Guest post by Hassan Said.
I was fourteen years old when I watched the Egyptian revolution unfold before my eyes. One of the main things people protested against was the degree of censorship everyone was subjected to. Book bans in particular were popular for many decades leading up to the revolution. Interestingly, eleven years after the revolution, I am seeing the same arguments the Egyptian government made in Egypt for book bans made here in America by local school boards and politicians. My experience has taught me that, regardless of content, book banning is harmful because it weakens the democratic process and works against making societies cohesive.
The Egyptian government extensively banned books during the latter half of the 20th century. Those in power argued for the need for more parental and educational control. They also made arguments focused on the effect certain books have on polarizing the public on race, politics, religion, or sex and the importance of maintaining social order and decorum. Books discussing political and religious themes were banned with the most frequency, including a novel by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Thus, the product of book banning was the revolution—many years later. In essence, the revolution was an amalgamation of a seemingly unidentified people, split among social, religious, and political lines, coming together to reconcile the calamities of over half a century. Namely, the effects of being unable to discuss relevant and pertinent ideas and issues—a side effect of book bans.
As I am wrapping up my last semester in law school I see parallels of what happened in Egypt taking place in America: people split among political, social, and sometimes religious lines. They are divided over issues that have come up partly due to discrimination, police brutality, and more recently and intensely, book bans.
In Florida, a school removed 16 books pending review because they contained “obscene material,” including Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In Washington, a school district removed Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird because of its depiction of race relations and use of racist language. And last month, a school board in Tennessee voted unanimously to ban Maus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust. The school board argued this book should not be taught in classrooms because it contains material that is inappropriate for students, specifically because “of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.” In other words, people and local governments are making the same arguments I heard growing up supporting book bans. Specifically, they stress the need for more parental control, the inappropriateness of discussing sexuality, and the dangers of debating race. The same harmful effects I saw in Egypt, I see here: book banning is weakening the democratic process and working against making society less tolerant and cohesive.
Perhaps it is necessary to remind ourselves why we read in the first place. We read to empower ourselves and others. We read to learn perspectives and perhaps to develop our own. We read to understand the power of ideas and the effect they had and continue to have on us as a society. We read to open mental doors and windows of tolerance. We read to challenge ourselves, to reach new heights and understanding. We could disagree with many books, sure, but that is precisely why we read: to critically think about issues and better ourselves and our society in the process. Stated differently, we read to maintain and strengthen the social threads that weave our communities tightly together.
Book-banning in today’s online world is largely a political act. Books may not be available in local libraries, but they remain available on the Internet and in online libraries like the Internet Archive’s, where you can borrow them for free. In a way, the Internet Archive plays a similar role to that of the Internet in pre-revolution Egypt: it is a space where people can read, listen, and watch uploaded works and items compiled in one place. But online libraries aren’t completely safe either. For example, the Goliath of the publishing world, Penguin Random House (PRH), used copyright law as an excuse to effectively ban Maus from the Internet Archive’s digital shelves. PRH made it clear that they wanted to assert total control over this banned book in order to maximize its own profits in the wake of the Tennessee School Board’s decision. This has the same impact on society as book banning.
When societies censor books, they threaten to lose their culture and, in time, their identity. By banning books, societies jeopardize their political and social institutions because books are the primary tool to spread and develop ideas. With the fight to ban books extending to the online world, the threat has become as clear as ever. You could argue that book banning is about many things—the illusion of parental control, the polarization of the public, or disagreement on topics like race, politics, or sex. However, the bottom line remains clear: book bans serve no one, and no society can overcome its issues by banning books.
Great thanks for your thoughtful and lucid comments on book banning and the reasons why we need reading in the first place. I was especially struck by the fact that the school in Florida you mentioned banned several of my very favorite books! I grew up mostly and live in Germany, but have a US American mother, and we all lived in the US in the mid seventies. I have been worried and wondering about a lot of social and political tendencies in my “mother country” over the past decades, and am actually glad to live in Germany in this time. But it is wonderful there are such young people as you over there and in many places of our small planet. All the best to you! Enjoy your internship. The internet archive is a great achievement!