Why Do Books Get Banned?
August 15, 2022
Earlier this year, a Tennessee school board decided to ban Maus from its curriculum. Maus is a graphic novel depicting the experience of the Jewish Holocaust, using a family of anthropomorphic mice to demonstrate what it was like to live in Nazi Germany as a Jewish family. The ban was much reported and discussed and renewed conversation around the practice of banning books, a controversial yet longstanding topic.
Let's start with some context. Zack Beauchamp, writing for Vox on the ban of Maus, and Nadia Ford writing for Duke University in a study on the subject of book bans in general, have both offered an extensive list of reasons why books are banned. The most common reasons, found in both articles are:
● Discussion of racial content
● Sexual content
● Depictions of abuse
● Hate speech
● Objection on religious grounds
Religious objections often try to either advance their agenda or halt the advance of another religious group's agenda. An example is, advocating for the teaching of the Bible in all schools, regardless of the religiosity of the school in question. In rarer but not unheard of cases, a book may be called to be banned on account of the reputation of its author.
Some argue that banning books is a good thing, or at least a necessary evil, in the belief that it should be possible for parents, school teachers, and librarians to have some way to censor “problematic” books. The intent behind these bans is to prevent access to literary content that some groups or organizations consider objectionable or inappropriate, such as graphic violence or criticisms of religion. Motivated by these beliefs, a parent, librarian, or schoolteacher can issue a challenge to a book, which is then noted by both watchdog organizations and the organizations with the authority to issue book bans. The challenge may be allowed to go from a challenge to a ban, wherein schools and libraries will remove the book from their curriculum and storage.
In a vacuum, it may seem reasonable for parents and organizations to have this ability to challenge and by extension ban books, the idea runs into the same issues as any problem in which one group is allowed to decide what is and is not right or acceptable for another group. Bias, agendas, or misjudgment of the needs and wants of others, and presuming to better know the needs of outside groups to which ban advocates do not actually belong to can then create additional issues.
The simplest illustration of this is that several books are challenged/banned because they contain themes and depictions of gay and trans-lived experiences. Parents and organizations may move to get these books banned to prevent their children, classmates, or even friends from reading these books and realizing that the same experience applies to their own lives. Preventing individuals from accessing these books and potentially discovering that they have similar feelings of gender expression in common with their LGBT protagonists. This perpetuates homophobia and transphobia; by keeping individuals from reading about the lives and experiences of LGBT persons and characters, it reinforces the idea of LGBT as an otherness, rather than an aspect of humanity. This is especially so when the books are challenged under the idea of their 'sexual content'. In doing this, a homophobic fallacy is furthered, claiming that gay and trans individuals are somehow inherently more sexual than their heterosexual or cisgender counterparts.
A book may also be called to be banned if a book depicts acts of abuse, (usually of children being abused by their parents). An abusive caretaker may worry that their victims could read these works and begin to recognize that their caretaker is treating them poorly. The same applies to banning a book, such as The Hate U Give, for depicting racial content; parents and organizations wanting to keep their children from having uncomfortable (but always necessary) conversations around race, be it from motivations of overt racism to a mistaken belief that racism is an 'adult' topic that should only be discussed in adult contexts, in spite of how racism often affects young individuals. would object to anyone being given access to a book that depicts a sympathetic person of color and how racial violence affects their lived experiences, promoting empathy.
Essentially, banning a book allows an actor to issue a stamp denying individual access to a certain book because of its themes. Doing this takes agency away from readers whether or not they would wish to engage with a book's contents and their ability to make that choice for themselves. While it may sound reasonable to give teachers some leeway in the classroom to avoid using certain books and not expose children to mature themes, a book ban takes this logic and applies it to a broad swath of the population, including adults.
As Beauchamp writes in their article for Vox, while book bans have happened so often that there is now an entire week dedicated to celebrating banned books, according to Beauchamp, "Free speech experts say what’s happening now represents an escalation from that period: that there is a new wave of censorship sweeping America’s schools targeting literature relating to race, LGBTQ identity, and sex." While Nadia Ford's article points to the presence of the internet and smartphones, and the ability to digitally download and distribute text, seemingly undermining the effectiveness of book bannings. Despite this, banning a book still allows the creation of a sense of official prestige for some ideas over others, which can be used to mold and alter the educational curriculum to suit certain agendas. For example, banning books that discuss racial violence in a modern and contemporary setting, like The Hate U Give, while allowing books that treat racial violence as something that only occurred in the past and thus obscure the fact that racial violence is still a real and current problem for many people.
While there may appear at first glance to be a good reason to ban some books over others, such as violence or hate speech, the act of book banning itself is inherently tied to censorship. To ban a book is to restrict and repress freedom of speech, stifle ideas, promote certain ideas over others, and enforce oppression of minorities. Banning a book is, above all else, a powerful tool to prevent certain groups and people from making their voices heard and sharing their authentic, lived experiences with others.
Those interested in contributing against banned books may be interested in contacting the Banned Books Week website to see how they can contribute, or learn how to host their own local, smaller Banned Books Week, or donate to the American Library Association, an organization that advocates for literary and intellectual freedom.
Beauchamp, Zack. 2022 Feb. 10. "Why Book Banning Is Back." vox.com.
Butler University Libraries. 2021. Apr. 17. "Banned Books: Reasons Books Are Challenged." libguides.butler.edu. https://libguides.butler.edu/bannedbooks?p=217686
Ford, Nadia. 2017. "Book Banning." Duke University. duke.edu.
McGreevey, Nora. 2022. Feb. 2. "Banned by Tennessee School Board, ‘Maus’ Soars to the Top of Bestseller Charts." smithsonianmag.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/maus-becomes-bestseller-after-tennessee-school-ban-180979499/
Pen America. "Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students’ First Amendment Rights". pen.org. https://pen.org/banned-in-the-usa/