadening your perspective. Take the time to learn and think a little about the world and people around you. To quote author Stephen King: “[I]f they ban a book in your school, haul your ass to the nearest bookstore or library ASAP and find out what they don’t want you to read.”