Banned Book Week 2022

It is, once again, Banned Book Week: the American Library Association’s yearly campaign to draw attention to efforts to remove certain books from classrooms and libraries. Their current list of the most frequently challenged books is here.

As far as I can tell, the books most at risk fall into two categories:

  • Any that challenge gender essentialism (the idea that male and female roles are fixed and innate) or a hierarchical view of society and families with men at the top, and women and children subservient. That would include medically factual information that would empower teens by helping them understand their own bodies.
  • Any that make the United States look bad, by, say, covering the real history of slavery, race relations, police brutality, depopulation of indigenous peoples, etc.

As I have commented on in earlier posts, in the United States “challenged” has been a more appropriate term than “banned.” Unfortunately, that may soon no longer be true. Radical right-wing extremists are in full roar, and with the courts stacked in their favour, they may succeed in implementing governmental bans in some states. They’re certainly trying hard in Florida, Texas, and Virginia. In the Virginia case, Republicans attempted to use an old law, unused in decades but still on the books, to have a pair of books declared obscene and illegal to sell or lend in the state. That law would have allowed a challenge in one district to ban the book in the entire state. A Virginia judge ruled against them, but similar laws in other states may find more receptive judges.

Censorship was a hot topic at the recent Chicon8, the 2022 World Science Fiction Convention. As a virtual attendee, I listened to a session that included Ada Palmer, a historian at the University of Chicago, who is an expert on the history of censorship. She made an interesting observation (I’m summarising/paraphrasing here, so if I mis-represent her, it’s my fault, not hers):

For hundreds of years, attempts at censorship have come in waves every 25 to 30 years, and historically they have always censored the wrong things, because the cat is out of the bag. The censors don’t perceive the next threat coming down the line, which would have been easier to deal with if they could have nipped it in the bud. Censorship is a panic reaction to a perceived threat, but the things we’re afraid of now aren’t necessarily the ideas that are powerful in retrospect from a hundred years later.

What I took from this is that the current furore over books by or about non-gender-conforming people or people of colour will eventually die down, because they can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The information in the books they want to suppress is already out there, on the internet, in Little Free Libraries, in donations from Friends of the Library groups, etc. Ideas are notoriously hard to kill. And the fact that there are so many more challenges in recent years of children’s books with LGBTQIA+ characters underscores the fact that there are so many more of those books being published; you can’t challenge something that doesn’t exist.

(Of course, Dr Palmer’s observation also implies that the fight against censorship will just move on to something else not even on the conservative radar yet. Legal rights for non-humans, perhaps? But that’s a worry for another day. She also said that the panics come from the grassroots, but then are harnessed from above to advance elite and governmental interests, which squares with Republicans pushing for book bans.)

But even if the would-be censors lose in the long run, that doesn’t mean they won’t make life miserable for lots of people before the current conflagration is extinguished. They can. They will. But there are ways to fight back:

  • Campaign for non-extremists (or run yourself) in your local school board elections.
  • Get to know your local school board members and let them know what’s important to you.
  • Stock a Little Free Library with challenged books.
  • Join your local Friend of the Library group.
  • Spread the word about the Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned project, which includes giving teens anywhere in the United States access to their full eBook collection and learning databases.
  • And most important: VOTE! Lots of people don’t pay attention to local elections, but sometimes they matter even more than national elections, because the margins can be very slim. If you don’t know who is up for election, here are good places to start: for the US, ballotpedia , and for New Zealand, policy.nz.
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