Last week I had an interesting exchange with a library school student who wrote to ask me what I thought about book challenges, "censorship," and other topics the ALA prattles on about. I answered the questions as politely as I could, and as I worked my way through them I noticed yet another flaw in the reasoning of the ALA.
One major flaw all along is that challenging a book, removing or restricting access to it, and censorship are all equated. That’s ridiculous, of course. It equates some powerless parent complaining that a book is on a school reading list with real censorship, the kind practiced by governments.
If that’s the case, then we should take censorship by governments about as seriously as we take those parents. After all, who really cares if China censors their Internet? China is about the same as some rube in Arkansas upset about Heather has Two Excited Daddies being on the school reading list. We can all relax.
It’s always been clear to me that the ALA OIF likes to dress up book challenges as "censorship" to draw attention to themselves and to pretend there is some sort of threat to "intellectual freedom" in the intellectually freest country in the world. It’s hard to get worked up about some book challenge when the book is freely available in libraries and bookstores all over the country. But when it’s censorship, then by God we’re going to get upset by it!
In the course of the exchange last week, I became convinced that intellectual freedom is just a red herring anyway. Though there might be a threat to intellect in our country, there are no serious threats to intellectual freedom in the United States. Something called the Office for Intellectual Freedom naturally thinks everything is a question of intellectual freedom, but once again they’ve asked the wrong question to distract us from the right questions.
This is what the ALA has to say about "banned and challenged books":
A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. As such, they are a threat to freedom of speech and choice. The ALA promotes the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinions even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those viewpoints to all who wish to read them.
A threat to the freedom of speech and choice. That’s serious stuff! We should all be alarmed! I was so alarmed by that I looked out my window at the street below to make sure there were no dreaded censors coming to challenge my freedom of speech and choice. Fortunately for us all, there weren’t!
But let’s take a look at what’s actually challenged. According to the ALA:
Over the past eight years [2001-08], American libraries were faced with 3,736 challenges.
- 1,225 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material;
- 1,008 challenges due to “offensive language”;
- 720 challenges due to material deemed “unsuited to age group”;
- 458 challenges due to “violence”
- 269 challenges due to “homosexuality”; and
Further, 103 materials were challenged because they were “anti-family,” and an additional 233 were challenged because of their “religious viewpoints.”
1,176 of these challenges (approximately 31%) were in classrooms; 37% were in school libraries; 24% (or 909) took place in public libraries. There were less than 75 challenges to college classes; and only 36 to academic libraries. There are isolated cases of challenges to materials made available in or by prisons, special libraries, community groups, and student groups. The majority of challenges were initiated by parents (almost exactly 51%), while patrons and administrators followed behind (10% and 8% respectively).
Out of 1,225, less than 10% of those challenges were anywhere other than schools, school libraries, and public libraries. We can also see by these statistics that the vast majority of the challenges were for language, sexuality, or age appropriateness.
Ponder those statistics and see if you can still believe there’s any significant challenge to intellectual freedom in this country, or any censorship. Given the likelihood that most of the challenges in public libraries were for books in the children’s section, about 90% of the challenges regarded the "intellectual freedom" of children.
To put it like that evades the real questions, though. The real questions are: 1) Is every bit of "information" (the ALA’s term for books, magazines, pornography, etc) appropriate for children? And 2), If not, then how are we to decide what is appropriate in what circumstances?
I wrote the library school student, "Would you advocate pornography or violent films in the children’s section? When you were eight, were you ready for Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty series? If you would object to putting, say, The Story of O in the children’s section of your local library, then you are by the ALA’s definition a ‘censor.’"
The ALA blows smoke at us about "intellectual freedom" possibly because they don’t want the public to know their answer to question 1, which is "yes." They must think every bit of "information" is appropriate to children, or they would find meaningful compromises rather than fight CIPA and come across as advocates of Internet pornography for children. (I’m not sure what Internet pornography for children would include, but there would probably be puppets involved.) They want to ensure "the availability of those viewpoints to all who wish to read them" [my emphasis].
They must think that every bit of "information" is appropriate for children, because the entire logic of their crusade implies it. If every challenge is wrong, then every book is appropriate for children, and there hasn’t been a book challenge that the ALA liked.
The difficult question is really #2. This is the question that gets worked out every day in schools and libraries and around the country, with teachers and librarians considering their goals and audiences and negotiating what gets taught and bought. For the most part, the teachers and librarians do a good job, because they’re not willing to be as ideologically rigid and morally obtuse as the ALA OIF can be.
None of those librarians has, to my knowledge, taken the Annoyed Librarian Porn Challenge. Years ago I challenged any librarians who agreed with the ALA’s logic to subscribe to a pornographic magazine and have it shelved in the children’s section of their library. If they were "challenged," the ALA OIF could be their champions! The ALA would have to be, because according to their logic, challenging a pornographic magazine being in the children’s section based on age appropriateness would be a threat to our freedom of speech and choice. That’s what they say about every challenge.
Who outside of a few ideologues could possibly take that stand in good faith, though? According to the library school student, most people agree with the ALA, but I hope that really means most people agree that intellectual freedom is a good thing. Heck, I agree with that. I don’t want people telling me what to read. The thing is, as an adult, I never have anyone challenging my intellectual freedom. It’s a non-issue the ALA uses to distract us from the real issues.
The real issues are whether everything is appropriate for children and how we can decide what is and is not appropriate. The ALA has avoided that discussion because its answer is to the first question is so obviously mistaken and morally repulsive. Given the ALA can’t even ask the right questions in the first place, it most likely can’t do the hard thinking necessary to answer the second question.
Of course, the ALA doesn’t have to do that hard thinking, because the ALA staff doesn’t work in a library. They can take the impossible and morally dubious high road, and leave the hard thinking to the librarians in the field.