Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thoughts on Library Bannings: Let's Talk

One cannot help but think about censorship when you're showing your sixteen-year-old daughter rape scenes. 

Not that I set out to show her rape; we were simply playing our usual summer challenge of "What movie should I have seen by now?"  Whenever my daughter Amy stayed for the summer, she would call me over to our voluminous library of DVDs so I would help further her cinematic education.
"Well, what are you in the mood for?" I'd ask, and choose a significant movie that she should have watched by now - from the bureaucratic nightmare of Brazil to the comfort watching of Princess Bride to the hard-edged romance-meets-reality of Casablanca.  Then we'd discuss what was interesting about the movie — the approaches to character, plot choices, and of course the history of the production, with constant lookups on IMDB. 

For the past week, we'd been on a Stanley Kubrick kick - she'd despised The Shining, liked Full Metal Jacket, and so I said that really, no showing of Kubrick could be complete without watching A Clockwork Orange.

...which I did not remember being quite so rapetastic.  I remembered violence, certainly, and scenes of sexual assault, but I didn't remember them as being this brutal and explicit and extended.  This was far ahead of what I was comfortable showing her. 

Should I stop the movie?  Should I censor this, and move to another film? 

Should I have ever let her see it at all? 

Now of course this is a site devoted to literature, but movies are just another form of storytelling.  Books are like movies, but more dangerous.  Movies can have a philosophical impact, but they're brief and comparatively shallow — the equivalent of a short but combustible affair, over in a matter of minutes. 

Books are romance.  The romance, in many cases, of a lifetime. 

And like all good romance, books have the capacity to alter you forever. 

My daughter was watching Clockwork Orange, but she could just have easily been inhaling Ayn Rand.  Or drooling over Gorean texts.  Or, God forbid, getting addicted to the type of old-style, trashy romance novels where the girl waits helplessly for a man to come along and take control of her life to show her the true path to happiness.  All of these are philosophies that I’d prefer my daughter not follow, thankyouverymuch — though you probably have your own listings of ideas you find abhorrent. 

Yet in each case, the book carries the danger.  Books are often shell casings for very potent philosophies; if you're reading this site and haven't had your synapses permanently reshuffled by some amazing collection of words, I'm not quite sure why you're here. 

For me, C.S. Lewis' Narnia (and the concept that deeds done in Tash's name still went to Aslan, and vice versa) was the way I could step away from the formal church and still retain a faith in Christ.  The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant instilled in me an appreciation for shades of moral ambiguity so complex they transcended black, an idea that’s present in almost every one of my political ramblings.  Stephen King taught me that evil could be beaten back, but it always had a cost that brave men and women must pay, and he convinced me it was worth the price. 

A common argument given against banning books is that books aren’t dangerous.  Don’t fool yourself.  Books are high explosives.  Books can shatter psyches.  Books can retool you from the ground up. 

And like high explosives, books don’t distinguish.  Most of the books you’ll see on the banned books lists are packed with messages of tolerance of sex, race, and gender, but there are books that teach the opposite — that narrow and constrict world views as opposed to widening them.  Books that teach us how really, women did have it coming to them.  Books that confirm biases, books that clog the mind and create tunnel vision — a form of mental arteriosclerosis. 

And as a parent, protecting your child from things you consider harmful is your goddamned job.
Children are memetic sponges, often willing to believe whatever anyone tells them — and while it’s all fine in the abstract to say that kids should learn their own lessons, when it’s your little boy wandering towards a red-hot stove, it’s a lot harder to internalize.

And the temptation for many is to just remove that idea altogether.  So they go to the library and do their damndest to erase it. 

What I’m tortuously getting at here is that when we speak of banned books, we often speak as though the idea of banning is a silly idea, simply because you know, they’re just books!  And then I’ve seen a thousand angry LiveJournal essays that paints the parents who want to shield their children from these ideas as thuggish hillbillies, out to damage and blinker their kids. 

I think that’s disingenuous. 

We of all people know the power books have.  And to write off every person who wants to keep their kids away from these ideas as someone who’s out to destroy their children and warp their lifestyle is a framing that, I think, is ultimately harmful. 


Because it doesn’t allow us to make the correct argument. 

There’s a lot of bad things tangled up in that, because they hate the ideas that we consider good.  But at the core, for many backing these bannings, there’s a very real and understandable human love — that they want to keep their children protected from the ideas that they think will hurt them. 

It’d be lovely to think of “freedom” as an open-and-shut issue.  But parenting is a high-wire act of censorship, where most try to filter some of what your child sees so they can make sense of the world in a proper form.  You have to decide when (and how) to talk to your child about death, about rape, about slavery and whether Santa is real or not. 

It’s a tough job, and you’re never sure you’re doing it right.  Certainly, you need your children to understand that murder occurs, but most people would agree that showing your kids pictures of JFK’s autopsy is probably overmuch.  We’d like to say that the decisions of what to show and when are cut-and-dried… But in real life, you’re never sure how much of the world you should be revealing at any given time.  You’re never quite sure what the difference is between “an honest look at the world” and “an experience that’s going to scar them for life.”

Like, you know, when you’ve accidentally encouraged your daughter to watch a movie filled with brutal goddamned rapes. 

Amy watched the movie in silence.  Normally she makes a lot of comments, like “Nice” or “Wow, I didn’t expect that to happen” — but A Clockwork Orange left her completely stunned.  Uncomfortable.  Upset. 

Finally, the credits rolled.  She watched all of them, not sure what to say. 

“All right,” I said, turning off the TV.  “Let’s talk.” 

Those two words are, I think, the vital difference. 

As a parent, your children are going to see things you don’t want them to see.  It’s inevitable, particularly in this age of the Internet.  And when they stumble across these unsettling and alien concepts, there’s a danger that they internalize them in a way that you, as a parent, would consider to be learning the wrong lesson from what happened.

“Let’s talk” is the patch for this problem. 

“Let’s talk” is where you sit down with your child and try to make some sense of their cat, run over, dead in the street.  “Let’s talk” is what happens when your kid’s friend is beaten on the playground for being different.  “Let’s talk” is what happens when they watch their first porno, well before they’re sexualized. 

The glory of “Let’s talk” is that it is, inevitably, more successful than banning things.  You can’t ban everything.  One day, like it or not, your kid’s going to run into a homosexual, or have a sexual experience, or run into someone who’s of a religion you’d consider to be filled with backwards, harmful ideas.  That might have flown back in the day when there was no Internet, but now the concepts are flooding in from every corner. 

So what happens after you’ve tried to shield the universe and, inevitably, fail? 

Your child is then on their own.  There’s no discussion to be had; after you’ve spent all that time making it clear that These Are Not To Be Discussed, they’re certainly not going to bring it up with you.  And so they’re going to process in silence, bereft of your guidance, perhaps coming to conclusions that they wouldn’t make if they had your input. 

“Let’s talk” is more difficult than bannings in some ways, because you have to keep the doors open.  A banning is an attempt to structure the world so the children will never encounter a topic until you believe they’re ready for it — which for some is often never, but it’s not like that’s not gonna happen. 

“Let’s talk” means that you gotta have keep open such a good relationship with your children that they feel they can come to you with things that are disturbing enough to them that even they don’t want to think about it.  You gotta be ready at any moment to talk about really weird things.  You have to remember not to smack them down for possessing what you think are foolish ideas, and instead go through the hard work of breaking down those ideas into their component foolishness. 

That’s hard. 

But the argument we need to make about banned books is not that “Banned Books are bad,” but rather that “’Let’s talk’ is better.”

Banning books is bad, even if you’re trying to protect the children, because it doesn’t work.  I know that many of the people who want to ban books would prefer to also ban queers and extra-marital sex and racist overtures — but that battle’s lost.  Kids have the whole world now, streaming in through little screens to knock on their door.  They’re gonna see it no matter what you do, and probably sooner than you thought. 

They’re just not going to tell you.
And left to their own devices, those fresh mental insertions are going to fester in odd ways.
Books have power.  But you know what has more power?  Honest discussion.  And yes, sometimes the fear is that you’re going to go head-to-head with a bold philosophy evinced in some book and completely get your ass kicked.  Sometimes you’re just not going to make the right argument.
In that case, may I gently suggest it might be time to examine your own opinions? 

The glory of “Let’s talk” is that it is not a hammer-solution, but an ongoing discussion.  As a parent, I’ve often learned more in talking to my daughters than they’ve learned from me.  Their responses have been enlightening, and illuminating, and they’ve made me a better human. 

That’s the power of open communication.

That’s what we often forget to express when we’re fighting the bannings. 

The discussion of A Clockwork Orange was a relatively short one – fifteen minutes, maybe.  I apologized for forgetting about all that, uh, stuff in it.  We discussed whether it was something appropriate to show, since “Let’s Talk” often involves discussing your behavior as well.
Then we discussed the usage of rape in film.  I told her that I thought rape was a pretty lazy thing to do in fiction — it’s often what bad writers do when they can’t be bothered to treat women as fully-fledged characters.  I showed her my Home on the Strange strip where I discussed how women often have two roles in fiction: to be raped and get pregnant.  I told her that I’d vowed to never use rape as a plot device in my own fiction. 

(And she shared some thoughts on the matter with me — but those are her thoughts, and those are not for your public consumption unless she chooses to make them public.) 

We discussed Kubrick’s artistry, and the psychological rewiring of Alex and how realistic that was, and then she wandered off to Facebook or something. 

Not the most comfortable day, to be sure.  But in the end, we talked about things I don’t think we would have talked about otherwise, and I got to explain why I’m really not all that cool with the way fiction often treats rape as nothing more than a titillating inciting incident. 

If I’d turned off the TV, none of that would have happened.