The Horrible Problem Of Censorship

As a professional librarian, sometime writer, and all-the-time member of the LGBTQ community, I’m inclined to become incensed at talk of censorship. Lately Texas, Florida, and a few other places appear to have come to the conclusion that they can will queers and people of color out of existence if they can scrub their books hard enough. Out, out damn rainbow!

However, unlike the unjustly maligned Lady Macbeth (hey, she had limited options for advancement) these folks might be capable of actually rinsing racial tolerance and acceptance of diversity out of their kids’ heads. A washing of the brain, if you will. There’s probably a better word for that.

And I think that’s why I find the censorship of books so ominous. Books are made mystical by our associations with them. It’s true: they’re beautiful and lend themselves to beauty and contemplation and insight and thought. But a book is just a person who has put a bit of their soul between two pieces of cardboard. Someone decided that this was the best way to share themselves with the world.

But at the same time, they themselves don’t stop existing. They remain in the world, the original manuscript, the source, walking around and forgetting their keys and buying potatoes with the intention of making soup that they never get to. The books can be removed. They can be imprisoned in boxes, pulped and turned into pornographic magazines, burned to make s’mores, used for paper mache projects. They can be not read. But a person can’t be not read. The person who donated a bit of their soul to that book, be it a math textbook or an antiracist manifesto, can’t be not read. They can be imprisoned, sure, but someone will know they exist. They can be killed, but their skin and bodies will keep telling their story after the person’s gone. Their memory can be banned, kind of, but there’s a kind of historical Streisand effect that happens when you try too hard there – look at Akhenaten and Pope Joan.

You can’t ban the source of the book. It’s not possible. But people have tried. I think that’s the scary thing about book banning. Removal of the word is a slide toward removal of the speaker. That can start out looking like a protection of tender eyes, but that leads to the idea that the people who informed the books, the raw deal, should just as well be removed from view. This isn’t as hard as it sounds. First you don’t have to employ trans folks if you’re concerned that they’ll upset your customers. Easy peasy, they’re barely protected by law anyway. Then maybe parents have the right to remove kids from classes taught by queer people in public schools too. Maybe upstanding citizens win the right to know if a business where they might take their family is staffed with any LGBTQ people, leading to a chilling effect on hiring. I’m not saying there’s a direct path to reeducation camps and gulags here, but your society doesn’t have to be that bad to be bad. And let’s not forget that things really were like that until fairly recently.

But that’s what you’ve got to do if you ban books, because banning books isn’t enough to get the knowledge, the idea out of your hegemonic gestalt brain. If you’re going to go this far to protect the children from knowledge of queer and Black people, then you’re already in for a penny.

And that’s why it’s so obvious that the politicians pushing book censorship aren’t acting in good faith. They’re chasing this car because they want a handful of their most extreme voters to see that they’re big good guard dogs who can really show a motor vehicle what for. They’re also smart enough to know that actually catching it would be a problem for them. Where I think they’re mistaken is in how close that voter bloc wants them to get.

About 5% of all humans are queer. That’s 1 in 20 people. Intersex conditions are as common as red hair (for real!) and we’re still finding new ones. About 41% of the U.S. is made up of people who are something other than white. Banning books about these groups isn’t going to stop kids from learning about them. What it will do is allow those kids to develop the idea that you don’t have to know things that you don’t want to know. You don’t have to deal with people who aren’t like you. If something makes you uncomfortable, you can mistreat it, delete it, defeat it. It tells them that there are people who deserve to not be discussed, people who are forbiddable. People who, by simple dint of who they are, deserve to be banned.

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