Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech

In your personal life, in your own home, you may, if you wish, choose to encounter no ideas that frighten or challenge you. You need buy no book that you in any way disagree with. Should you come across something that upsets you as you read, you may set the book down. In your own home, I will not judge you for these choices. In my own home, I have done the same thing – I have put aside books that were saying things I did not wish to hear.

If you are a parent, you have every right to be involved in the life and education of your child. You have the right to be – and I hope you are – aware of what your child chooses to read. You have the right to forbid certain books to them, for whatever reason you have. You do not have the right to forbid any books to anyone else’s child. Or to a classroom. Or to a library.

You do not ever have the right to narrow someone else’s world because of your fear or laziness.

And that’s really what the impetus behind book banning – a practice I have absolutely no tolerance for – comes down to. Either fear of the ideas expressed in the books or a desire to hide from any potentially difficult discussions that exposure to those ideas might result in.

Literature, like people, sometimes contains ugliness, controversy, and ideas that are uncomfortable and challenging to contemplate. This is perhaps especially true in the literature that gets studied in classrooms, because confronting ideas outside of our own is one of the things that helps us grow and learn.

But what if it’s the same book? Shouldn’t a parent be able to protect their child in the classroom as much as in the home? I’m sorry, but no. Not at the expense of other children’s education. And if it is just that unbearable for your child to read the book and talk about its ideas? Then let them fail the assignment. Stand up for your convictions. If that seems like a difficult or harsh choice, well, having a moral code often requires making choices that are not easy, or that have consequences.

Because here is what freedom of speech means – that same freedom that allows a parent to stand in front of a school board and attempt to inflict their ignorance and fear on others – it means that fear does not get to decide which ideas are heard. It means that no one but the listener gets to evaluate the worth of the words being spoken, and it is the burden of the listener to turn away, to avert her eyes, to cover her ears, but it is never the duty of the speaker to be silent. It means that the most dangerous person is the one with the gag in his hand, not the one holding the pen.