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The SI recently had the pleasure of visiting an exhibition of banned books at the National Library of Scotland: a fond celebration of history’s greatest tyrannical despots and holier-than-thou moral busybodies.

Everybody in a position to ban books has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and no book is ever banned because it threatens to keep things as they are. Many of the books on show had constituted a direct threat against the authorities of the day. Their suppression was a readily comprehensible stratagem in the great political game where a government’s worst enemy is the ability of its own populace to have ideas.

But what are we to think of books banned for offences that, to a ruling elite, are relatively minor? Violence, sex, swearing, or the curious notion that homosexuals are people too – whom do these things hurt?

It might well be possible to cast this in terms of the erosion of a power base; conservative parties in a democracy depend on the support of well-defined family units that must be protected at all costs. It’s certainly an idea worth investigating, because ruling that out leaves us with the horrifying alternative that people who want to ban books for our own good might actually be sincere.

In a liberal, educated democracy, the only rational response to this ­– indeed, perhaps the only possible response ­– is wild, hysterical laughter. When Australia declared that American Psycho could only be sold in plastic shrink-wrap, presumably to prevent people from being offended accidentally in the bookshop, Bret Easton Ellis said it was “adorable”. And rightly so. It’s silly, and the people who advocate it are silly.

Is there any case at all to be made for banning books for our own good? Possibly. There are some kinds of information which, if scarce, nobody benefits from their becoming widely known. How to manufacture explosives from household materials, for example, or lists of undetectable poisons. But in an interconnected world such as ours, no one book could be banned that would hide such a information completely from the public eye. It would be on the internet somewhere, and the act of censoring the internet would be a much more catastrophic blow to freedom than anything that could result from somebody clicking a hotlink.

What else could justifiably be banned? Books advocating racism, homophobia, crystal healing? No to all the above. As Chomsky said, “If you’re in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.”

What about books that might cause a panic in which people might actually be harmed? Perhaps, but the blame here should never really be put on the books. Maliciously screaming “fire” in a crowded theatre is very wicked; but if the harm caused is really that serious, then maybe you need to look into having more fire exits.

And books that might offend us with their swearing? Don’t be fucking ridiculous.

 

REFERENCES

The exhibition was held at the National Library of Scotland, and will be open till the end of October; well worth watching.

The Chomsky quote was from the film Manufacturing Consent.

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Written by The S I

October 5, 2011 at 11:59 pm

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