Banning Books, Suppressing Thought and The Rejection of Empathy
A new PEN America report finds that the right wing's systematic effort to block reading, learning and thinking is spreading
Banning books is one of those behaviors that is so beyond the pale, so wrong-headed and egregious an attack on freedom and democracy that I almost can’t write about it calmly. Denying people the right to read whatever they want? Allowing a tyrannical minority to decide for the majority what books are acceptable and which are not? Targeting books that aim to deepen empathy, compassion and knowledge about the human struggles involving race, gender, American history and sexual orientation? It’s hard to overstate how much this infuriates me.
Mea culpa: This may explain why it’s taken me this long to properly address the issue. I have in passing, particularly when writing about Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Texas’ Gregg Abbott and their demagogic exploitation of culture wars. But a newly updated report on book banning by PEN America (of which I’m a member) got my attention and helped me concentrate my thoughts. Chock full of data, its findings make clear this is no ad hoc effort but rather a systematic movement to deny Americans this most basic freedom of speech and—as the report puts it—“freedom to read, learn and think.”
Released on Thursday, the updated report titled “Banned in the USA: State Laws Supercharge Book Suppression in Schools” notes a litany of disturbing statistics: Since PEN America started tracking book banning in public schools in July 2021 and through December 2022, the authors’ organization which seeks to protect free expression has tallied more than 4,000 cases of banned books, involving 2,253 unique titles. And the number of book bans in the first half of the 2022-2023 school year rose by 28 percent compared to the previous six months; that’s 1,477 individual book bans involving 874 unique titles.
As the report notes, nearly a third of these more recent book bans are the result of newly-enacted state laws in Florida, Utah and Missouri. “These efforts to chill speech,” the authors write, “are part of the ongoing nationwide ‘Ed Scare’ – a campaign to foment anxiety and anger with the ultimate goal of suppressing free expression in public education.” Among the other findings, which PEN America’s CEO Suzanne Nossel called “a relentless crusade to constrict children’s freedom to read”:
Texas and Florida continue to lead the country in book bans—7 districts in Texas were responsible for 438 instances of individual book bans, and 13 districts in Florida were responsible for 357 bans.
Of the 1,477 books banned this school year, 30 percent are about race, racism or include characters of color, while 26 percent have LGBTQ+ characters or themes.
An emerging feature during this school year have been “wholesale bans”—the removal of untold numbers of books in classrooms and school libraries all at one time. This has been the result of teachers and librarians feeling pressured by new state laws to empty entire classroom collections.
Among the most frequently banned books this school year is Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe. Banned in 15 school districts, this autobiographical story with comic illustration is a sensitively written and touching portrayal of Kobabe’s journey of gender identity—the kind of thoughtful rendering that can provide a struggling young person light in the darkness as they search to better understand themselves.
Also topping the list: Flamer by Mike Curato (banned in 15 districts), Tricks by Ellen Hopkins (banned in 13 districts) and The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood and Renee Nault (banned in 12 districts).
PEN America’s previous report released last fall noted that of the 1,648 unique banned book titles they tracked: 41 percent "explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ+”; 40 percent include “protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color”; 21 percent directly address issues of race and racism; 10 percent contain themes involving rights and activism; and 22 percent include such content as “sexual experiences of teenagers, stories about teen pregnancy, sexual assault and abortion as well as informational books about puberty, sex or relationships.” This last category of books is typically attacked by book banners as “pornography.”
A CBS News poll a year ago found that more than eight out of 10 Americans oppose in every instance the banning of books criticizing U.S. history, discussing race, depicting slavery or including political ideas that “you disagree with.” An EveryLibrary Institute survey last fall also found that 60 percent of voters oppose banning books alleged to be “explicit,” such as Gender Queer or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and 93 percent oppose banning well-known or classic works such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
But that hasn’t stemmed the methodical efforts of individuals and groups bent on censorship to impose their views on others and deny young people access to knowledge that in some cases may save lives.
In addition to new state laws, PEN America identified more than 50 groups pushing book bans at local, state and national levels. Their report describes such tactics as “swarming school board meetings, demanding newfangled rating systems for libraries, using inflammatory language about ‘grooming’ and ‘pornography,’ and even filing criminal complaints against school officials, teachers and librarians.” Further, PEN notes that some of these groups are bent on reforming public education and pushing religious education, espousing Christian nationalist political views and, in some cases, filing book complaints even though some did not have children attending public schools.
“This book ban movement erupted precisely as many schools had begun to diversify the literature they make available to young people,” noted Kasey Meehan, Freedom to Read Program Director at PEN America and a lead author of the new report. “Now, those books are being ripped away from students who need access to diverse ideas, information, characters and stories. They should not be deprived of the opportunity to see themselves reflected in literature and to learn from different perspectives.”
Patricia Wong, president of the American Library Association, added this: "We support individual parents' choices concerning their child's reading and believe that parents should not have those choices dictated by others. Young people need to have access to a variety of books from which they can learn about different perspectives."
Nonetheless, the library association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom documented 729 “challenges” to library, school and university materials in 2021, up from just 156 challenges the previous year.
I am always reluctant to connect America’s current troubles to the historical realities of Nazi Germany. But I have to admit that book banning, especially in this virulent and methodical way, is one of those forms of behavior that triggers thoughts of the 1930s when thousands of books written by Jews, communists and others were burned in massive bonfires. This included significant and often celebrated works by major thinkers and writers such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Jack London, Thomas Mann, Karl Marx, Upton Sinclair, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and even Helen Keller.
That said, book banning is not book burning. Nor does a book ban necessarily lead to violence, although we should not forget that Salman Rushdie was nearly killed last August, 34 years after his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses was set on fire in the United Kingdom and a fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini called for his death.
So, too, conflicting perspectives on morality have led to bans in various parts of the world on everything from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (Ireland 1953), Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (China 1931), London’s Call of the Wild (Italy and Yugoslavia 1929) and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (Spanish Catholic Church 1720). Even the German translation of the Bible by Martin Luther was burnt by order of the Pope (Germany 1624).
The current right-wing push to ban books is part and parcel of the larger movement to undermine democracy and public education, advocate for Christian nationalism and religious education, reject the realities of America’s racist history, deny diverse gender identities and aggressively (often violently) move the country backward at a time of growing diversity and greater openness and empathy toward sexual and racial differences.
Particularly on behalf of young people yearning to make sense of this deeply conflicted world and the struggles of growing up and becoming oneself, I believe we must push back at the ballot box and elsewhere. In this battle between cruelty and kindness, violence and compassion, there’s little doubt which side must win.
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