On Banning Books

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” – George Orwell

This is intended to be a shorter post.

I have a few sacred principles. I try to keep it to a short list these days. Things like “Don’t commit murder.” Or “Don’t vote for Donald Trump.” Important things.

One of the other principles on that list looks something like this:

Don’t ban books just because you find them offensive.

Note that I’m not saying “Don’t ban books, ever.” I think that would be going too far. If a book encourages people to do things that are physically or objectively harmful, there might be a case for banning it. Books like “Murder Is Good, Actually” or “How To Force Feed Your Autistic Child Bleach” are candidates for being banned.

Even that has some exceptions. We need to define objective harm (as opposed to subjective offense). And even once we have defined that, there are books that objectively encourage murder or political violence – but they are key texts for historical political movements, and thus have historical value. Those need to be sold (and read) in order to understand those movements.

But otherwise, I believe in the principle: Don’t ban books just because you find them offensive.

I have plenty of books I find offensive. Books that go against my values. Books that I don’t want anyone to agree with.

But I don’t want them banned. I would like to have them read, and then have people respond to the book to show what’s wrong with it. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Dissecting a book, showing where it is wrong, finding a better answer or better solution – these are exercises in ethics.

Banning a book is an exercise in power.

And often a futile exercise at that. If a book is banned (or people do something else to prevent me from reading it), that makes me want to read the book. Even if I didn’t plan on it before, now I’m going to read it. Because if a book is important enough to ban, it’s important enough to read.

You think a book is bad, and not worth my time to read? Okay, make the case for that so that I can read better books instead. You find a book offensive, and prevent me from reading it? Now I’m going to read the book, to see why you went out of your way to ban it.

If you tell me not to read a book, or force me not to read a book, I’m going to read it. Don’t tell me what I’m allowed to read.

I’m going to make up my own mind about what is offensive, and what is not. I’m going to make decisions about what I read, and what I don’t. You don’t get to make those decisions for me, no matter what your intentions are.

And if one political side, or political party, is banning books, I’m going to join the other side. Not because I agree with them on everything (or anything at all), but because I’m going to be on the side that doesn’t ban books, no matter what side that is.

And then if that side that I just joined starts banning books? I’m going to switch back to the other side! Because I’m going to be on the side that doesn’t ban books, no matter what side that is.

If you ban a book, you aren’t protecting me. You’re trying to tell me what to think. You might find that book offensive, but I might not. Maybe I’ll agree that it’s offensive, but it will be because I think it’s offensive, not because you think it’s offensive.

Read banned books. Read challenged books. Read controversial books. Read books that people don’t want you to read. If someone wants to stop you from reading a book, that means you need to go out or your way to read it. Don’t let other people do your thinking for you. Make up your own mind. Decide on your own values. Think for yourself about whether a book is offensive or not.

But most importantly of all:

Don’t ban books just because you find them offensive.