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Banned Book Week

If there is any word that gets under our skin, causing us to flare and to react with passion it is “censorship.”

The week of Sept. 25-Oct. 2 is Banned Book Week and its imminent arrival provides reason to consider the specter of censorship, in particular since these extremely uncivil times, and the tenor of divisive political and cultural discourse, harmonize with the siren song of the censor. Extremists relish the notion of silencing opponents, of stifling ideas they do not share, and extremism seems to be, increasingly, the mode of the day.

The censor — whether sanctioned by government or not — is an insidious and key factor in the rise of oppression of all sorts: political, cultural, religious. The censor plays a central role in the ascendancy to power of particular groups and ideologies, and in the maintenance of repressive institutions.

Censorship, the silencing of free expression, the denial of the freedom to consider ideas of all kinds, in all forms, is the ultimate poison — in particular in a democracy, in which the ability of citizens to intelligently reckon with a full spectrum of ideas is at the core of the system.

If we deny freedom of expression to those whose ideas we reject, what kind of freedom do we have?

Censorship is a self-defeating act, for individuals and societies; the flexibility needed for a culture to survive grows in the open exchange of ideas. Where once censors simply killed those with whom they disagreed, or burned their books and pamphlets, now they seek to have the works banned, shut away from readers’ eyes. Often they claim their purpose is to defend children — a weak maneuver that ignores the fact that the power of youth to exercise judgment in the face of competing ideas and expressions is critical to the development of sound adults. If a young person has the ability to read a work, they have the ability to engage in discussion of the elements of that work with adults; they have the ability to learn from it. They have the ability to reject it on grounds other than the whim of authority. They learn to discern quality by setting it off against that which lacks quality.

Censorship is the companion of prejudice and, as William Hazlitt noted, “Prejudice is the child of ignorance.” There is plenty of ignorance to go around in this species of ours; to compound it with censorship, to deny intellectual and emotional options and opportunities, only amplifies the problem. It never solves the problem.

One has only to review the lists of books banned in this society (or that censors have sought to ban) to realize the tremendous loss we would have suffered had the bans persisted.

Novels censors attempted to ban in the 20th century include “The Great Gatsby,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Ulysses,” “The Lord of the Flies,” “1984,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Catch 22,” “Brave New World,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “The Invisible Man,’ “Native Son,” “The Satanic Verses” (for which the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence on the author, Salman Rushdie, and his publishers), and “The Jungle.”

Among the books attacked by the censors most often in 2009 were “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Catcher in the Rye” and “The Color Purple.”

Ideologues of all stripes seek to prohibit the dissemination of ideas and images they cannot comprehend or that threaten their ability to achieve a measure of self-satisfaction. When they win, we all ultimately suffer. Freedom of expression and the freedom to entertain ideas is the bedrock of enlightened, productive and civil human experience.

This year, Banned Book Week’s slogan is a variation on a theme sounded by Voltaire: “Think for Yourself, and Let others Do the Same.” We cannot expect others to come to reasonable thoughts without a full library at hand. Karl Isberg