There is a strange dichotomy in this country. We are torn between what we want to be able to say and what we want others to be able to say. 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.’ These lovely lines written by the founders of this country seem quite clear. So, how is it possible that books can be banned?
You can trace the origins of this kind of censorship all the way back to 399 BCE. Socrates, the father of philosophy and one the greatest thinkers of all time, was put to death for corrupting the minds of the youth in Athens.
Just as Socrates was accused of corrupting young minds so are some works of literature. The precedent for banning books was not set until 1982 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that books could be banned from public libraries and in particular from school libraries for being ‘pervasively vulgar.’ This begs the question, what does ‘pervasively vulgar’ mean?
It is here in the vagueness of language that censorship becomes a terrifying tool. ‘Pervasively vulgar’ means something different to everyone. Some people find violence vulgar, others sex, still others find the idea of a woman being allowed to drive a car vulgar. Whose definition of vulgar is correct? The answer is everyone’s. Everyone has the right to believe what they want to believe; again the first amendment clearly denotes this. There is nothing wrong with finding something offensive, there is something wrong with trying to force your beliefs on others. That is what book banning is trying to do.
Rather than simply putting the book down, many people take up arms to try and get the offensive book banned. The trouble is people seem to want both freedom of speech and restriction at the same time. They want the right to speak out against a book but they don’t want the book to speak for its self. It is the ultimate double standard, similar to when you are driving a car.
When you are driving, pedestrians are the most irritating and inconsiderate people on the planet. However, when you are a pedestrian, drivers are all going too fast and should let you stroll leisurely through the streets. It is the same thing with censorship; you don’t want anyone telling you what you can and cannot say, but you want to be about to forbid others from saying certain things.
Luckily, books have a means of fighting back. Books inspire curiosity and a desire for understanding and education. It is with these tools that books provide a means to overcome censorship. Great works of literature always speak of the human condition and part of being human is, in a way, vulgar. We do not want to read stories without turmoil and often this turmoil stems from humanity's many flaws, such as violence. Without our flaws we would not be human, just as without conflict books would merely be 3 page descriptions of butterflies or teddy bears (not that there is anything wrong with butterflies or teddy bears). Imagine how dull literature classes and libraries would be if every book was devoid of conflict. Imagine how dull life would be if all the banned books were no longer read.