What you missed from Banned Books Week 2020

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”115172″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]Books have long been objects of contention, criticised for spreading ideas which go against the status quo. They are removed from libraries and bookshops, burned, banned and vandalised while writers are attacked, threatened, imprisoned. These actions are nothing new, yet the importance of preserving our freedom to read is more important now than ever. 

Freedom to read is at the centre of Banned Books Week, an initiative which has sought to challenge censorship on both sides of the Atlantic, bringing together literary communities – librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers – in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

The initiative was launched in the USA in 1982 in response to a surge in the number of challenges to books in schools. Since then, it has sought to highlight the value of free and open access to information. Each year sees an exciting strand of events, readings list, games and activities designed to get people thinking about books that have been banned throughout history, and are still causing offense today. 

As the 2020 Banned Books Week comes to a close, we have a chance to reflect on the impact the initiative has had over the past 38 years, and consider the work we still need to do to ensure everyone is free to read. 

Censoring literature is nothing new. It has a long and dark history and has been exercised by governments, political parties and religious groups for centuries. Book burning, which has been recorded as early as the 7th century BCE, and proliferated under the Nazi party in Germany in 1933, is emblematic of a harsh and oppressive regime which is seeking to censor or silence some aspect of prevailing culture. 

Today’s methods of censorship remain prevalent yet differ in style. Political leaders use legal methods to silence or prohibit writing which paints themselves and their parties in an unpleasant light – techniques not so different to the vexatious lawsuits used to silence journalists. Academic textbooks are rewritten to paint recent historical events in a very different light, and a favourite illustrated bear has long been banned to protect the ego of other fragile leaders. 

As well as these more blatant signs of government censorship, literature is still challenged today. Some of the most canonical works of the 20th century have famously been challenged – including The Handmaid’s Tale, Animal Farm and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which this year sees the 60th anniversary of its uncensored publication in the UK. But it is children’s books that cause a particular stir, such as And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell which tells the true story of two male penguins who create a family together and was subsequently banned in US schools and libraries for depicting same-sex marriage and adoption. 

While this year’s Banned Books Week took a different shape from previous years, we had the pleasure of hearing a number of writers speak about their experiences of being silenced, censored or simply refused a platform. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the resultant global Black Lives Matter protests, it has been clearer than ever before that the voices of some are prioritised to the exclusion of others. 

In an online session on 29 September, Urvashi Butalia spoke to poet Rachel Long, and authors Elif Shafak and Jacqueline Woodson about what ‘freedom’ means in the culture of traditional publishing, and how writers today can change the future of literature. During the event, Shafak defended freedom of speech and spoke about her experience of seeing her works of fiction brought into the courtroom – “it was very surreal to me. Art needs freedom, even though it may be harmful in the eyes of authorities.” 

Shafak’s comments harked back to those made by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison during the launch of the Free Speech Leadership Council, an advocacy arm of the National Coalition Against Censorship. At the event, Morrison spoke of her novel Song of Solomon being banned at a prison after the warden expressed fear that it might stir the incarcerated to riot. An acoustical lapse led Morrison to speculate as to whether the real fear was of the inmates incitement to “riot” or “write” – asking, which would ultimately be the most dangerous?

While authorities and governments fear literary works that are seen to challenge them, we are reminded this Banned Books Week of the importance of free artistic expression and of literature’s power to challenge even the most powerful, oppressive forces. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You might also like to read” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

The fraudulent, the offensive and the idiotic

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”88714″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Time was when the political right and social conservatives were enthusiasts for censorship – for “no-platforming” drama, film and books deemed obscene, disrespectful of authority or unpatriotic. The left, and liberals, were the supporters of freedom – calling for the publication of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960; supporting the editors of Oz Magazine in the 1970 prosecution for obscenity; and opposing the charge of gross indecency in the staging of Howard Brenton’s Romans in Britain in 1982.

In every one of these cases, the liberals won, mocking those who were active in the prosecution. The victories effectively ruled out any further action to stop publication or staging.

It is different now. Significant parts of the left now wish to rule out speech they deem offensive.

In the USA, especially on college campuses, the view that freedom of speech furthers understanding, broadens the mind and sharpens, modifies or even changes one’s own beliefs is now frequently opposed by another view, often militantly expressed.

This holds that institutions of all kinds have a responsibility to protect people from opinions they find odious because they will sustain psychological damage from exposure to them. It dictates that the person or group who would cause such harm should not be given any kind of platform – in person, on the web or in print.

In the UK, several universities have been drawn into the struggle around the allegations of “hurt” and efforts to deny hearings for speakers accused of spreading hurtful speech.

Those university authorities tend to be more robust than their US equivalents in insisting that, once invited, a speaker be heard – though not invariably.

Freedom of speech and publication is passing, on the left, from being necessary to being suspect. One strong voice is that of Nesrine Malik, a Guardian columnist, who believes that “freedom of speech is no longer a value”, writing that: “It has become a loophole exploited with impunity by trolls, racists and ethnic cleansing advocates… aided by the group I call useful liberals – the ‘defend to the death your right to say it’ folk.”

The notion that freedom of speech is a neutral principle uncontaminated by history or social bias is, she believes, a “delusion”. Liz Fekete, director of the Institute of Race Relations, takes the same approach. She believes that “it is the privileging of freedom of speech over freedom to life that has emboldened identitarian and neo-Nazi activists, who are experts at manipulating naive liberal arguments about freedom of speech”.

These themes, if less strongly put, now appear in official discourse. A government white paper – usually a prelude to legislation – on Online Harms, which aims to make the UK “the safest place in the world to go online”, defines harms as “behaviour online which may hurt a person physically or emotionally”.

Thus free speech shifts from being something essential to a democratic society (even when offensive) to an issue dependent on a vague definition of emotional harm – which, by its nature, must attract myriad charges from those who claim criticism has damaged them emotionally, and thus must be censored.

Index on Censorship’s robust recognition, in an August 2018 statement, that “we, as users, will have to tolerate the fraudulent, the offensive and the idiotic” if speech is to be free now faces an existential challenge.

In a BBC Breakfast discussion in August last year, the former chief crown prosecutor, Nazir Afzal, suggested that prosecuting someone for hate speech could stop his or her later development into a major criminal. Jodie Ginsberg, Index’s chief executive, countered that, saying: “The idea that we can prevent future crimes by policing expression is a dangerous road to go down.”

Yet it is an indication of how official thinking now develops.

Earlier this month, an essay – Designating Hate – was published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. It was an unusually clear argument for censorship – in this case of organisations “which demonise specific groups on the basis of their race, religion, gender, nationality or sexuality”.

The proposal would task the Home Office with the duty of drawing up a list of those organisations which habitually use speech designed to prompt hatred, and to limit them “from appearing on media outlets or engaging with public institutions”.

They would be given a chance to reform: reviews would determine whether or not the organisation had changed its behaviour and, if so, it could be admitted to the media or engage with public institutions once more.

The good intentions of such legislation and proposed legislation are obvious. The framers of these policies wish to dam the flood of hate and threat which now pulses through social media, and to protect vulnerable people from their effects. But it’s questionable if they do protect – suppression of speech tends merely to re-route it, making it more alluring to those it attracts. And what is less in question is that they will in future promote a new kind of censorship, as algorithms pick up on key words to shut down blogs and messages which quote hate speech in order to oppose it; or which remove the output of far right or far left groups which, though repellent to liberals, have a right to be published.

The deletion of speech judged harmful opens up an endless trajectory, in which one excision begets another. “The fraudulent, the offensive and the idiotic” have always been with us, and though social media and the web amplify their reach, we still must tolerate them if we wish to preserve a robust civil society.[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1568819478334-b34b0086-8688-0″][/vc_column][/vc_row]