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Censoring Books, Censoring Freedom

Picture this: You are standing in a classroom in front of a group of high school students, teaching them about the themes presented in John Steinbeck’s "Of Mice and Men." The students say that the story demonstrates love, friendship, different backgrounds, loneliness, and even the so-called American Dream. You have them read passages from the book; the dialogue between George and the other immigrants fills the chalk-smelling room. The students slur, toss insults back and forth, and, more than once, curse. The bell rings, and you tell them that the assignment due next week is to write an essay explaining the importance of the chapter they just read aloud in class. Two days later, you get an email from the superintendent of the high school—a parent is not pleased. She wants you to stop teaching Of Mice and Men, the reason being that the book is vulgar and contains so much profanity that it would only encourage the students to use them daily. You argue that this type of profanity and offensive language teaches them about culture and history. The battle begins—what will be the fate of Of Mice and Men?


Censorship has long stood out as one of the world’s greatest controversial issues. Parents, superintendents, religious groups, libraries, and even the government have banned books on account of the stories containing content that are considered to be inappropriate for the community or school grounds. Books that are banned are often removed from the shelves of a library or bookstore after going through a formal challenge so that the readers would not have free access to them. Although these books contain uncomfortable topics, they should not be banned because they are an expression of free speech, and contain knowledge that is valuable to the world today.


Books are challenged for containing controversial issues. Such controversial, or inappropriate factors include racial discrimination, blasphemous dialogue, sexual situations or dialogue, degrading comments, excessive violence, and coverage of upsetting events, witchcraft, homosexuality, and profanity. One example of a commonly challenged book is Harper Lee’s "To Kill a Mockingbird"; according to the American Library Association, To Kill a Mockingbird reached #23 on the list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books from 2000 to 2007. The book, which won a Pulitzer Prize, is often challenged by parents and groups who object to either the language or the way in which race is represented. In 1977, a school district in Minnesota banned the book temporarily because it contained words such as “damn,” and “w**** lady.” In 1981, African-American parents in Indiana challenged the book because it portrayed the submissive behavior of Tom Robinson, Calpurnia, and other African-Americans who worked for whites; they also argued that it would institutionalize further racism. The book also deals with the subject of rape, which the critics felt to be incongruous to the readers.


"The Catcher in the Rye," which was written by J.D. Salinger, is one of the most popular books to be challenged in schools because it contains obscene language and actions that are not considered to be appropriate behavior for an adolescent. The Catcher in the Rye, which made #10 on the list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-1999 by the American Library Association, was challenged by parents in 1977 at a school district in New Jersey. They insisted that it should be removed from classrooms because it included considerable profanity that promoted “premarital sex, homosexuality and perversion” ("100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature" by Nicholas Karolides, et al). Parents at a school district in California went against the book in 1993 because it was “centered around negative activity” ("100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature" by Nicholas Karolides, et al) such as undermining morality, and containing sexual scenes along with depiction of premarital sex, alcohol abuse, and prostitution. The issues incorporated in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Catcher in the Rye" makes some readers feel awkward or perturbed, especially if they're openly taught in a classroom.


However, books that contain unethical matters should not be banned or even challenged because they represent freedom of speech. In the United States Constitution, the First Amendment clearly states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" (The United States Constitution). Books are considered to be part of the press and speech, for they are published for leisure. The law was established to promote equality and freedom of expression, and allows anyone to voice their opinions without punishment. Consequently, authors are able to write what they consider to be “honest” books, books that tell the truth about the peoples’ lives. Even though they're printed for the people's entertainment, the characters in almost every story portray real individuals in our world. Therefore, when certain groups try to ban books, they are showing prejudice or racism towards those imaginary but concrete characters. "The Catcher in the Rye" tells the story of a young and rebellious adolescent who struggles both socially and academically in a world he considers to be full of "phonies." Told from his point of view, the young adolescent describes in detail his experiences after being expelled from a college prep school. Such experiences include underage drinking, talking to a prostitute, smoking, and even lying. Many critics would comment that this character is a poor role model to the readers, but there are many, many teenagers in the world who struggle just as much as the young adolescent does. Many of these critics challenge books like "The Catcher in the Rye" because they have not experienced the background of the story themselves; they also worry that these types of books will influence the readers to carry out the actions that the characters have done. Nevertheless, these critics are going against the First Amendment by challenging "he Catcher in the Rye" because the rebellious teenager in the story is taking the Constitution’s words to the heart and sharing his story, however amoral it is, to the readers everywhere—without punishment. How would you feel if you were trying to tell your story and everyone else was refraining you from doing so because of your background and the choices you made? When you censor books, you are showing discrimination towards characters that portray real individuals in our world, like the teenager in "The Catcher in the Rye."

"To Kill a Mockingbird" became an instant bestseller the minute it was published because not only does it deal with racial injustice and rape, but also the death of innocence of the book’s narrator, who is telling the story from the perspective of a six-year-old. The story is powerful, humorous, insightful, and most importantly: realistic. The narrator in "To Kill a Mockingbird" is an example of a contemporary young child who slowly abandons the refuge of innocence as she gets older and realizes that facing the real world and its difficulties is no easy task. The book sends a very strong and memorable message to the readers, which is why it won a Pulitzer Prize in the early 1960s. When people try to ban "To Kill a Mockingbird" they are ignoring, or not realizing, the message that the narrator is trying to tell them; this message is the importance of justice and innocence. An adult who works at my school once said in an interview, "The world is a great history of censorship. It's almost always a powerful group or government that is seeking to control the people's freedom. People are thirsty for knowledge, thirsty for truth, and other people are keeping them from reading these banned books. People try to ban without really looking at its place in history. You have to understand the history of the book." People, even if they're fictional, have a right to tell their stories.

Books that are controversial contain the sort of knowledge and information that are so valuable to the world today. Jeff Jeffrey, who is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Reveille, wrote an article titled "Book Banning Destroys Thought." In this article, he explained, "Reading and studying the written word is an inherently beautiful process. It exposes a person to a broad spectrum of ideas that would otherwise remain hidden and allows for the development of analytical reading. A child who reads, even when tackling books that may be difficult or contain harsh ideas, will inevitably become a more intelligent and more well-rounded person than one who does not." Laurie Halse Anderson, who has written many books for young adults, was recently faced with angry parents who wanted her book, "Twisted," to be removed from the students' reading list. During this situation, she shared a part of her letter to the school administration on her blog, "I suspect the roots of the parental concern about Twisted are the scenes in which teenagers make stupid, dangerous, and occasionally horrifying decisions. Why on earth would someone like me put things like that in a book? Because readers who can experience those decisions—by reading about them—and appreciate the consequences of those actions—by seeing those consequences affect the lives of a book's characters—are less likely to do the stupid, dangerous and occasionally horrifying things themselves."

Like Anderson, many authors include swear words, sexual situations or dialogue, discrimination, among many other reasons that books are challenged for, to ensure that the book seems more realistic, or plausible. When a book reaches out to the readers, good results occur. A reader wrote to Anderson after reading her book, "I just wanted to say thank you for writing this book. I have been considering killing myself for many years and now I am entering my junior year of high school and about ten minutes ago finished this book. It has given me a new perspective on life and that death isn't the easy way out. I can relate to Tyler [the main character] in many ways . . . I greatly appreciate this book because now I know that there is hope in my life and that death is not the answer. And one more thing: this is the only book I have been able to pick up and not put down from start to finish. I finished it in one day" (Anderson). Books offer not only guidance, but also information about the world. By reading these so-called controversial books, a person has access to the different backgrounds, opinions, and dispositions that they would have otherwise not been able to encounter physically. Just as Jeffrey had written in his article, “The power of words cannot be underestimated, and yes, they have the ability to destroy as well as create. But banning books, a collection of words by definition, only tears away at the edifice of knowledge” (Jeffrey, “Book Banning Destroys Thought”). A reader would have a much better understanding of the world than anyone who rarely picks up a book, especially a frequently challenged one.


Books should not now, nor ever, be banned because they are representations of free speech and press. Not only that, they also provide guidance and aid to the readers. One who reads "To Kill a Mockingbird" would have a better understanding about racial injustice and discrimination in the south. In "The Catcher in the Rye," the main character is an ideal example of an everyday rebellious teenager, who strives to find a place in the world, and thinks negatively about the way life is presented to him or her. When reading "Of Mice and Men," the reader would be given a detailed experience about the life of migrant workers and their hardships. Books offer so many different perspectives. Different viewpoints are important because the readers are able to relate to the characters; not only that, they also realize that they are not the only people to experience the same situation or dilemma—or to even have questions concerning life. Judy Blume, who has written more than fifteen books for young teens—half of which have been a victim of censorship—received a letter from one reader that describes the overall purpose of books. The letter said, "Dear Judy, I don't know where I stand in the world. I don't know who I am. That's why I read—to find myself" (Judy Blume Talks About Censorship). That is why controversial books exist in the world—so that the readers can find themselves.


Now, let’s go back to the chalk-smelling classroom. You are sitting in one of the student desks with a battered copy of "Of Mice and Men" in your hands. The dissatisfied parent is sitting across from you with the principal next to her. She tells you that "Of Mice and Men" is vulgar and needs to be removed from the school grounds. You hold up the book. Ma’am, you say, have you ever read the book? She looks at you, lips pursed. No, she admits, I have not. But my daughter talks about the book at dinner—from the sounds of it, it is dirty. I will not have my daughter talk like a migrant worker! That’s it, you say, it should be removed because it contains slang and curse words? As if the students haven’t done that already? The mother looks at you, trying to find words to say. Yes, you continue, the story does have a moderate amount of profanity. But that is not the main focus of the book. In fact, this type of language is included in the story to support the overall theme and message. The author didn’t include profanity to encourage the readers to use them—this is what the migrant workers actually talked like back in the days. That was their culture, their way of getting their voice heard. Without this type of language, the book would be ignored. It wouldn’t have gained attention nationwide. How many books are written about them? "Of Mice and Men" is a story about friendship, love, loneliness, different backgrounds, and the American Dream. rather than the deeper parts. The mother sits in her chair, quietly looking at you. The principal gives you a small smile. I happened to like the book, he says, as a high school student. I won’t be removing it anytime soon.




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This article has 3 comments. Post your own!

WritingAngel20 said...
Jun. 10, 2011 at 2:15 pm:
You've got a good voice, i would like to see you as a reporter, but I liked this, books like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Forever by Judy Blume get banned and really it's just because people don't see the big picture
 
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scoot413This teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. said...
Mar. 14, 2011 at 4:33 pm:
This article is very well-written. I speaks for all authors AND students. =)
 
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Heidi S. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Aug. 20, 2010 at 8:49 pm:

I strongly appreciate this article. In today’s world of over-sensitive people who are afraid to offend anything or anyone, our 1st Amendment rights must be protected and held close at heart. One of my favorite books is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and I see more and more of what that book warns coming true.

Thank you for being a voice of freedom of the press.

 
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