Everyone’s a Book-Banner

It's just a question of which books and why.

By Clint Roberts Published on April 21, 2023

There’s a new slur for people whose political views you don’t like: Book-banner. Not that there’s anything new about book-banning itself. For as long as written material has existed, people have debated its content, and authorities have tried to control copying and distribution.

In medieval Roman Catholic jurisdictions, the Inquisition maintained its infamous “List of Forbidden Books” (Index Librorum Prohibitorum). Writings were outlawed due to political point of view (like the historian Gibbon), scientific opinion (like Galileo) or matters of moral decency (like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or the memoirs of Casanova).

Everyone Censors

We like to pretend that there is a distinct group of people — those “fascist” political enemies of mine — who are the banners of books. While my side, we say, is for freedom of expression.

The banning of books is a censorship issue. And make no mistake, everyone (I mean everyone) believes in censorship. The debate is only what should be censored and why.

The main division is between two kinds of censorship, based on two different concerns:

(1) Moral censorship is motivated by a concern to prohibit indecent or degrading content that might have a corrosive effect on people, with special attention to kids.

(2) Information or opinion censorship is motivated by a concern to control what and how the public thinks about relevant issues.

Censorship Then and Now

A few generations ago, Americans prided themselves on freedom of inquiry, speech, expression, and the press. But those same Americans had low tolerance for public displays of immorality. They were classical liberals with conservative values. They saw the big communist governments of their age as oppressive censors of speech and destroyers of basic freedoms. But at the same time, their television shows would not show a married couple in bed together.

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It’s quite a contrast to our present conditions. The self-appointed elites in our society have flipped this on its head. The second kind of censorship — of information and opinion — is their primary concern. A lot of them believe we should rethink the first amendment. They say that wrong points of view can cause “harm” if we let them be expressed openly. They’re not so sure anymore that the information control of a communist state is such a bad idea.

Meanwhile moral censorship is seen by them as retrograde and oppressive. To suggest that it’s corrosive for people, especially young people, to see depictions of all manner of sexual practices — that notion is what is truly oppressive. If we try to shield young people from graphic material and the whole miasma of pansexual perspectives, next thing you know we’re in a dark, puritanical theocracy like The Handmaid’s Tale. That seems to be their hysterical reasoning, anyway.

Who is Banning What?

The explanation above helps put into perspective what we have been seeing the last few years. The landscape now looks more like this: Conservatives are now the classical liberals, the true libertarians, the defenders of freedom of information and opinion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.

Meanwhile, the contemporary left-wing is led by people who have ditched classical liberalism for statist control of information. They have seized the reigns of major media, social media, big corporations, advertising and entertainment. Taken together, these represent as much power over information and opinion as has ever existed in human history.

Their exercise of that power would make the old Soviets jealous. They censor news stories they find unfavorable. They control political candidates’ “good” and “bad” press, burying stories that would damage candidates they prefer. They set the powerful algorithms that govern what comes up in search engines and what items appear in everyone’s social media feeds. They ban books from the world’s leading online book-seller based on moral or political opinion.

But as you probably know, these censorious controllers of information are busy claiming that conservative or libertarian leaders are “banning books.” What are they referring to?

It turns out that some public school boards are deciding to enact a specific kind of censorship when it comes to what the kids of their communities are taught. They are curating educational material the way that all school boards do, but they are doing it in a way that progressives don’t like.

Every public school system makes decisions about what is included and what is left out of their lesson plans for students. Some have banned certain classics due to material they deemed objectionable. A movement to “disrupt texts” has targeted Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Steinbeck and Shakespeare, among others. And of course the Bible, that all-time and worldwide most banned of books, was still listed a few years ago by the American Library Association in the top 10 “most challenged books” in the U.S. for that year.

What, then, are these “less progressive” and more traditionally-minded school systems trying to keep out? Are they trying to avoid uncomfortable topics like slavery or “erase” gay people from history, as some have suggested? The answer is no, of course. Those accusations are false and dishonest.

There are plenty of stories like this one containing the specific things to which parents have objected in recent days. Videos have made their way around showing parents, or kids themselves, reading from books with explicit content that could only be called pornographic. The governor of Florida scandalized a media gathering by presenting some of the content found in K-12 schools.

So the primary motive of those wanting certain books or other materials removed from public schools is for the sake of moral censorship in the interest of children. A secondary motive is to remove false teachings by political activists from kids’ curriculum. Neo-Marxist doctrines have been incorporated into lessons for kids in order to train them in leftist ideology in some places. Under the banner of “Critical Theory,” which stretches back to leftist European scholars of a hundred plus years ago, some schools were pushing a convoluted version of history “reimagined” through a lens of contemporary “intersectional” studies or “queer” theory.

And note: these conservative parents and school boards aren’t trying to ban these things from all of society. They would still defend the first amendment for adults. They just aren’t going to let filth or propaganda torture the young and impressionable minds of their kids.

It seems clear, upon modest inspection, that both sides of the political tug of war are pulling for censorship of one kind or another. Both want to ban books in some fashion. So it does no good for each to point across the aisle and call the others “book-banners.” What should happen is that each side should be honest and explain what they wish to ban, from where, and for what reasons.

I have to think that if most people were informed accurately, they would see that one side wants to prevent indecent or propagandistic material from corrupting kids against their will, while the other side wants to control information and opinion for the entire society in order to gain and hold political power. They both censor. But they are not the same.


Clint Roberts is an adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma and Southern Nazarene University.

Originally published on How to Read a News Story/Substack.com. Reprinted with permission.

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