McGowan: Censorship

August 29, 2023

by Richard McGowan, Ph.D.

With turmoil rising in 1780s France and a revolution in the near future, the royalty and the wealthy plus the clerical hierarchy — in other words, the 3 percent of the population who held power — drafted edicts to limit the spread of ideas. They censored the press. In another time, Hitler had his Kristallnacht. In current day China and today’s Russia, governmental censorship on the free flow of ideas diminishes any possibility of either country’s millions of people to gain liberty. In China, one of my students doing missionary work could not share a Bible with people. She was told she’d be imprisoned. A person reading the New Testament (a banned book in some schools) can see how people with new ideas were treated.

And long before that era, philosophers with their critical minds and analytic capability, were treated poorly. The Pythagoreans were persecuted and killed; Socrates committed state-ordered suicide by drinking hemlock, and Aristotle fled Athens, “Lest Athens sin against philosophy again.”

Therefore, the flap in Fishers regarding library books is old hat, to use an old metaphor. The Star reported that “Social conservatives’ control of Fishers’ library and school boards has led to controversies that are now bleeding into city politics,” as though a sense of decency and respect for the maturing minds of children is not on the liberal agenda. And really, censorship is a non-partisan policy. Nor is it merely an Indiana problem.

The famous “To Kill a Mockingbird’ was challenged in Waukegan, Illinois, and Verona, New York., for the use of a derogatory word referring to blacks. In 1981, the book was challenged by Warren Township because it “represents institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature.” Schools banned the book in Santa Cruz, California; Glynn County, Georgia; Muskogee, Oklahoma; and as late as 2006 in Brentwood, Tennessee. The book was banned due to racial slurs that “promote racial hatred, racial division, racial separation, and white supremacy.” Brentwood was only following the 1995 treatment of “The Color Purple,” which presents a “negative image of black men.” Other books, such as “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” were banned because the content included drug use.

A brief look at the location of the towns mentioned above suggests that social conservatives are not the only people who challenge the books found in a school library. In fact, among the 100 most banned books are “Of Mice and Men,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” ‘The Great Gatsby,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and “Ulysses.” George Orwell’s “1984” has also been banned as well as Kurt Vonnegut’s  “Slaughterhouse Five.”

Of course, it is not only library books for young people that gets censored. People have been fired for using the word “niggardly,” which means “reluctant to give or spend; stingy; miserly.” An aide to D.C.’s mayor lost a job for using the word. The mayor realized his mistake and brought the person back. While the word sounds like a racial slur, the slur and “niggardly” do not even have the same root, let alone meaning.

And the elephant hiding over there in the corner is the uncensored use of the racial slur being sung by “hip” pop groups. If the racial epithet can get a book banned by a library, what’s to be done about so much pop music? Young people ought not get mixed messages from people in authority or they will learn to distrust authority. And the people who are in the best position to give consistent messaging and thus, provide stability to maturing minors are their parents, not some school board or library board. While institutional boards may make good decisions, the people who influence children the most are their parents.

Parents, liberal and conservative, normally want children to be exposed to ideas in an age-appropriate way. The people most responsible for what children read are their parents. They must be aware of what their children are reading. Schools are responsible for children, too, and should introduce age appropriate literature of all types. That does not mean scrubbing the library. Introducing “banned” books at the right age can help students understand the world as it is and offer young people some capability to reason through different ideas. In fact, enhancing students’ capability to reason is why colleges often invite diverse speakers to their campuses.

However, when colleges and universities do invite speakers to campus, people — deans, administrators, and students and others working on knowledge elimination — often shout down the invited speakers. There is no question that the speakers are age appropriate for a college audience, it’s just that many do not want anyone to hear the ideas of the speakers.

Social conservatives have no monopoly on censorship. Censorship is non-partisan.

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University. 


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