Monday, September 26, 2011

Be of Good Cheer, Master Ridley

What fascinates me about book banning is how often the banners miss their objectives. Evangelical Christians ban Harry Potter in order to combat Satanism -- and thereby remove a compelling version of the Christ story. Progressives ban Huckleberry Finn because of its use of the n-word and its authentic 19th-century race relations -- and thereby remove one of the most revolutionary anti-racist texts of the 1800s. They keep shooting at the wrong targets.

Sometimes this is a result of reading carelessly or superficially, taking such early offense at a word, plot device or opinion in the text that one does not see what lies beyond it. If you're already enraged by the n-word, you might fail to notice the the moral shift that takes place when Jim chews out Huck for ignoring the feelings of a friend.

Most interesting, though, are those who never read the book in the first place, condemning it based on reputation alone. It's easy to make fun of people who do that, and on the surface it looks pretty stupid. But I'm impressed by what it implies about the power of language.

People who don't read the works they condemn often do so out of fear of what the words will do to them. In the case of texts deemed demonic or satanic, it's easy to imagine how one might think this -- the Devil is supposed to be pretty cagey about ensnaring people through seemingly innocuous vehicles. Subversive texts, I suppose, can be feared in the same way. But I've also heard books dismissed on grounds of taste or quality by people who haven't read them. "I don't read trash," they say, as if the "trash" will somehow contaminate them. People who object to the ideas they've heard are in, say, E. O. Wilson or The Bell Curve, based (if we're lucky) on having read a single paragraph quoted by someone who's already angry, will join in the chorus without reading the other 99.9% of the work -- out of a fear that they will become angrier? That they might be influenced? Transformed? Polluted? What potency these works must have!

Now, as a writer, teacher and lawyer, I’m professionally predisposed to believe in the power of language. More, as a student of James Boyd White, I tend to see the world in terms of constitutive rhetoric, believing that we build relationships and communities with words, and that we make some things possible and other things impossible by what we say about them.

But I also believe that running away from "bad" words actually conveys more power to them. In a mundane sense, the overt suppression of any text typically has the opposite of the intended public effect: the text becomes more popular, engenders more discussion, than if one had not tried to ban it. Witness the popularity of so many books on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and of books suppressed for political reasons, as in the Soviet Union. In Hollywood this is a commonplace marketing principle: controversy (especially a public boycott) of a film will generally increase sales. Some awful films (no names; imagine your favorite example) got much more attention than they deserved because someone found them offensive.

On a deeper level, that which is not said or heard has greater potential energy than that which is spoken aloud. In silence, as in darkness, we invent an enormity of threat or persecution. Monsters may lie under the bed, but what terrors are locked in the mind of a person whose words are hidden? How easy it is to imagine that the silent friend is secretly critical, the absent warrior huge and invulnerable, the boss we avoided furious and ready to fire!

Thus, the very thing that makes certain people want to ban a book is the reason that they should not try to ban it. Not only is the book's effect and intention different than what you think; not only will the act of suppression create, like the burning of Latimer and Ridley, literary martyrs with greater influence than before; but by enforcing its invisibility and silence you grant it a power over you that it could never have had otherwise.