Banned Books week is just wrapping up in the United States. Books are not rated or subject to prior censorship by state authorities, but calls to remove them from public libraries or school collections are routine. These requests to ban are often unsuccessful. The real danger is that other jurisdictions may then quietly remove “controversial” items from their collections to avoid challenges. Book ban requests in schools may extend to cancellation of author tours, and in some cases publishers react to controversy by withdrawing books from some markets.
Mary Brown, chair of the Ontario Film Review Board in the early 1980s, once claimed that since censorship is the suppression of ideas, the Board’s demands to cut specific film images were not censorship. Although there are risks with any censorship, an argument can be made that the immediacy of realistic moving visuals justifies limiting or banning some images. Words are another matter. Books are less immediate and less accessible than movies, but they present ideas.
Although complaints sometimes originate from specific language, more often it is ideas that offend. A typical complaint is that the Harry Potter books provide a positive view of magic (i.e. witchcraft or Wiccan beliefs) to children. Assuming this is correct (quite a leap of faith, so to speak), magic in some form or another plays a role in vast quantities of children’s literature, not to mention fairy and folk tales. Why would anyone attempt to suppress so widespread an idea? The scary part is that the most enthusiastic of the book banners would like to move on to ban all fairy tales, folk tales, and most children’s literature. However futile the efforts of the book banners may appear, they need to be addressed each time a single book is questioned.
I would not go so far as to say that all ideas are good. A book could be libellous, or hate speech. But even if an idea is anti-social, its presentation in a book does not necessary mean it will be believed, or influence behaviour. Books, like movies and other entertainments, are often the scapegoats for aspects of society we do not like.
Canada has freedom to read week each February.
Want to know more about banned books, but don’t like reading? See the movies