Unethical Self-Censorship

December 6, 2010
By Cori Zimny BRONZE, Sun City, Arizona
Cori Zimny BRONZE, Sun City, Arizona
3 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Lurking in libraries and hiding in classrooms is a silent monster, filtering challenging ideas that encourage free thought in young adults. This monster is self-censorship, when teachers and librarians will make the personal decision to keep books that could be controversial from young adults simply by not bringing any attention to them.
Topics books discuss that make it controversial vary. The School Library Journal conducted a survey and found the “red flags” that would make a teacher or librarian censor a book. Sexual content, with 87 percent who would censor a book because of it, was the number one reason for censorship. Following was 61 percent who would censor a book with objectionable language, 51 percent because of violence, 47 percent because of homosexual themes, 34 percent because of racism, and 16 percent because of religion. However, books containing these topics are not as obvious as J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. For example, according to the American Library Association, the fifth most frequently challenged book of 2009 was the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer because it was sexually explicit and for its religious view point. Also, the children’s picture book And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, was the second most frequently challenged book of 2009 for containing homosexuality. The line between whether a book is too controversial and will be challenged by a certain parent, organization or community is a blurred one, making the jobs of teachers and librarians even more challenging.
Self-censorship, which many are unaware about, is a widespread issue that I would like to bring attention to. Under certain circumstances, self-censorship can be unethical or ethical. To clarify, I do not believe teachers and librarians should not regulate books at all. I believe books, like movies and video games, need to be regulated. However, sometimes teachers and librarians will choose to censor a book themselves in order to avoid controversy. Unethical self-censorship is when teachers and librarians censor either because they fear a negative backlash from the community, they do not possess the skills needed to teach the controversial material, or they believe students do not possess the maturity needed to read the book. Unethical self-censorship is rooted in fear, the main reason being they fear any opposition and debate raised over a controversial book will result in the loss of their job.
On the other hand, self-censorship can be ethical, depending on certain circumstances, such as if the book was written for a different age group and the young adults do not have the education or understanding to read the book. Also, if the book is obscene on a logical level, it would be ethical for a teacher or librarian to censor it. For example, author Jim Trelease, who wrote The Read Aloud Handbook, said that censorship from a curriculum standpoint was permissible, since some books are “written with adult audiences in mind, including a writing structure, historic perspective, and subject matter that are not within the normal range of development for children.”
It is important for teachers and librarians to be comfortable with teaching controversial books. Students need teachers to help guide them in understanding and analyzing books that have controversial topics for them to be interpreted an intended way. For example, the case study, “Who’s Protecting Whom? I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This,” published in Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, found that though teachers may have a strong inclination to use a book as material in class, the controversial nature of it will overpower this inclination. I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This, by Jacqueline Woodson, tells the story of two girls, one black middle class and the other poor white, and contains controversial topics, such as racism and abuse. The issue that surrounds this study was that the students did not understand that issues, such as racism, still exist. Though the story was contemporary, the students who participated in the study thought it took place sometime “when slavery was abolished;” however, the teachers were able to understand that it was a contemporary issue. Without teachers able to openly discuss and teach students about books, especially when they contain controversial topics, students will not have the proper understanding. For this reason, it is even more important for teachers and librarians to not fear backlash teaching with books that contain realistic issues that could be considered controversial.
Not only is reading books with controversial topics important intellectually, but it also raises awareness about real life problem young adults face. In her article “Gritty, Tough, Edgy, and Controversial: YA Authors Who Tackle Forbidden Subjects and Why They Do It,” Rebecca Hill stated, “Although we might long for a Betsy and Tacy or Hardy Boys existence for our teens, the honest fact is that they face very real issues and reading about those issues in fiction can help create coping mechanisms.” Young adult literature often contains issues that many teens are facing in their lives, and books are a way for them to relate and cope with different issues. However, if the only books getting to them contain no truth about the harsh realities of life, how can young adults be aware of widespread social issues?
In order to stop unethical self-censorship, a reasonable solution is to make teachers and librarians comfortable with discussing controversial books. Young adults have the power to raise awareness, alleviate the fear teachers and librarians have, and eventually end unethical self-censorship. Having open book discussions with your teachers and librarians is an easy place to start. Though the fear of losing their job is a logical reason for teachers and librarians to self-censor controversial books they may find beneficial to young adults, if they had more support from their community, they could more readily and openly share controversial books. Also, visit www.ala.org to learn more about censorship and the intellectual freedom all young adults have to read. You can also share information and materials on dealing with book challenges with teachers and librarians in your community. Raising awareness about silent self-censorship is the first step to solving this problem.

The author's comments:
Since self-censorship happens under the radar, it is a problem in all schools, libraries and communities that awareness needs to be brought to in order keep our privilege of free thinking.

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