"You define yourself by what offends you. You define yourself by what outrages you." This is a quote from Salman Rushdie (author of The Satanic Verses, among others) in a recent article. Banned Books Week defines us by our fierce belief in freedom and our outrage when that freedom is restricted or taken away.
Free speech runs two ways. On the one hand we have to allow for differences of expression (whether we agree or not), and on the other, we must fight injustice. Year after year libraries are asked to restrict our freedom to read and to pull books from their shelves. Here is a link to the most frequently challenged authors of 2011, the ones certain groups wish to eliminate, and a link to their titles. To Kill a Mockingbird is on the list again, as is Brave New World.
The various complaints against books that are "banned" or "challenged" are: offensive language; not suited to age group; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; nudity; sex education; anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; occult/satanic; violence; racism; drugs. But what exactly does "anti-ethnic" or "anti-family" really mean? Who's defining the terms? Those are two descriptions listed for The Hunger Games. Racism is listed under Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and under To Kill a Mockingbird. Literary works are meant to open up a discussion, not shut it down. People are free to complain, but they are not free to dictate.
In the age of the screen it seems ludicrous that people are complaining about books on shelves. What's next? Parental ratings for books like the one run by the Motion Picture Association of America? Would a ratings system cause the removal of even more books from the shelves or just a special section? Maybe I'm looking at this backwards; maybe it is actually heartening to think that books still have so much power.
President Obama explained, in response to a different situation, why we protect free speech in an address to the United Nations:
We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities…We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech—the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.With our freedom we have opportunities to stand up, to lead active lives, and to make our own choices. We cannot fade away or allow ourselves or others to be silenced.