Sonia Mungal, "Censorship and Book Banning Cannot Be Justified"
A first-year student in her second quarter when she wrote this essay, Sonia was given the same readings as appear in Cluster 3 of The Well-Crafted Argument
but was required to do additional research to write her paper. The piece below could have been improved with the addition of specific detail in a few places.
March 20, 2001
Censorship and Book Banning Cannot Be Justified
"I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it."
-Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire1
Democracy is founded on the principles of autonomy of the individual and faith in the competency and fundamental rational nature of all human beings. Using these principles as the major premises of my argument, I will attempt to demonstrate that censorship and book banning are impermissible because they violate the freedoms necessary for preserving democracy and the liberty that accompanies that democracy.
According to traditional democratic theory, as described by leading American theorist Robert Dahl, an ideal democratic process must satisfy certain essential criteria—one being enlightened understanding. Enlightened understanding requires that the citizens are well educated. Free press and free speech are critical to civic understanding. Citizens must have open access to all ideas so that they may come to a deep understanding of critical issues. In order for the public to properly form opinions and make decisions, it must be well informed on all sides of a particular issue. Therefore, for a society to be considered democratic, it must be a free marketplace for the open exchange of ideas (Edwards 14-15).
In John Stuart Mill's classic work, On Liberty
, he argues, as I do, that protecting freedom of speech is of vital social importance. Freedom of speech is invaluable because it provides human beings with securities against oppression by allowing them to use their natural faculties of reason and logic to develop their own beliefs—this way, the public cannot be manipulated by biased information. As rational human beings, each person has an unalienable right to freedom of expression without fear of punishment. For these reasons, censorship is intolerable because it jeopardizes democracy by not allowing the public free access to knowledge, which is essential to preserving the liberty characteristic of a true democracy.
Censorship violates humanity's natural autonomy in that it denies an individual an uninfluenced choice in formulating his or her beliefs. Even if the most intelligent human beings are very sure in respect to the truth of an idea, it is wrong for certain individuals to deny other individuals the opportunity to come to a decision themselves. Censorship is wrong because it disregards humanity's basic rational nature and its ability to critically evaluate complex ideas. In effect, censorship is unacceptable because it refuses to recognize another human being's intelligence and free will.
In addition, human beings do not have the right to censure a person because the individual holds an opinion differing from that of the majority. Mill says, "If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind" (360). It is absolutely ridiculous and illogical for people to claim that an idea should be censored because it is "offensive" to a culture in the way that it challenges cultural norms. For example, books such as Betty Friedman's The Feminine Mystique
and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin
ignited cultural revolutions by making people aware of unjust cultural practices in society. These books presented ideas that were inflammatory and offensive to many people, yet the majority will now agree that these ideas have been some of the most valuable and influential of the modern age. Today, most people believe in equality, women's rights, and the injustice of discrimination based on skin color. Isn't it amazing then that these powerful ideas, which many have come to embrace as truth, were censored from the general public when the books that presented them first came out? It is outrageous that such invaluable ideas could be withheld from humanity, and an egregious error that should never be tolerated.
Advocates of censorship claim that it is permissible to censor ideas that are blatantly false. They claim that if falsities are presented to the public, they may result in the widespread belief of these untruths and can negatively harm society. For example, is it wrong to ban books that advocate white supremacy, genocidal war, or violence and murder? According to Mill, it is impermissible to suppress ideas, even if they are false:
The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation—those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error. (360)
The problem with censorship, even of false ideas, is that it denies the ability of humans to critically evaluate ideas: to acknowledge that human beings are capable of distinguishing truths from falsities, and to realize that human beings will actually benefit from exercising their faculties and challenging their convictions. To understand and evaluate alternative opinions often leads to a deeper and fuller understanding of one's own beliefs. As Cicero states, "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that." Evaluating different opinions can either lead to the exchange of error for truth or provide a clearer perception of why previous conceptions of truth are truthful. Either way, the free exchange of ideas enhances the ability of the people to develop their own ideas of truth.
Advocates of censorship often find the potential harm created by unrestrained free speech to be the overwhelming problem and vehemently disagree with the claim that any good is promoted by allowing false ideas to circulate. They feel that the safety of the nation supercedes any benefits that may arise from allowing citizens to make critical evaluations themselves. But how far should censorship go? If proponents of censorship cannot agree with the benefits associated with allowing false ideas to circulate freely, then we are presented with another dilemma: what authority would be allowed to determine which ideas are true and which are false? Human beings are not infallible and are apt to mistakenly view a false idea as truth or vice versa. Hence, no authority can be established which would be capable of rendering ideas true or false. Those who attempt to censor ideas they deem false err because, as Mill puts it,
they have no authority to decide the question for all mankind and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion because they are sure that it is false is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. (360)
History has shown that the established authority often falsely oppresses ideas that are later shown to be true. Galileo Galilei wrote a book claiming that the earth was not the center of the universe. His ideas were particularly powerful because he had much evidence supporting his ideas arising from the use of telescopes he developed. In 1633, the Catholic Church, which found the Copernican ideas endorsed by Galileo heretical, banned the book and forced Galileo to recant his ideas. Today, not many people will attempt to deny that the earth is the center of the universe. The same is true for the scientific theory of evolution presented in Darwin's heavily banned work, The Origin of Species
. For these reasons, censorship is undesirable because it can lead to the denial of truth. New, innovative ideas are often difficult to comprehend, and old convictions are hard to break down. This is why the truth can sometimes seem impossible, absurd, or just plain false. Yet presenting these new, "crazy" ideas to humanity—so that it may evaluate, criticize, and test them using its capacities for reason—will result in the discovery of the truth or the falsity of an idea. Give ideas enough time for critical evaluation and humans will give credit to what they discern to be truth and discredit what they discern to be false. In many cases, specifically in the case of complex scientific ideas, new ideas often contain both truth and falsity. Censors should not merely ban ideas that seem false because ideas often contain grains of truth as well.
So far, all preceding ideas rest upon my basic premise that the beings having the right to freedom of speech are mature, rational beings who can properly judge the content of ideas presented to them. Proponents of censorship often point to children, beings who are not fully developed in their sense of reason, as people who require censorship. They argue that children should not be exposed to books that are mature, violent, sexual, or obscene or that contain lewd language. The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) finds these and other restrictions quite disturbing because of their ability to limit some of the finest literature ever written. As Joan Bertin, president of the NCAC writes, using these criterion, you'd "have a problem defending the Bible and Shakespeare" (1).
Is it not surprising that the books most commonly banned are often those considered classics or works of genius? Works that really explore the human condition, works that are insightful in their struggle to capture the essence of humanity—these books often are highly controversial. Bertin notes that the same people who ban books in order to protect their children from mature subject matter do not protest the learning of history, which often contains themes more violent and mature than those of literature. Bertin asks,
Should we not teach children about the Holocaust because we find it represents depraved conduct? Should we ban pictures of lynchings because they are offensive and terrifying? History is different, you might say, because those things really happened. But fiction has equally important lessons to convey... As with history, we don't have to like the message or even agree with it to learn something from it. Sometimes, the most instructive books are the ones we dislike because they force us to think hard about why we think and feel the way we do. (1-2)
While it is true that children are not fully developed in their capacities for logic and reason, this lack of development does not mean that their access to mature information should be denied. Children should receive guidance in how to properly interpret and evaluate the content of ideas presented to them. Children should have access to a variety of subject matters—including controversial ideas and mature topics and should concurrently be encouraged to explore issues presented to them in a critical manner. This process of teaching children to critically examine ideas is at the heart of the mission of education and is enriched and fulfilled only through open access to ideas, which are often presented in books. The American Library Association (ALA) advocates the position that children should have access to books that are controversial or mature in nature. The ALA explains its position, stating,
To some, much of modern expression is shocking. But is not much of life itself shocking? We cut off literature at the source if we prevent writers from dealing with the stuff of life. Parents and teachers have a responsibility to prepare the young to meet the diversity of experiences in life to which they will be exposed, as they have a responsibility to help them learn to think critically for themselves. (ALA: The Freedom to Read Statement 3)
Prohibiting children to explore the deeper issues and mature topics that characterize life is erroneous because it defeats the fundamental purpose of a quality education—to help children develop their faculties of reason in order to make well-informed decisions in developing values and beliefs.
If, as I claim, book banning should not be allowed under any circumstances, even for children, what then to the issue of pornography? Proponents of censorship claim that extremely obscene material created not with the intention of exploring ideas but rather with the intention of sexual arousal should be restricted. I will agree with advocates of censorship to this degree—children should be protected from books containing pornography.
Children do not have the maturity or experience to understand pornography, and no amount of guidance or explanation can equip a child for making rational decisions concerning the rightness or wrongness of viewing pornography. Insomuch as I do not hold pornography to hold any value artistically, creatively, or intellectually, I do not think that the prohibition of children from viewing books containing pornography should be an issue of great debate. It would be unhealthy for children to view books containing pornography.
At this point I would like to make clear the distinction between pornography and obscene material. A book may contain a semi-explicit, obscene rape scene, a scene of incest, a sexual experience, or sexual ideas. These are allowable in literature and should not be banned if they serve a purpose and are working to explore ideas. Pornography differs from obscene material in that it does not attempt to explore any ideas; it has no intention other than to arouse. Pornography can rightly be banned from books that children may read. However, it may not be restricted from a mature adult population. To ban books containing pornography from adults would be to force a culture's puritanical views about sex upon the general population. To do so would deny a full-functioning human being the right to come to his or her own decisions about morality, a violation of his or her human rights. Therefore, it is not allowable to censor pornography from the general adult public.
Another issue where advocates of censorship feel it is permissible to limit freedom of speech is the issue of libel and slander, situations where the "ideas" being discussed are real people and these people feel that they have been falsely represented in a negative manner. In her work, "Precarious Prose," Donna Demac defines libel as "communication—words or pictures that tends to expose someone to public ridicule, shame, or contempt, or otherwise damages a person's reputation" (1). Libel and slander are usually applicable to people who are in the public eye. Juicy gossip about the boy next door is not media worthy unless the boy next door is famous. People in positions of prominence have a means to fight libel and slander; they can use the media to defend themselves and correct falsities. This approach is what Demac feels people should do before they run to the courtrooms. She feels that libel suits obstruct open dialogue because they cause the media to avoid controversial topics for fear of costly suits. She states, "this 'chilly' climate in effect creates a type of immunity for powerful public figures. The overall result is a crippling of free and open discourse" (2). Libel and slander suits are a threat to the freedom of speech and expression as protected by the first amendment. Censorship in the form of these lawsuits should be extremely rare and occur only when the media displays explicit reckless disregard for the truth with the intent of causing harm to the individual being slandered. Otherwise, the effect of libel and slander suits on democracy can be quite injurious to the preservation of liberty.
The main reason proponents of censorship feel they have the right to restrict the freedom of speech is that they feel the dangers that can occur when people are allowed to say whatever they think. I believe that the right to freedom of speech is so essential a human right that, to restrict it, one must have an extremely important reason. The fact that books like Mein Kampf
or The Turner Diaries
advocate white supremacy and genocidal war makes some proponents of censorship feel that they have the right to ban these works. They believe that these works lead to violence and chaos in society. True, some people may get horrible ideas from reading books. However, no matter how offensive a book may be, it is never permissible for anyone to remove it from circulation. Once censorship begins, it is too hard to draw the line. No objective measure can be established to determine which ideas can or cannot be spread because such a criterion would be biased by what the judges deem meritorious and truthful and what they do not. I have already established the dangers in banning ideas that are controversial, offensive, or even just plain false. The fact is that one person kills another due to individual character, not the books he or she has read. Also, if a person is inspired to do wrong by ideas in a book, then that person has failed to use critical evaluation and reason to determine the falsity of ideas presented in the book. This misreading further demonstrates that individual's insufficiency of character. The only time when book banning is permissible to uphold national safety is when a book is releasing confidential military information that could seriously jeopardize the safety of the people. The reason that this instance differs is that in this case, ideas are not being discussed—secrets are being revealed that are critical to the safety of all peoples. This scenario is different from the "Red Scare" of the 1950's, when authors were being banned for voicing Communist ideas. While the United States government claimed that the books were being censored because they were endangering the lives of the people, the truth was that the government was unjustly violating the first amendment by censuring ideas on political grounds.
As the American Library Association sums up my argument in its Freedom to Read Statement
, it says,
The freedom to read is essential to our democracy—most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy—that the ordinary citizen, by exercising critical judgment, will accept the good and reject the bad—We here stake out a lofty claim for the value of the written word. We do so because we believe that it is possessed of enormous variety and usefulness, worthy of cherishing and keeping free. We believe that what people read is deeply important; that ideas can be dangerous; but that the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours. (ALA: The Freedom to Read Statement 1, 5).
Literature has an incredible value to humanity in that it provides a means for all humankind's ideas to be preserved and distributed for all to explore. The right to freedom of the press is an essential human right, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (ALA: The Universal Right to Free Expression 1). Censorship is a threat to democracy and the liberties created by democracy. It is our duty to fight censorship and book banning so that humanity may always have free expression and free access to ideas. In this way, humanity may fully pursue its duty of uncovering truth, knowledge, and true enlightenment.
Bertin, Joan E. Don't Cave in to the Book Banners
. National Coalition Against Censorship. 18 March 2001. http://www.ncac.org/cen_news/cn67newsday.html
Demac, Donna A. "Precarious Prose." From Liberty Denied: The Current
Rise of Censorship in America
. New Brunswick: Rutgers University
Edwards III, George C., Martin P. Wattenberg, and Robert L. Lineberry, eds.
Government in America: People, Politics, and Policy
. 9th ed. New
York: Longman, 200.
Mill, John Stuart. "Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion." Morality and
. Ed. John Arthur. New Jersey: Prentice Hall,
The Freedom to Read Statement
. American Library Association. 18 March
The Universal Right to Free Expression: An Interpretation of the Library Bill
. American Library Association. 18 March 2001.