Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The New Left Hysteria?

As you probably know, the last week of September is the so-called Banned Books Week marked by the ALA, Amnesty International and lots of other good organizations. Turns out the name is a bit of a cheat - there have been no books banned in this country in years, the Beacon for Freedom of Expression's extensive database didn't even list any censored publications in this country after 1992, and while 21st century book-burnings in the US are a pretty sad state of affairs they are mostly the province of religious fanatics.

Now, I read the ALA's background page, which says,

Each year, the American Library Association (ALA) is asked why the week is called “Banned Books Week” instead of “Challenged Books Week,” since the majority of the books featured during the week are not banned, but “merely” challenged. There are two reasons. One, ALA does not “own” the name Banned Books Week, but is just one of several cosponsors of BBW; therefore, ALA cannot change the name without all the cosponsors agreeing to a change. Two, none want to do so, primarily because a challenge is an attempt to ban or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A successful challenge would result in materials being banned or restricted.

And I understand that "The positive message of Banned Books Week: Free People Read Freely is that due to the commitment of librarians, teachers, parents, students and other concerned citizens, most challenges are unsuccessful and most materials are retained in the school curriculum or library collection." Moreover, I'm certainly against censorship and the banning of books, and I agree that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

Still, if I can play devil's advocate for a moment, shouldn't it be acknowledged in more than one dismissive paragraph that there's a bit of a difference between challenging a book and banning it, and that using a "slippery slope" approach to maintain vigilance might lead to a "crying wolf" mentality which dilutes the focus of actual anti-censorship efforts? I think if we're going to decry hysteria on the right and in the mainstream media (the "missing white woman" obsession, for instance), we ought to be more aware of our own tendencies in that direction, and the way we choose to describe what's really going on. (Hint: a library or bookstore deciding not to carry a book may be reprehensible but it's not "banning inclusion of" said book...)

I see the same tendencies at work when people talk about censorship in other arenas, then choose to define "censorship" in ways that cause me to think, as Inigo Montoya would say, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Censorship is not editing (well, usually it's not). Censorship is not deciding what you will and will not sell in a store you own. Censorship is not kicking a destructive troll off a message board or comment section. Many of these actions might be objectionable, but they're not censorship, and the more we misuse that word the less power it has, and the less prepared we are to fight it when it actually happens.

Just saying, y'know?