When I was eight or nine, there was a particularly lazy day when I really wanted to read something, but I’d read all my books tens of times. I wanted to read something new. And so it was that I ended up picking up one of my dad’s books off the shelves, feeling rather grown-up about the whole deal.
I can now tell you without a shadow of a doubt that Wilbur Smith is probably not the best author for your eight-year-old child. I vaguely recall reading about gruesomely detailed whippings and crucifixions, situations which I only later realised had heavily sexual undertones, and a lot of politics (which I found incredibly boring, might I add).
Although this is the start of our Banned Books week on the Nose, I’m not going to bring up that old argument about, “Look, I read this and I turned out fine.” Even on a broader scale, talking about the potential influence a novel might have on adults, an argument along similar lines holds no water. It’s just far too simplistic. Everyone is different, and what one might dismiss, another might take seriously. They may even take it seriously enough to scar them mentally or emotionally.
Our knee-jerk reaction to anything that makes us squirm is to avoid it, cut it off somehow. Disgusting scene in a movie? Cover your eyes. Scary news about ebola? Change the TV channel to a mindless sitcom that’s funny and comforting. It’s an extension of our natural instincts to avoid pain and flee from anything threatening.
Banning books, or in more extreme cases, burning them, spans the spectrum of our fight or flight response. Our flight mode seeks to actively avoid what’s making us feel uncomfortable, what’s challenging our worldview or the established status quo. Our fight mode then kicks in, going beyond simple avoidance to ensure this “threat” is nullified. We fear, and we seek to eliminate the source of that fear.
But eliminating the source does not eliminate the fear itself. If we fear monsters under the bed, removing the bed only removes the fear of monsters in that particular room. But there are many other beds under which we’ll continue to see potential monsters, and continue to quail in fear of them.
We need to confront the fear itself, whether it be that simple fear of monsters or the far more complex fear of genuinely examining a view that sits in opposition to our own. We need to go beyond the knee-jerk reaction and examine the view on its own merits. I’m not just talking about from a liberal point of view where we point fingers at those darned conservatives holding book-burnings and denouncing anything with a hint of witchcraft or sexual innuendo. I’m also talking about the reverse, examining books we would dismiss out-of-hand as narrow-minded or racist.
What is it about those views that appeals to the author? Why do they hold these beliefs and what’s the strength behind their conviction? (Note: “They’re devil-spawn” or “They’re narrow-minded, bigoted racists” aren’t valid responses.) What is it like to see the world from the author’s point of view, and what are the merits behind their views? We don’t have to agree with all they’re saying, but understanding where they’re coming from is a good first step. We shouldn’t be shying away from open dialogue. With children especially, allowing them to read those uncomfortable books is a great place for initiating the conversations that will shape their views. We should be teaching them to question, and most importantly, to empathise. Keeping our kids–or even ourselves–in a bubble only intensifies the shock and the backlash when the bubble finally bursts.
I remember having a most interesting conversation with my parents after reading that Wilbur Smith book, about why people would do such terrible things to one another. About why we have a long history of coming up with ways to hurt people as much as possible, for as long as possible. We never did come up with a definitive answer–“Because human beings suck” was too simplistic–but we had that conversation. We talked about those horrible things no one likes to talk about, and it made me think long and hard about the nature of humans in general.
That being said, should any books be banned? Let’s be honest, I wouldn’t be comfortable knowing that there were detailed how-to books on kidnapping kids or making dirty bombs in wide circulation. But in the end, it’s not the books we need to banish or change. It’s the motivations and intentions, the hearts of those who write them and those who are influenced by them.
And that, I think, we choose to avoid because it’s a far harder task. After all, one takes courage, patience, a lot of sacrifice, and sometimes, most of a lifetime. The other takes a loud voice and friends in high places. Oh, and a good bonfire never hurt.
Easy choice, isn’t it?