Thursday, September 26, 2013

When Words Are Dangerous

It is banned book week. I'm not sure how widely this is known outside the writing/library circles, but within that community, it is definitely shouted about. Which is why, even as an author, I tend to stay quiet on the issue. It occurs to me that when there is a lot of shouting, there is not a lot of listening.

Lately I've been listening more. And thinking.

This is what I think: we have become a society in which we scream a lot about free-speech and tolerance and acceptance, but in reality, we only want free-speech and tolerance and acceptance for the things for which we agree.

People like to throw the word censorship around because it is a heavily-loaded word. It reeks of Nazi Germany and book burnings and the red-scare McCarthyism that kept so many Americans from speaking what might be controversial. We pride ourselves on freedom; that is what this country was founded on - what our flag stands for - and to say that there is somewhere here a censorship on books seems entirely un-American.

But censorship, really, is just drawing a line in the sand. It is saying there are things that are right - either beneficial or neutral, and things that are detrimental or dangerous. I think nearly everyone draws a line somewhere. The problem is that we don't all draw it in the same place.

The thing is, words are powerful. They can be dangerous. They can offend. They can enlighten. They can rouse a person to do something he never thought of doing before, to say things they might not otherwise have said. People don't like to admit this, but it's true. The power of words is both good and bad. Let's be mature enough to at least admit this. This is why books and authors and poets are banned in other countries - because their words are powerful enough to cause others to rise up against the government, against the status-quo. This is why teens are committing suicide after posts on social media become reality in their heads.

Words matter, and no one should know this more than writers.

I've read two article this week that have been banging around in my head. The first was this one about an author whose YA book Eleanor & Park has received some pushback by parents over the language and content that they called "pornographic" and "sexually explicit." I haven't read the book, so all I know is what the article said.The author of the article says that the real profanity in the book is the B-word and P-word: Bullies and Poverty, that we need to read these themes, even if they are ugly, because they are real.

The other article is this one, written by the author of the American Girl of the Year books in 2005. He wrote, without the language and the "sexually explicit" content, about a family living in what is a well-known, dangerous neighborhood that wants to move to give their daughter a better place to grow up. This author was hounded by journalists and politicians because he shed a light on the more unsavory side of Chicago inner-city.

Both of these articles are well worth reading. And thinking about. And comparing.

In the meantime, I think it's also good advice to stop the screaming just a minute and listen to someone else. Really listen. And think about where they've drawn their line, and why. And maybe, just maybe, if you listen to them, they'll listen to you. And then there might actually be a conversation.


  1. I want the library to have all of the books. Even ones I don't agree with. Even ones that offend me. Even ones written by Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh (he he he). I don't want to be the one to decide what is good or bad or offensive, and I sure don't want some library board deciding for me.

    I read both of the articles you mentioned. I want to add another, which has a similar subject but not quite the same regarding Stephen King:


    1. All the books? Books on how to become a terrorist? Books promoting the occult, like the Satanic Bible? Books on how to cook meth or how to build your own bomb? Books that glamorize child rape or pornography?

      I guess this is my point - that you probably have a line, too. There are books out there far, far worse than Rush Limbaugh. Should those all freely be available to everyone who walks in the doors? And at the taxpayer expense?

      Libraries are barely funded now. At some point, they ARE deciding what you have access there to. They can't buy it all, so they take a list and say some they will buy, and others they won't, for whatever reason they have for choosing one over another. And if the taxpayers are paying (rather than, say, a bookstore that is privately owned), should they have a say in what is bought?

      I don't have answers to all this. I'm just trying to see it from all sides. I think words like "banning" and "censoring" are sometimes misused for the purpose of inflaming emotions. But I like conversation.

      Thanks for your comments, and for the link!

    2. I hear what you're saying. I was kidding (mostly) about the Rush Limbaugh :)

      For the occult thing, one person's "promoting" is another person's "providing information". Take breaking bad. Those writers had to get that information from somewhere.

      I don't think a book should banned from a library because a kid might come across it. It is the job of the parent to pay attention to what their kid is reading.

      What I'm trying to say is that we need to err on the side of making books available (even those that challenge our values) than on the side of banning/censorship.

      Anyway, just trying to explain where I'm coming from. Thanks for this thoughtful (as always) post.

    3. I don't disagree, and I knew you were (sort of) kidding about Rush. :)

      I think we tend to think of book banning and censorship as pertaining just to kids, but I guess I was thinking broader than that. Not just what is okay for kids, but just what is okay. If kids like those at the Boston Bombing and Columbine got a book about bomb making from their local library and then made the bombs that killed people, would there be uproar about it, from both side of the politics? I don't know, but I tend to think so.

      Just thinking out loud here. I like your thoughts. You are always passionate but reasonable, and easy to discuss with, and I love that.

  2. Well. I'm a big believer in not banning books, too, BUT, I totally see where you're coming from, Heidi. There are no lines drawn in the sand anymore - in fact, the sand has been pretty much turned to cement. Anything goes. You can say and do and read and watch anything you want because whatever values you're reading/watching/hearing are okay because EVERY value is okay now, didn't you hear? (sarcasm) Post-modernism got us into this mess, and I don't see that it will be on its way out anytime soon.

    (And I just have to interject this, but, strugglingwriter, can I ask you why you chose to use Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly in your examples instead of, say, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann?)

  3. I don't want it to come across that I'm for banning books! What one person's opinion of appropriate is not another's, and I totally get that. There are YA books out there I'd never want my daughter to read, but that doesn't mean I think they shouldn't be sold or stocked in libraries.

    Some of the books that have been "banned" over the years are great, quality books that should be read. To Kill A Mockingbird? Call of the Wild? Animal Farm?? Please! My family listened to Huck Finn on a car trip last summer and, although the use of the N-word was uncomfortable, it also gave us a good chance to talk about how that word has changed in acceptance over time, how language and meanings evolve. I find banning most egregious when it is done to ignore a part of our history. Just because we don't like the fact that there was slavery in this country, that racism, as ugly as it is, both was and is something very real, shouldn't mean we don't read about it. In fact, all the more we DO read about it. To remind us of how it was, and how it should not be again.

    On the other hand, when public institutions like libraries and schools stock and, in the case of schools, compel people to read, I think there should be discussion. Not necessarily bowing to the pressure of a few, but real discussion about why people have issues, and how we can get around that. If the school wants to put out a list of recommended reading for my kids, and that list includes books with a lot of profanity and sex, I just want to know that's what those books contain, so that we can either choose other options, or talk about them together as they read. I think schools have a responsibility to the kids and the parents, and there are so many great, great books out there, I don't see why they might focus on those that are highly controversial.

    I guess if I were to take a stand on a side here, I'd say that BOTH sides need to listen to the other and respect where they are coming from, and find a meeting place in the middle. I realize this is less likely than Congress passing a budget this year, but a girl can dream.

  4. Awesome post, Heidi. I've read Eleanor and Park and I can tell you for a fact there are a lot of other more explicit books on the market. I thought the author handle the themes of poverty, bullies, and love very well. It's been one of my favorite books this year.

    I agree that everyone's line in the sand is different. Some are way closer to shore, while others are in the waves and the line keeps getting erased. As a parent we have to be super vigilant and maybe I'm lucky that my kids don't like to read.

    1. Thanks, Patti! I will need to read the book now that you give it such high praise! I don't think I'd even heard of it before. Which, ironically enough, is always pretty much the result of book protesting! It spreads the word!