This post has been on my mind for a few months now. Like others, it’s being written in advance for posting. But in a way I’m glad, because I’ve already written it once and retooled it. After some consideration, I think the best way to go with this post is to be short and sweet.
There’s been a real rash in the last decade or so of folks seeking to “remove” what they don’t like from the public sphere. Various methods are being used, from twitter mobs that go after creators to try and get them removed or banned from communities or positions, to the latest incarnation, which is to use politicians and laws to block or remove things simply because one disagrees with them.
I wish I were joking. Kentucky just passed a law that, as I understand it, gives state politicians ultimate say over all public library funds and what they go toward. The implication made by the supporters of the bill is that it will allow them to examine what books are on public library shelves or requested by readers and then block all library funding until the “problematic” titles are removed. A similar bill is being pushed in Idaho that would launch an investigation into public libraries of that state to find “problematic material” and remove it from the library (likely, from what I’ve gathered, along with punishments to the library and staff for offering such “problematic” literature).
Now, I’m not going to tell you what the “problematic” topics are that are being put in the crosshairs here, because that doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is just the latest strike in a culture war between politically oriented parties, both of which have decided that banning and censorship are the most effective way to get what they want, which is (as near as I can tell) coerce others by force to agree with their own opinions. Worse, both sides continue to escalate, until now we’re seeing laws passed to take further steps in the banning and censorship of “problematic” literature.
I disagree with this, on all sides, 100%. This should not be a thing. For a number of reasons. The first and most obvious being that this is how you get a 1984-similar scenario. If you’ve not read that classic warning cry against authoritarianism, than I recommend you do so immediately. Before your local library finds it banned for being “problematic.”
But there are other reasons I disagree with this current tactic of banning or burning everything one disagrees with. The most forward of these is it is not how discourse or tolerance are supposed to go. All sides here are promoting nothing but intolerance and aggression, lashing out at anything or anyone that doesn’t agree with them.
That isn’t healthy. For a society or an individual. Or a group. Reasoned discourse is the ability to accept that others might not agree with you—even if you find their position foolhardy or ill-informed—and the ability to make one’s while at the end agreeing that sometimes people disagree, but that the other party has a right to their stance. Within certain obligations of course (which is another topic on it’s own, so for the sake of this discussion let us default to the US Bill of Rights and say that in general you have the right to do you as long as it does not infringe on the right of anyone else to do them).
But that’s the root of things here: All sides have adopted a “scorched earth” stance to discourse, acting with what almost appears to be revulsion at the idea that anyone else is allowed to even think contrary to the group’s “superior” positioning. And all sides are taking steps to enforce that scorched earth, from forming internet mobs to attack people for imagined slights such as (and I wish I were joking about this), writing a fanfiction that wrote a character sexual orientation to canon rather than to the headcanon of the mob, which had decided that they held the “moral high ground” and were prepared to drive this fanfic author off the web for their crimes (thankfully a few chickened out and the mob fell apart aside from a few aggressive, angry members) to as noted above passing laws to allow the “moral high ground” to remove books they don’t agree with from public spaces.
I don’t approve of either. I find both behaviors repulsive. Both are instances of uptight, self-assured people deciding that they know best for everyone else, and they’re going to make their view the only one, by whatever means they can get away with.
It’s wrong. Worse, it’s unstable. So much of this new sort of “discourse” is so built on hot emotion, rather than logic and reason, combined with a mentality of “I can’t give a single thought to consider that I might be wrong” that it ultimately creates a very unstable platform. In my personal experience, none of these sides are able to articulate the why for most of their stances. They simply hold them, lashing out at anyone they see.
This kind of behavior doesn’t lead to discourse. It doesn’t lead to “agree to disagree.” It doesn’t lead to understanding, or reaching a middle ground. This is all sides going ‘only I can have the thing, and no one else.” Rather than letting various viewpoints and ideas coexist in their space, this is all sides seeking a removal of any idea they disagree with.
But there’s an aspect of this I find additionally troubling, and that’s how shaky and “undefined” (as I would put it) many of these stances are. It brings to mind an old quote I once heard speaking of the instability of shame-based culture.
“… Everybody is perpetually insecure in a moral system based on inclusion and exclusion. There are no permanent standards, just the shifting judgment of the crowd. It is a culture of oversensitivity, overreaction and frequent moral panics, during which everybody feels compelled to go along. …”
“The guilt culture could be harsh, but at least you could hate the sin and still love the sinner. The modern shame culture allegedly values inclusion and tolerance, but it can be strangely unmerciful to those who disagree and to those who don’t fit in.”—David Brooks, “The Shame Culture,” New York Times, Mar. 15, 2016
When so much is about simply being “right” no matter what and stamping out all “dissonance,” a lot of people in my experience don’t even seem to realize what they’re arguing for or against. They’re so caught up in being “right” and forcing everyone else to be right that they’re not paying attention to how ridiculous that “right” might be … or how different it was from the day before.
A lot of this censorship rolls right into the “moral panic” point used in that quote. Because if you’re not with the crowd, you’re a target, therefore you have to keep agreeing … even when things start to rapidly slip into dangerous waters.
The current push from all sides to erase/remove/ban so-called “problematic” literature certainly feels like one of those slippery slopes. Actually, let me rephrase that, it is the slippery slope. The moment you start talking about how something is “problematic” because it disagrees with you and that the solution is “destroy it?” You’re on the slippery slope. You are the slippery slope.
And that slope leads bad places. I’d say you could check a few history books to see exactly how that’s gone down before … but—no joke—some of those books are now considered “problematic,” probably because they warn against the consequences of what we’re seeing take place.
Combine a slippery slope like that with instability and a platform that can change from day to day on the whims of the crowd? Yikes. Yikes and no thanks.
Okay, so far this has been … well, not negative, but certainly not positive. Granted, it’s hard to find a positive way to explain some of this stuff because it is so negative. When various groups adopt a “scorched earth” approach to anyone that even touches on an idea they disagree with—even if that’s just because they’ve never bothered to think about it past the knee-jerk response of reaching for a torch and deciding “those that disagree with me must be silenced”—well, that’s not a very positive thing.
So instead, I’ll say this: If you’re one of those people part of a group advocating for the banning/burning down/censorship of material from the public sphere on the grounds of “I disagree with it, therefore it must be bad” please stop and reconsider. Don’t give in to “shame culture” or the torches of the mob. You can put out your torch and walk away. We don’t have to have laws or committee groups giving political parties oversight of what books are allowed at public libraries or sold in stores.
Some may say “But if we don’t put our opinions in that position first, someone else will!” and use that as a justification to take the first strike. Well, that’s the old “mutually assured destruction” problem that comes down to trust and understanding.
And you know what? Trust and understanding—something that requires mutual respect and an attempt to understand the opposing sides, even if one does not agree with them—certainly sounds better than the “take no prisoners, no one wins” approach so many seem to be content to set themselves up for right now.
I suppose this post is a bit scattered. At its heart it’s a plea to all sides to stop trying to broadly censor books, be it by twitter mob or by politics. And yes, there’s a bit of self-centeredness to this, and it’d be dishonest of me to suggest otherwise. I’m an author, and the idea that the future might be one where Axtara is banned from sale and library shelves just because one political activist group or another decided that any book with what they’d declared “problematic” needed to be removed is a future where my career is effectively dead.
But it’s also a plea for all sides involved to, in layman’s terms, get off their self-centered, “moral ground” high horses. No one wins when all sides decide that Mutually Assured Destruction is the only outcome. And right now, I see a lot of demagogues on both sides crying out to the hordes that it’s time to burn everything down before giving even an inch to anyone of a different opinion. And that’s … bad. There’s not a better or more straightforward way to put it.
Look, it is entirely possible to remain civil with people and ideas that you disagree with. It’s entirely possible to recognize and respect another’s autonomy and opinion without declaring one’s self the appointed guardian to “coerce” them to be correct, whatever that might be.
Those that push otherwise do so because it serves their own interest and power to divide people into easily controlled groups. It’s very easy to say “Yeah, I won’t bother to think about it, or learn about someone else’s reasoning, and instead I’ll just go with the flow of whatever this person says because I like what they are saying.” Seductive even, to give one’s own power of discourse over and not to need to think or reason about anything. It frees up the effort and work it takes to determine one’s own causes in favor of lending voice to someone else.
In practice, this isn’t always bad. As long as we don’t divest ourselves from keeping an eye on what that individual we’ve lent our voice to is doing and saying, we can fulfill the root of a representative government or organization pretty well.
But when those same individuals start to ask for blind obedience, or tell us not to concern ourselves with the details … or just infer that response by refusing to answer and instead voicing some “pressing concern” that pushes buttons that everyone should focus on right now … That’s not as good, and should raise eyebrows and lead us to consider looking deeper to see exactly why we’re not supposed to be thinking about that.
Again, this is kind of a scattered post. Ultimately it’s a pleading against the censorship that so many right now are pushing for, and specifically the “moral outrage censorship” that seems to be the primary driver behind it.
But there’s a second bit to that too, because this “moral outrage” isn’t going to just go away if no one learns to speak with one another. Part of the problem is that all of these various groups have built themselves little walled hills and are determined to use their currently justified (and seemingly always expanding) reasons to eliminate all the other hills. No middle ground. No discussion. No discourse. Just an oft-empty no-mans-land where everyone is the enemy.
Unless we strike at the root of the problem, which is each side building up their walls and taking a scorched earth approach to anything approaching discourse or diplomacy, then even if this current push to censor books (again, from multiple sides, I don’t want anyone thinking “Well my group isn’t doing that” because there’s a lot of it going around) ends, it’ll just come right back around.
We need to bring down the walls. We need discourse. We need discussion. We need the humility of all sides so that a middle-ground can be reached. We need compromise and understanding.
Not banning, burning, and censorship. Let people decide what they want to read. If you think they should be reading something else, don’t force them. Reason as to why they should. Then accept their answer, even if they still don’t agree with you.
And when that happens, don’t resort to petty name-calling or insults. They give more ground than they gain by far.
Oof. This post was all over the place, but I think I’ve covered it, and I hope most of you have gotten what I’ve tried to explain. Let’s stop banning books, and instead start breaking down the walls and barriers that so many have put up at the urging of a few.
Let’s be human.