Last week I had my first personal experience with being censored. The online publication Ereader News Today refused to accept paid advertising for my novel Angel. The rejection simply said it was not the “kind of thing” they would present. According to its guidelines the site does not accept advertising of anything with sexual content. In fact, it lists sex a full six times in its guide. They clearly don’t like it.
Yet the site features numerous romance novels with scantily clad hetero couples embracing. Straight couples clinging to each other while half dressed is not “sex” but “romance.” Meanwhile my novel, in which love is described more often in terms of souls than bodies, is constantly being listed under the inappropriate genre label “erotica.” This categorization and conclusions as to the book’s shock value are always made without the benefit of having been read.
Reviewers often refer to Angel as “a controversial book,” even though it is so far failed to generate any actual controversy (unless you count a fairly unknown site banning it). There is just a sense about the book that there are people out there who are going to get angry about it.
This, and a number of recent news stories have got me thinking quite a bit about the nature of censorship and what drives it. There is a strange quality to censorship. It is often conducted by someone who claims not to be personally offended, but who wants to protect the sensibility of others who might be. As a case in point, the Advocate recently published an article that pointed out that most vocal opponents of same sex marriage do not think their own marriages are threatened. It is other people, weaker than they who may be harmed.
Today I read an article in Vox Magazine concerning the impulse to ban books from school libraries.
Perhaps not surprisingly, psychologists say the impulse to take books out of classrooms is about control. People with a need for control and structure “might be more likely to view new or unusual ideas as problematic,” says Laura King, professor of psychological sciences at MU. At the same time, they might be anxious about exposing kids — their own or others’ — to such ideas.
“If you are anxious or concerned, if you feel your worldview is threatened, I think you’re more likely to have this desire to close off,” Laura says. She says these people might be prone to stick with the conventional answers and not ask questions.
The issue often speaks to some deep human fears. “Sheltering people from information is certainly an expression of power,” she says, adding the impulse can be even stronger in times of social turmoil.
The impulse behind book banning seems to be to be sure that one’s social values are enforced to all members of the community. This makes it more likely that members of the community will reach the same conclusions on controversial issues (for example what forms of relationship and sexual expression are valid and appropriate). Yet how valid is that consensus if it is only reached because of a lack of good information?
Censorship often goes hand in hand with the notion of protecting children. We can all agree that certain material is not appropriate for all ages. When it comes to older teenagers, however, an odd situation creeps in. Educators are charged with enforcing community standards of social values. The teachers know that their students have smart phones with internet access and that they are exposed to four letter words, violent games, viral videos with sexual content and pretty much all that society has on offer. Yet they must officially behave as though they are shocked and offended by a single utterance of the word hell and to punish it well out of proportion to the offense it could possibly have caused. Meanwhile the students are charged with pretending that they do not know that the adults in question have heard worse things and say worse things themselves on a regular basis.
There is something very odd about all of this protecting. Very odd.