On Censorship

If we go along with the idea that books are good for you, then we have to take on board the notion that they might also be bad for you, too. You can’t logically have one without the other. Marshall Gregory describes how his students ask him, in horrified tones, whether his ideas about ethics and literature mean that he is in favour of censorship. And he says he isn’t, but then he asks his students whether ‘some sort of judgement or control’ should be exercised over the reading of young children, and the students agree without hesitation. His students persist, despite the inherent contradiction, in thinking ‘that they themselves are not vulnerable to ethical influence from stories, and second, that younger children are vulnerable.’ It’s intriguing that, isn’t it? And Gregory follows it up with a story about giving a picture book to his three-year-old daughter, which he and his wife discover at the last moment contains stories they don’t much like; for instance, one in which a black girl is depicted as a maid. In the end, they cut the stories out with a razor blade in a way that is invisible. As people used to say when I was a child: what you don’t know can’t hurt you.

The chapter goes on to talk about the ways we let stories in, the way we ‘give them assent’ in Gregory’s terms, by the willing suspension of disbelief, for instance, and that’s all good stuff, but I want to stick with the problem of censorship. Gregory’s students don’t want to be submitted to it, but they see the potential necessity for a young child. This is the classic structure of censorship – it’s a gesture of authority, from those in the know towards those who are not, and parents are inevitably put in this position. Although any parent will tell you that the debate about knowing is always hotly contested by the child itself, who will readily argue that s/he is quite old enough, quite mature enough, perfectly capable of forming a judgment, thank you very much. From wherever we stand in our lives, we can look at the inside of our own heads and see how much is in there that we know, how we have developed exponentially over the passage of time, how wise and able we feel ourselves to be. And it is impossible at the same time to envisage what it is that we don’t know, the experiences we haven’t had, the revelations to which the future may make us submit. I don’t think that age ever alters that position.

Instead, not knowing is something we readily attribute to others. It’s easy to imagine other people getting things wrong and making errors of judgment. It’s so easy to think of all the different kinds of information that could fall into the wrong hands, or be used in the wrong ways. I remember a while back there was a huge fuss when former President of Harvard, Larry Summers, was forced to resign when he endorsed the view that men performed better at maths and sciences than women due to a genetic advantage. Academics walked out of his lectures, there was uproar in the journals, and it became very clear that this sort of idea was unacceptable. I was talking about this to Mister Litlove.

‘I can’t quite feel that it’s right, ever, to prevent any kind of research from being aired in a university context, even if it’s distasteful,’ I told him.

‘Ah, but some ideas are very powerful,’ he replied. ‘Fundamental forms of religion, for instance. You might not want to have a good speaker converting your average obsessive student to the cause of Jihad.’

Well, that stumped me for a moment. I had to think really hard about it, and nearly pulled a muscle in my brain.
‘Do you know,’ I said, ‘I’m going to do something I haven’t done for at least a decade and invoke Kant.’

Mister Litlove agreed he hadn’t seen that coming.

‘One of Kant’s great premises was that we had to draw a distinction between questions of knowledge and questions of belief. We had to recognize that some things were always going to be beyond rational, objective proof, and that we could never honestly speak of them as a form of knowledge. Religion, evidently, falls into this category. And we have to keep that separate from questions of genetics, for instance, which we stand to one day know about and must therefore be discussed as we refine our knowledge. The problem is, we so long for the things we believe to be awarded the status of knowledge that we don’t distinguish adequately between the two.’

So where does this leave us on the question of censorship? Marshall Gregory talks, as I said, about stories and the assent we give to them. And he points out that only written stories offer us the possibility of reflective assent. We can pause while reading them, get our thoughts together, consider what we’re being told and whether we approve or not. Media stories, films, television, oral accounts ‘demand immediate assent’ and are therefore much harder to negotiate with in the space of our own minds. Belief is even a little further along the scale of assent, and a strange combination. Beliefs are fictions to which we have given complete, overwhelming assent, sometimes without even noticing it. But they are cordoned off from the other forms of concept, untouchable and unquestioned even though their status as reality is somewhat in doubt.

Now, stories, as I said in the last post, swallow the world whole – they are the only form to encompass the whole experience of life. And so your average story contains some fact, some fiction, some beliefs. What we really need is for people to understand the composite mix that goes into stories better, to understand that when they are written down, we have a chance to think about them in a way we don’t when they are told by preachers, or doctors or newsreaders. And to understand that some parts of a story are painful because they challenge dearly held beliefs that we may long to be true, but which are perpetually open to doubt. So parents and educators and all people in authority need to be careful about the way they tell stories, and the stories they choose to tell, but being careful means making sure that their student or child is allowed the luxury of reflection, of questioning its premises and of thinking about what is certain in the story and what is speculation.

Maxine Greene is an American philosopher of education, and her argument is that real freedom for students is ‘the capacity to choose and create themselves, to discover new ways of looking at things, to resist knowledge that is too easily given and received.’ Her guiding notion was that things could always be otherwise, and that education was about liberating students’ minds to think for themselves, to critique and to challenge. Censorship is about suppressing ideas we don’t like, yes, but usually it is stealthily about promoting one idea, one that is dominant and fashionable, like the belief (and it IS only a belief) that genetics will prove to be the one and only answer to the problem that is human development. Fundamental religion is a classic case of one story being promoted at the expense of all the others. We need a multiplicity of stories, and the courage to challenge beliefs, not simply hold them. If it had been my little three-year-old, I’d have given her the story about the black maid, and a story about a black child that grew up to be President, and perhaps a different and more ordinary story, too. Maybe that’s my inclination to build up everyone’s libraries, but I do subscribe to comparing multiple stories as the route towards good education, too.


18 thoughts on “On Censorship

  1. Censorship is an ongoing and thorny issue that gets everyone worked up. My first class in library school we discussed censorship and the little secret that libraries regularly practice it, they have to because of limited space and resources. And then as good librarians in training we discussed how we avoid the sort of censorship that privileges one viewpoint, one story, over that of another? How do we make sure that the library holds books on evolution as well as creationism for example?

    When it comes to the wider world I have read some disturbing references of late in various sources that suggest information should be controlled, especially when it comes to information provided to children and students in the form of books. That certain books should not be given to children or students to read until they are mentally capable of understanding them. It is a silly argument because the child/student will probably understand more than the parent/teacher gives them credit for. And what they don’t understand they will either not pay attention to or will make an effort to learn what it means.

    I am enjoying you reading the Gregory book, it is producing lots of great posts!

  2. I like the idea of embracing complexity and making it part of education to show people how complex stories are. As you say, there’s a whole mix of fact and fiction and belief bound up with stories. Showing up the complexity takes away some of the power that these stories have (or shows us how they affect us) and gives us more power I suppose.

  3. Stefanie – I am sure that the librarians in training gave the problem some quality thought and, since the issue of censorship is probably unresolvable, the giving of quality thought is what matters the most. I do completely agree with you about children; they are pretty sharp for the most part, and then what they don’t understand is a complete blank to them. My experience is that they are far more upset by chronic bad atmospheres at home that no one is explaining than by a book that contains more sophisticated concepts. But then, perhaps I just know unusual kids! I’m so glad you are enjoying the posts! I think I have wearied most of my audience, judging by the stats, but if you like them then it was worth doing.

    Pete – I rather figure that the people who turn up in your consulting rooms have become disempowered because they are stuck in a story of their identity or their life that has lost all flexibility and even causes them grief. One narrative has come to dominate, and everything that happens gets interpreted in the light of this main story. Being able to see things otherwise – and to see that things could be different – is the start of better emotional health. But it’s hard to get people to see the storytelling pattern, and to loosen the grip.

  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the Gregory book. I enjoy reading these posts immensely. Please, do not let the stats discourage you …

    I am with you concerning the kids. Obviously, we all have some limits concerning the stories we want to share with our kids, but in general I also believe that it is important to give them a chance to explore the world of stories and to see that there is a large variety of perspectives and concepts. Personally, I tend to censor very, very little. Sometimes I feel I need to explain something (similar to the example with the maid). And I try to anticipate if I need to explain something that potentially troubles my son about a book, and I try to not miss when he is brooding over something. So far, this approach has worked rather well and has supported my notion that kids appreciate when they are taken seriously.

  5. Pah stats, no this book has produced very brain moving posting material indeed. I like your idea that censorship is intended to enforce one dominant idea and that seems to apply to what some might call ‘positive censorship’, as well as the very wicked kind of censorship from the other side. The example you quote about the story with the black maid reminds me of a story last year about a teacher who thought schools should stop including things like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in syllabuses because racism and slavery was all over (I think he cited Obama’s presidency as proving that racism had diminished) and it didn’t help to discuss these things now? That kind of censorship seems to be pretty bad too, it shuts down debate and it tells children they’re not to be trusted to think, which doesn’t exactly set them up for the future.

  6. I’ve been reading these posts on the Gregory book and thoroughly enjoying them, so thank you! I’m just a bad commenter these days, finding time to read my favorite blogs but not always time to post a thoughtful comment.

    Your comment that, “we so long for the things we believe to be awarded the status of knowledge that we don’t distinguish adequately between the two” is definitely why people often try to censor…when you believe you are right, when you believe you have the authority, you are always more willing to influence someone else’s thinking.

    And I agree with you that comparing multiple stories is away to give someone the chance to come up with their own thinking about an issue or a problem. It also provides a vehicle for comparison and discussion.

  7. I can’t help but admire anyone who can summon Kant to her side out of left field as they say. And there’s a famous quote about statistics which is playing catch me if you can in my brain at the moment, but I’m sure it can be used to say stats, so what?
    Censorship is a multi-faceted creature. It is usually seen as a protection from something, but it is also an evasion strategy. The people who censor things from others, (automatically we think of politics, I guess), is often self-censoring a threat to themselves. It is far easier to cut something adrift as needing to be sunk to the bottom of a deep ocean, than to grapple with the complexity of it, especially if it is some part of human nature which we do not wish to even understand let alone consider. I think the fear that what we despise may be a part of us is related to this.
    I’ve recently read an excellent short story by Ali Smith called ‘The Child’ which relates to this topic. A woman finds a beautiful baby/child dumped in her supermarket trolley. She is pressured to accept it as her own by customer services and a group of shoppers, who seem to believe she is a mother overwhelmed by bringing up her child and wanting to leave it. She takes it, thinking it so beautiful and desirable that she may keep it after all. In the car it starts to speak in a beautiful voice, but it pours out, in a language and expression of a grown up, a tirade of abuse and prejudice and attacks political correctness, taking the woman back twenty years. Now the woman has to decide whether to see the task she has set herself through or to head for the exit sign. It’s in a collection called ‘The First Person and Other Stories’ if you want to find out more! If you should read it there is a scene in a lecture hall at Cambridge which I’d be interested in having your opinion on.

  8. I like your solution to the 3-year old’s story book – give lots of stories about lots of lives and let the kids work it out for themselves. I do think children need to be protected from certain things until they are old enough. I can’t understand Gregory’s cutting out the story of the black maid with a razor, though. How silly…since there are maids who are black…and white, and Hispanic, and I’m not at all convinced working as a maid is worthy of censorship. Does Gregory think working as a maid is demeaning? Does his cutting out a picture of a black woman as a maid say something about him? I don’t know, but I’d like to talk to him about it.

  9. I also like the solution. This reminds me of when my older daughter was around 7. Whenever she watched tv, she wanted to know what was real and what was acted, what could be real if it wasn’t acted, and what was faked and how. She is still interested in that.

  10. I too love that you casually invoke Kant in conversation with Mr LL – that is priceless!

    LL, I agree that we need a multiplicity of stories, and Grad’s point above is also a good one – it may be, what, racially sensitive and terribly PC to make cosmetic changes to a children’s book, but boy, it’s also a really peculiar thing to do… It’s an opportunity lost, really, because he might have layered story upon story in a much more productive and interesting acknowledgement of reality than he ultimately chose to pursue. Let’s talk about that domestic help, for instance, and women working, and why on this occasion we have a black maid instead of a white one (or Asian or Hispanic or Icelandic), and what all those composite parts might mean for the world inside the book and without. To simply cut it out reveals a discomfort on his own part that is nothing if not a whole other story waiting to be told.

  11. Thinking about censorship as a way of promoting one’s own ideas makes a lot of sense, and I love the idea of making sure people have access to multiple stories so they can think through them and come to their own conclusions. I suppose the thought of letting people think for themselves is really frightening to some (I’ll admit in some cases it scares me — when they come to political conclusions I find abhorrent, for example), but it IS the way to a good education.

  12. I too am intrigued by Gregory’s choice to excise the image of the black maid from his daughter’s storybook. In an odd way, that is more racist than leaving it in. That is not, of course, the point of this post, but it caught my attention … I wonder whether, next, he will excise all images that show women doing traditionally “female” jobs. What is more inherently “offensive” … the fact that the maid was black, or the fact that she was female? He won’t have the opportunity to educate his daughter about stereotypes and societal traditions, now that he’s removed that image from her book.

    And that, really, is the essence of censorship, isn’t it? You can’t be educated about what you don’t know to be in existence. That’s a shame.

    And people have interesting double standards about things … I was given sex education before I was five years old, by a book my parents gave me; I still remember it, it was quite cute, with illustrations that were photographed paper cutouts of happy fornicating chickens and then larger animals and then people, except they kept the people under a blanket. So I knew the Tab A Slot B mechanics from a very early age, and how women got pregnant, and the anatomical specifics of birth, etc.

    But I remember quite clearly when I was ten, wanting to check out a book from the library and my mother not allowing it. I forget what the book was; it was written for teenagers, though, and later in life I discovered that it contained some discussion of masturbation, which has always been a strange hot button for my mom. I still wonder what this particular form of censorship was about, and equally interested in how it misaligns with her obvious belief that children should be given information about sex very early in life, for the purpose of proper education.

    And this leads me to the idea that a lot of censorship is triggered by fear of practical application. How likely is it that a five-year-old child, given sex education, will go out and have sex? Pretty unlikely. It’s far more likely that a preteen boy, reading about masturbation, might give that a try. Since each censor has different fears of what will be practically acted upon by a reader, there cannot ever be fair or even-handed censorship.

  13. What a great post. I wish I had such an analytical mind as yours (able to call on various philosophies) and able to work my way through problems so thoughtfully. Censorship is really a tricky issue. As an adult you want to choose good reading material for a child, but I think you have to let them see the darker sides to things (well, at appropriate ages) in order to compare them to a more enlightened way of thinking. If you don’t know both sides how can you decide–or work out which is right and wrong. I like your solution of giving the child a different perspective.

  14. Oh yes, that is exactly what I would have done for the 3-year-old child as well. How else is she going to face the realities of people assuming maids are black if someone has just hidden that unpleasantness from her instead of exposing her to all kinds of different stories and helping her to see what might be wrong about stereotypes? When I was in library school, I had a professor (who’d raised five children of his own) who was convinced that we worry too much about censorship and children, that children are actually very good little censors themselves and know what, say, to keep watching when it pops up on a TV screen, and what disturbs them too much to watch. I remember observing this in my nieces when they were tiny. My oldest niece was happily taken to see “Beauty and the Beast,” when it first came out, and in the midst of it, announced, “I don’t like this movie. I want to leave.” Two years later, she was dancing around the dining room table, because she’d been given a copy of the video for Christmas (by then, it was a movie she could handle, and she loved it. She’d moved past whatever had bothered her about it). It’s a good theory, and probably works in many cases, but it still doesn’t answer the questions of how much violence you should allow a young child to be exposed to, before he or she decides “I don’t like this,” and when and how they begin to become immune when exposed to too much.

  15. Chris – thank you for your lovely comment. I completely agree with you that kids respond very well to being taken seriously and spoken to without patronage. The way I feel about it, I would never censor material that raised troublesome ideas or issues, even if I would not expose a child to graphic violence, say, which would just mindlessly shock or frighten. I was trying to think about where I’d draw the line – because parenting takes you up against those sorts of questions all the time. But I think any idea or concept can be discussed, and kids quickly switch off and do something else if they are bored or don’t find the issue of relevance to them – that’s not going to hurt them.

    Jodie – you are a sweetie. And thank you for that link which contains a fascinating discussion. I’d encourage everyone to read it. I think the librarian speaks uncommonly good sense (isn’t that librarians for you?). Mister Litlove is always teasing me because I have terrible horror dreams whilst never having read a horror book in my life, ever. I think we have the dark side inside in any case – we can assuage it with reading and feel the comfort of understanding and enlightenment, but we can’t make it go away by not reading about it. And the debate about books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn is very odd – it’s a denial of the past, I think, and that as you so rightly suggest can only ever lead to trouble.

    Verbivore – knowing how busy your life is right now, you’re quite forgiven! 🙂 I always loved the comparative approach as an academic – it opened things up so. And no one can feel right with equanimity when there are two or more persuasive and plausible ‘rights’ to compare. Better that way than endless arguing over one issue!

    Bookboxed – lol! Kant is rarely my companion in debate, but bless him, he came up trumps when I needed him. I think you have it just right when you say it’s about avoiding perspectives that trouble us, particularly when they concern parts of human nature that are intransigent and troubling. Alas, I am not in any way in favour of denial in any shape or form. Mister Litlove is often telling me I should loosen up and deny a bit more (he is fond of it as a strategy, and in truth it seems to serve him well). But I am more afraid of the potential for festering than of facing uncomfortable reality. As you may know, I am a fan of Ali Smith and have that short story collection. Things have been a bit upsy-downsy of late, but I will read both short stories and let you know what I think. 🙂

  16. Grad – writing this made me think a lot about where I draw my own lines with children – because you always have to draw them as a parent. I think I’m ready to discuss any idea or concept or event. But I was always careful about what representations my son saw when he was little and certainly foreclosed those that contained graphic violence. I do think you have to be old enough to stomach that kind of thing, but children are no strangers to the concept of violence and often need to talk about it. That is probably more confusing than if I’d said nothing, but hopefully you follow!

    Lilian – yes!! My son too! We talked a lot about ‘dead’ actors getting up and walking away or fetching a cup of tea, and the make up department having fun with fake blood or whatever. I think that’s why now he can watch all sorts of things on television that I wouldn’t want to, but still feels faint in biology class….

    Doctordi – I found the solution to the problem intriguing, too, and couldn’t sum it up better than you do. I did wonder whether I was missing something as a parent, because if I’d been reading that book to my son, I am sure I would have said how we don’t have servants any more, although we might have spoken about au pairs (we had a disastrous one for about a fortnight one summer, long ago but too traumatic to be forgotten) but I may easily have neglected to mention race, as England was packed out with white servants one hundred years ago. Makes it almost look like we censor the things we are most ashamed about and cannot assimilate. And lol – you’d be amazed at who I can invoke in conversation. No written authority is too high or too low or too obscure to be brought into debate with Mister Litlove if it means I might carry my point. 😉

    Dorothy – I know exactly how you feel about political discussions. And I hate that sinking feeling when you see a group of people getting carried away with an idea that you just know is going to be disastrous. I hate that. There is no certainty that the ‘right’ solution will be reached, and I find that difficult to accept. But I do think that a good, cunning, strategic story – or even better, several of them – are the best chance we have of thinking all around a problem.

    David – that’s all very interesting. I find it hard to believe that people want to attempt sex education on very small children (and schools here seem gung-ho on starting it earlier and earlier). If you have them, you know that it means nothing whatsoever to them. It’s simply bewildering. But it does seem aimed at prevention, like drug education. So if you scare them from a sufficiently early age, then maybe they won’t risk themselves in any potentially dangerous way. So all this ties in very neatly with your idea that censorship is about blocking people from turning ideas into reality. And there’s a lot bound up in that, about preserving the status quo, and fearing change and wanting to keep control. All those desires are perfectly human and understandable, but the best solution to them might not be their seamless satisfaction, hard as it may be to resist that. And I agree that if you start excising bits of books that don’t fit with modern day values, you might not end up with much book left at all.

    Danielle – absolutely – you have to let children see both sides, right and wrong. I think that’s it in a nutshell. Children are actually hugely moral, and very concerned about doing the right thing and extremely open minded (at least all the ones I’ve ever met have been). They are also much more clued in to objective reality than most adults (they see all the inconvenient truths!). And I was lucky enough to have really good teachers at important points of my education, which means I have theorists on call sometimes! I’d give that experience to everyone, if I could.

    Emily – I quite agree with you. Children are mostly fabulous at saying ‘no’ if we give them a chance to refuse and make the effort to listen to what they say. I remember once, years ago, my son couldn’t sleep and had come downstairs to find me. He was sitting on my lap in the kitchen and the door to the sitting room was open, where Mister Litlove was watching a thriller. Suddenly on the program a woman screamed, and by instinct I twisted around so he couldn’t see the screen. He was really cross with me. ‘It’s much more frightening not to know what happened,’ he reproached me. And thinking about it, he was probably right. The imagination is the most powerful source of fear that we have, without doubt. But as you say, that decision about what a child is ready for, particularly when it involves violence, is such a tough one for any parent to make. I would tend to err on the side of caution, but my son’s response shows why one might not agree. Still, I think there’s a big difference between images of violence and ideas or concepts that we feel uncomfortable about. The latter can be discussed – and children will soon wander off if a topic is dull or incomprehensible, without any damage to their sensibilities! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s