Banning books: Protecting kids or erasing humanity?
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Amid battles over what kids may read in schools, Banned Books Week highlights books as an essential tool for educators to teach empathy and create informed citizens. Parents rights groups argue that children do better when parents also have a say in what they are reading.
It’s a particularly busy week for Ms. Meehan and her organization as they participate in the annual Banned Books Week, founded in 1982 and sponsored by a consortium of publishers and nonprofits. This year, they are highlighting what they see as the dangers of banning books in school, especially at a time when such bans have been increasing across the United States, particularly in Republican-led states.
For Ms. Meehan and others, the power of books and ideas is integral to their vision of a democratic society. “Book bans are just a real threat to developing a deeper understanding and empathy for others in our very pluralistic society – the ways we can see each other’s humanity,” Ms. Meehan says.
According to a recent PEN America report, there has been a spike in efforts to ban books during the 2022-2023 school year, including over 3,300 instances in certain school districts where over 1,550 titles were taken off school shelves.
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“When we examine the scope of the last two years, books that include diverse characters, primarily characters of color and LGBTQ+ characters, were overwhelmingly subject to book bans,” wrote Ms. Meehan as the PEN America report’s lead author. The vast majority of these books, too, are considered young adult titles, she says.
The most-banned books this school year include “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, and “Looking For Alaska” by John Green. Other oft-banned books include “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson.
Many Republicans reject labeling such efforts “bans,” however, arguing that when it comes to public education, questions about the age-appropriateness of certain topics in school libraries are legitimate concerns. That’s especially true, they say, when it comes to matters of human sexuality. Such books remain available for sale. The point, many say, is that it is parents who should control what their children have access to read when it comes to these subjects.
“It is not partisan to assert that children do better when their families know what’s going on in their lives,” testified Nicole Neily, president of the nonprofit Parents Defending Education, during a U.S. Senate hearing about book bans in September.
“Yet now when families ask to simply know what their children have access to – or may wish to put guardrails on material for children of certain ages – they are pilloried in the public square,” Ms. Neily said. “Such public flagellation is intended to not only extract a pound of flesh from the perpetrator but to send a message to any other parent with similar reservations: Speak up, and the mob will come for you too.”
The values underlying conservative efforts to emphasize parental rights and guardrails on access to books are part of religious conservatives’ understanding that they should train their children in the traditional ways of their faith and understanding of a divine order revealed in Scripture. For most, sex, gender, and human sexuality are clearly defined, and a departure from these ways disrupts God’s intended order.
At the same time, too, a Republican “war on woke” has fundamentally challenged the idea that books about racial and sexual identity foster empathy and peaceful pluralism. In fact, many conservatives say, such efforts are themselves both anti-democratic and rooted in a dangerous emphasis on racial and even religious differences.
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In an executive order prohibiting “indoctrination and critical race theory in schools,” Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas this year said a focus on identity was “resurrecting segregationist values” and was “antithetical to the traditional American values of neutrality, equality, and fairness.”
States such as Florida, Texas, and Missouri have been the most active in placing restrictions on books and concepts in schools, in some cases including higher education. But the controversies have also spilled over into funding for local public libraries, as efforts to ban books with topics on race and sexuality extend beyond public education.
“The books being banned are always those of marginalized voices, but it’s so important that those voices are brought in and included as legitimate and true and just as important as the others,” says Dana Reisboard, professor of education and critical literacy at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. “The need for diverse voices and the need for nontraditional family structures to be brought up and brought into discussion is because they exist.
“So it’s erasing not just the people who need to see themselves; it’s also erasing for people who don’t want them included, and who then wouldn’t understand them,” she continues. “Their own sense of self and identity then grows disproportionately, takes on sole significance, because it’s in a vacuum.”
The parental rights nonprofit Moms For Liberty has spearheaded many of the efforts to remove certain books from schools, becoming a major conservative grassroots organization with close ties to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Last year, the state passed its Parental Rights in Education Act, which some critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Over the past year, of all the books banned in U.S. public schools, 40% of these have been in Florida, PEN America found.
The organization has dismissed the books in the PEN America’s report as “pushing porn on school kids.” It has offered a competing “Teach Kids To Read Week,” highlighting some of the dismal reading proficiency numbers among American fourth graders. Moms for Liberty did not return repeated requests for comment from the Monitor.
Accusations of pushing porn have also included conservative accusations that these books are part of a “grooming” effort to sexualize schoolchildren or “recruit” them for LGBTQ+ “lifestyles.”
Such accusations have been leveled against members of the LGBTQ+ community since the beginning of the gay rights movement in the 1970s, says Donna Decker, a professor of English who teaches a class on banned books at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. “It really is frightening, calling or insinuating that someone is a predator. And what that does – the real crux of this is, it is trying to erase people’s humanity. So do not say ‘gay’; do not say ‘trans.’ Pull medical treatment or access to medical opinions. It’s all part of the same distancing, an attempt to turn people into a dangerous ‘other.’”
Professor Decker says she and her students talk about the power of literature and storytelling and the reasons governments have long tried to ban books. And she says that books help form human empathy and they play an important role in both understanding the world and becoming a citizen in such a diverse, democratic society.
“It’s often the case that some people’s stories are considered valuable and other people’s stories are erased,” she says. “But there is an important civic value in doing the opposite, really and truly understanding what our country is, and what it was. You could say the same about understanding yourself, and books help us do that.”