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December 1, 2010

Can Censorship EVER be OK?

Is censorship ever ok?

Every October, the Library acknowledges Banned Books Month with an exhibit of banned titles. We pat ourselves on the back because, after all, we don’t ban books. We’re librarians, educators, scholars. We’re for intellectual freedom 100%. Aren’t we?

In September, Boyd Tonkin published a column in The Independent in response to an exhibit of banned titles created by London libraries. He felt the titles were too easy, titles we’re too comfortable defending. His point was that almost everyone believes in censorship at one time or another. To illustrate, he compiled a list of 10 titles—that weren’t included in the London exhibit—he thought would be more difficult to defend. His list is not comfortable reading. It reminds us of the other side of the banned books discussion, the part that happens after we say, “I’d never, ever censor” when we stammer out, “Except for that book.”

Tomkins’ list includes Did Six Million Really Die? “a Holocaust denial manual” according to BookTryst. I consider it hate speech, designed solely for fueling anti-Semitism. But Tomkins’ list also includes Osama bin Laden’s Messages to the World, about which one reviewer stated, “Bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us. None of the reasons has anything to do with our freedom, liberty and democracy but everything to do with US policies and actions in the Muslim world.” That happens to be a statement I agree with. Another person—perhaps someone whose life was touched by the events of 9/11—might consider that statement outrageous and untrue, and bin Laden’s book good only for burning.

Further down the list are Pauline Réage’s Story of O, a well-known erotic novel about sado-masochism, and AM Homes’ The End of Alice, a novel told from the point of view of an imprisoned pedophile. Once upon a time (in the 70s), when sexual mores were more liberal than they are now, reading Story of O was something of a rite of passage. Definitely not a big deal. The End of Alice sounds horrifying beyond words.

Is there a point where free speech is trumped by hate speech or when content becomes dangerous? It’s a tough issue. So what do you do? You start by trying to approach things critically rather than emotionally. Perhaps you examine both sides of a controversial topic. You ask questions, do research, look at the writing—is it inflammatory solely for the sake of being inflammatory? Perhaps you talk with other people, friends, your professors, or, and perhaps especially, those who don’t agree with you. Essentially, you approach something controversial by expanding your knowledge base. It won’t make it any easier to defend some titles, but it will help move the issue from a no discussion, stark black-and-white to a shades of gray dialogue.