This week, September 30 - October 6, 2012, is Banned Books Week, so what better time to take a look at books that have been banned over the years in various countries? I'll select a few examples, and discuss a bit about why they were banned. Should be not only fun, but hopefully insightful.
Several classic science fiction novels have been banned in various countries, including some of the most iconic examples of the genre: Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, both by George Orwell; Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley; and Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Those are some pretty heavy hitters, and books that are now on many educational reading lists. But why were they banned?
Brave New World was supposedly banned in Ireland for "references of sexual promiscuity," and in fact many books in many different countries were banned for similar reasons, including Frankenstein. Obscenity seems to be a common theme for those pushing to ban certain books, and one does not have to look very far to find examples of books banned for obscenity as recently as this year.
I get the obscenity angle, the push to keep society (and children, of course) as Puritan as possible. Many countries, the United Kingdom and America especially, have been quite prudish regarding this sort of thing. But while it's understandable to shield those not mature enough to handle certain situations from them, it's another altogether to push an agenda of morality on a country's citizenry. Banning something on moral grounds indicates not only mistrust in people to make rational decisions based on the content for themselves, but also behavior that stifles the ability to learn rational decision-making. After all, if one is shielded from anything deemed inappropriate, how can they learn the process of identifying it as such for themselves? "Because I said so" works well with toddlers. They have limited experience with making sound decisions. But once a person matures to the point where they are supposed to make decisions on their own, that is no longer a viable reason.
George Orwell's works have been banned for much more obvious reasons: they are outright political satire, and were banned because of their criticism of communism and corruption in government. Stalin knew Nineteen Eighty-Four was a clear jab at him and his leadership, and enacted a ban on the book throughout the U.S.S.R that continued through 1990, when it was edited and re-released.
These are clear cases of the suppression of free speech, and key indicators of those governments' stances toward that basic human right. Interestingly, communist-led countries were not the only ones to ban Orwell's books. Allied forces banned Animal Farm during parts of World War II because of its critical look at the U.S.S.R., and was deemed too "controversial" to print during wartime.
Many other books have been banned for any number of reasons, with "subversive material," "hate literature," "insulting material," and "unflattering portrayal" of individuals, religions, governments, or populations cited as reasons. Books as old as the Bible and as innocuous as dictionaries have been banned. Generally, it appears that if a book contains anything someone somewhere would find objectionable, it's going to get banned.
And that's a shame. A book may not be tasteful or politically correct. It may be lewd, inappropriate, or offensive. It may even be downright vile or provocative. And none of that matters. It's still just a book. Words. Nothing in any book should exempt the actions of a human being, capable of making conscious choice to commit those actions.
We've seen this tested recently, with the terror attacks in Benghazi, supposedly linked to outrage over an amateur movie. We've seen calls to limit offensive or provocative speech. Will common sense prevail, or as Fahrenheit 451 alluded to, will they one day come for our books in an effort to suppress dissent, quell unrest, or create the illusion of peace and prosperity?