Thursday, September 14, 2006

In praise of censorship

This past summer, there was a flap in a local town over a book called Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez. The book is about teens exploring their possible homosexuality (with frank discussions of heterosexual activities).

It was on the summer reading list for the high school. Several parents called to question the book, and it was withdrawn from the list.

Of course, that prompted a spirited debate, and cries of censorship.

Now, I'm a teacher and a member of a library board, so you’d think I'd immediately condemn censorship.

I don't.

I practice it. I promote it. I think we need more of it.

Censorship is one of those words whose meaning has been co-opted - like gay, or choice.

Its basic meaning is to examine literature, motion pictures, etc., to remove or prohibit anything considered unsuitable, and in particular to supervise public morals.

Heck, I've been doing that for years.

As a parent, I regularly prohibited things considered unsuitable (especially at church and in public places). I limited what they read or watched on television. I corrected their behavior when it was needed. I provided moral guidance.

Any responsible parent does that.

As a teacher, I have been careful about what gets said or discussed in class. I have purposely limited what we have read - picking material appropriate for my students.

Any responsible teacher does that.

And as a person, I have often practiced censorship of what I say and do.

Any responsible person does that.

I applaud what the parents did. They were showing responsibility for their children. I wish more would do that.

Even when they are wrong or misjudge a book, at least they are trying to do the right thing for their children and not letting them drift into dangerous waters.

I am all for art - and I will defend the right of writers to express their views. But I think we have to show judgment when it comes to what we view and read, and even doubly so when it comes to the children we are supposed to be responsible for.

Books can have an effect - as well as the attitudes and ideas conveyed in them.

As Chesterton noted humorously in an early poem, "On the disastrous spread of aestheticism in all classes,"

The sun had read a little book
That struck him with a notion:
He drowned himself and all his fires
Deep in the hissing ocean.

Then all was dark, lawless, and lost:
I heard great devilish wings:
I knew that Art had won, and snapt
The Covenant of Things.

Humorous, yes, but it rings true.

When I was a teen, for example, I dated an impressionable young woman who, in all my youthful passion, I thought I was going to marry.

Then she read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Yom Wolfe. Without adult guidance or supervision, of course.

She missed the dark portions of the book. Instead, she latched on the notions of drug use and free love. She had no moral basis for comparison, no underlying belief systems strong enough to show her the falsity of the image of uninhibited freedom she was tempted to embrace. No parents to guide her.

She broke up with me to pursue that image, which she did avidly for several years. She'd call me periodically, especially when the drugs and the men brought her down.

It was not a pretty picture.

Yes, she may have been inclined to do these things anyway. Yes, she had issues that helped to make her open to bad choices.

But reading the book planted ideas and helped to make these activities seem more normal.

Books don't have to actively promote ideas: They can also promote through normalizing. Teens are forever looking for models or for confirmation that what they are tempted to do is normal or acceptable.

In Rainbow Boys, the opening chapter has one boy who is questioning his sexuality going to a discussion/support group. The group basically tells him that it's okay to be gay. That's exactly the sort of thing a troubled teen needs to hear - or to read - to help lead down that path.

The arts have a powerful effect in this way. So we need to be aware of their effect on us, or on those who are vulnerable times in their lives.

And artists and their supporters use art to help promote their own beliefes - consciously and unconsciously. In many cases, they use their art to challenge morality - and to promote their own view of morality.

Chesterton developed this idea in Heretics, where he talked about the modern tendency is to eschew morality in the arts.

This bias against morality among the modern aesthetes is nothing very much paraded. And yet it is not really a bias against morality; it is a bias against other people's morality. It is generally founded on a very definite moral preference for a certain sort of life, pagan, plausible, humane. The modern aesthete, wishing us to believe that he values beauty more than conduct, reads Mallarme, and drinks absinthe in a tavern. But this is not only his favourite kind of beauty; it is also his favourite kind of conduct. If he really wished us to believe that he cared for beauty only, he ought to go to nothing but Wesleyan school treats, and paint the sunlight in the hair of the Wesleyan babies. He ought to read nothing but very eloquent theological sermons by old-fashioned Presbyterian divines. Here the lack of all possible moral sympathy would prove that his interest was purely verbal or pictorial, as it is; in all the books he reads and writes he clings to the skirts of his own morality and his own immorality. The champion of l'art pour l'art is always denouncing Ruskin for his moralizing. If he were really a champion of l'art pour l'art, he would be always insisting on Ruskin for his style.

The doctrine of the distinction between art and morality owes a great part of its success to art and morality being hopelessly mixed up in the persons and performances of its greatest exponents.

Artists have that right. And there are some who use their art to promote true morality - Chesterton, for example.

But we need to be fed on true morality before we have the strength to properly tackle questionable beliefs.

Many of us have not been properly fed. Teens rarely have ben.

So I say, hurray for censorship. Our children need it. We need it for ourselves.

1 comment:

Kyro said...

I have thought about things like this myself. These stories come across the news with some regularity, and people seem to keep missing the boat. There are precious few years that you get to have children in school, and even if I were a post-modernist, GLBT activist, or whatever, I would still not want things like this on the reading list simply for the fact that the purpose of literature at this grade level is to hopefully impart to kids the beauty of the English language, and provide them with the highest level examples of good theme, powerful prose, and the art of the written word.