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The Banning of Books in Today’s America

BySienna Bramwell Pearson

Feb 14, 2022

Whilst I was researching this article I typed the words ‘book’ and ‘ban’ into the New York Times search bar to see what I could find. What I discovered was a long history of book banning, not only in America, but around the world. Headlines such as “A Frenzy of Book Banning”, “Book Banning on Trial”, “Book banned for Catholics” and “Vietnam War Book Banned in Maine” stretched back further than even the 1950s, suggesting that the history of banning of books is not only a long but also an often incendiary one.

Today the issue of book banning is once more before us after the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee voted last month to remove Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comic book Maus from their eighth-grade curriculum on the grounds of profanity and anthropomorphised mouse nudity. Maus tells the story of the many Polish Jews who lost their lives during the Holocaust, so naturally, the removal from the curriculum sparked heated debate not only in the US but throughout the world.

Many American conservatives are jumping on the proverbial bandwagon to censor books which they argue could cause students to feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race or sex. In Texas, a state legislator proposed a list of more than 850 books that he argued could have this effect. However, as a Dallas Morning News evaluation found, 97 of the first 100 books in this review were written by ethnic minorities, women or LGBTQ authors, suggesting that this move towards book censorship is more about suppressing opinions and views that do not align with their own ideology rather than protecting children.

This is not a new tactic from the right in America; a similar call for the banning of potentially provocative books was heard in the 1980s. However, what has changed is the frequency and methods of censorship that the American right is using. Deborah Caldwell-Stone who has been the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom for the past 20 years stated that whilst there has always been a steady “hum of censorship”, she had never seen as many challenges as she had this year. Furthermore, conservatives are no longer content for the banning of books to occupy the school-parent arena, they are now pushing the debate into statehouses, law enforcement, and political races.

The books that conservatives choose to target are often aimed at suppressing and erasing ethnic minorities’ and LGBTQ narratives from schools. Books that are often attacked by conservatives are novels like All Boys Aren’t Blue and Gender Queer which seek to normalize the experiences of these communities, given their limited representation in mainstream literature. However, there has been a significant amount of student mobilization against the banning of books in schools, especially in Florida and Pennsylvania where students successfully overturned book bans or freezes on the borrowing and teaching of certain novels in schools.

This is not just an American phenomenon. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a rise in book banning throughout the world, and in October 2020, International Publishers Association outlined 847 instances of concern in relation to the freedom to publish in countries including France, Iran, Serbia, and the United Kingdom. 55% of the 847 instances were cases of governmental censorship — suggesting that governments are now exercising this power more and more frequently. Much of this censorship seems to be directed against the LGBTQ community. In Hungary, the book What a family!, depicting LGBTQ relationships, is sold with a sticker stating that it depicts families “outside of the norm” and in Russia, if an LGBTQ book even makes it into bookshops (which is especially difficult because in 2012 an “anti-LGBTQ propaganda” law was passed), it is sold with a warning sticker as well.

However, this debate about the banning of books may just be drawing attention away from other types of governmental censorship. China has a long history of book banning, stretching back as far as the Tang Dynasty and, as a result, the Chinese government have learnt how to effectively utilise this power — instead of using a sledgehammer (that is, banning the book entirely), they prefer to use a scalpel: carefully removing any incendiary material from the work, stunting online discussion or suppressing parts of the narrative in favour of the party line. This can be seen in their treatment of George Orwell’s book 1984 where, instead of banning the book in 2018,  they stifled all academic discussion around the novel — Chinese citizens could not even type 1984 into their search browser to learn about the book.
Whilst Russia does engage more heavily in the banning of books, it also makes use of this “reverse censorship”. Instead of suppressing dissident views through the outright banning of anti-state books, it employs online trolls to flood the internet with views that follow the governmental line and harshly criticise any opinions that challenge its politics. Interestingly, this technique mirrors British World War One “atrocity propaganda”, which attacked the Germans using partially true, but also partially fabricated information. Therefore, instead of focusing solely on the books that are disappearing from our bookshops and bookshelves, we should instead focus on how our opinions are being manipulated and moulded to fit state policy and ideology.

Therefore, the big question is: does book banning work? The unequivocal answer is no. Just as the banning of Maus by the McMinn County Board of Education shot it to the bestseller lists in January of this year, we saw in the UK in 2017 a similar phenomenon after the release of Adolf Hitler’s controversial autobiography Mein Kampf to the general public again after decades of its inaccessibility; it immediately rose to the top of the bestsellers lists. This shows that removing the public’s access to a certain item just makes them want it more. Furthermore, this is an increasingly futile attempt at suppression in an age of international travel. What is more concerning are the ways in which governments throughout the world are exercising more subtle techniques of suppression and concealment, through social media and aggressive propaganda.

Image via Flickr