By Hannah Burfield
Imagine your favourite book. It could be from any of the wide variety of genres, be that science fiction, romance, or historical fiction. Now, imagine how you would feel if that book had been banned in your school, in your library, or even in your country.
The sentiments I would experience would be, unsurprisingly, confusion, outrage and distress. For me, books are one of the best ways to combine my love of both literature and languages. They’re a form of escapism – an outlet from reality, enabling you to immerse yourself into a fabricated universe, if only for just five minutes daily.
Evidently, books are immensely important and have the potential to change the world in which we live in, such as Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, to give just one example.
The power of literature to educate the masses is something that has been well understood by governments since the 19th century. William Gladstone demonstrated this by repealing the tax on paper – commonly known as the ‘tax on knowledge’ – in 1861. This provided working class families with the material needed to remain up-to-date with politics for the first time. This legislation when combined with the increasing literacy levels produced an educated electorate which the political parties were no longer able to ignore.
Yet, if books have proven themselves to be indispensable throughout history, why do people strive to ban certain works? Why do extreme political regimes target literature when attempting to consolidate their power?
In fact, it is because of their potential to influence the masses that they are deemed dangerous; most obviously by extreme political regimes who endeavour to consolidate their control over a population. Knowledge is unpredictable, and this unpredictability poses a serious threat to tyrants as it risks undermining their endeavours to eliminate subversion.
Additionally, literature seeks to forge connections between human beings, and a clear example of this is through Anne Frank’s Diary, a powerful depiction of a young girl who was subjected to a supreme act of injustice. Reading this formidable piece of literature not only moves us deeply, but it also makes us more aware of past atrocities that we can become insensitive to as a result of the progression of time. Most readers of Anne Frank’s Diary would attest to the fact that they were unable to resist the overpowering sympathy and distress we experience, and it is this emotional response to others’ sufferings that is dangerous to totalitarian regimes.
Despite this, certain individuals believe it is the public’s best interest to restrict our literary material.
To promote their cause, officials cite a variety of reasons, particularly the potentially damaging effects on children who are exposed to unsuitable content at an inappropriate age. A clear example of this can be seen through the controversial ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ which sparked particular outrage in the state of Virginia, with parents flocking to complain about the central focus on sexual violence and rape to the schools which included this text as part of their syllabus. They adamantly argued that such sensitive and undeniably distressing topics should be reserved for a more mature audience. This argument continues to dominate in this part of America, despite the fact that this text has been widely adopted in schools across the world.
Whilst I sympathise with the parents’ trepidation to allow their children to be exposed to the brutality of certain aspects of life, I believe education can lead to prevention. This debate leads me to question whether parents and teachers have a responsibility to protect children from offensive and potentially traumatising books. By allowing children to ask questions and learn about very serious dangers that persist in our society, it could help make them more aware of their surroundings.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, published in 1885, is a well-known book that was banned in schools as a result of its racist language and characters. Twain’s casual racism unsurprisingly shocked individuals, leading to concerns that it could provide the perfect breeding ground for systemic racism to thrive, encouraging children to adopt similar racist attitudes.
For me, this argument holds serious value, but not enough to convince me of the necessity to ban books. Instead, it is a more desirable solution that books containing, to say the least, questionable and offensive content, should continue to be circulated but alongside additional warnings. Inevitably, this would lead to enhanced education and awareness of important issues.
A prime example of this is Adolph Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’. If you read Mein Kampf – an important historical piece of literature which can provide insight into one of the darkest periods of history – it’s difficult to understand. There is no plot; it’s simply the ramblings of a man desperately searching for a scapegoat for persistent problems in German society.
Yet, if you tell people it’s dangerous and refuse to allow them to read it, it unintentionally adds a powerful and seductive allure to it. With this reality in mind, books with controversial content or context should only be published with annotations, reducing the risk of the adoption of antisocial attitudes.
Banning books constitutes a fundamental repression of ideas, and this is something that is universally acknowledged as undemocratic, but particularly among the youth.
Freedom of speech means believing in demonstrating why you are opposed to someone’s argument, and therefore you are unable to prohibit your opponent from voicing their own beliefs. Young people are much more aware of the value of freedom of speech as a result of our continual exposure to social media. As a result of this subjection to unfiltered content, children strive for opportunities to be heard.
It’s impossible to ascertain what the future holds for our access to literature, yet I remain committed to the belief that everyone should have the right to choose which books they consume. Whilst parental figures may endeavour to shield their children from harmful content, it is important that this decision continues to be taken at the discretion of the individual, without interference from external authorities with the power to dictate decisions that impact the masses.