“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” Noam Chomsky
I read this quote last week and it set me thinking about banned books and why they came to be banned.
The most obvious reason is, of course, Obscenity – but how do we define Obscenity?
Like me I’m sure you can think of numerous occasions when you described something as obscene, but why? Did you find it offensive? Did it make you feel uncomfortable or sad? Was there too much coarse language? X number of “bad” words is okay, (X + 1) equals Obscene? Perhaps it was a photo of a hunter with their prey? A child dying from starvation?
Is it only words, or do concepts deem a book obscene?
One of the best known banned books is Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D H Lawrence. When the courts tried to prevent its publication it was not just the language that offended, it was the sensuality. The prosecution said in their opening that the book would “induce lustful thoughts in the minds of those who read it,” … “sets upon a pedestal promiscuous and adulterous intercourse” … “sets out to commend, sensuality almost as a virtue. It encourages, and indeed even advocates, coarseness and vulgarity of thought and language.”
Phew – at least it didn’t make you gain weight!
A recent post on the Starts at 60 Book Club of a woman reading Valley of the Dolls, by Jacquelene Sussan reminded me of the fuss this book generated, dealing as it did with sex, addiction and female ambition. Worse still the bad girls didn’t “get their commuppence”, they prospered. (Incidentally, I found a wonderful essay/review of this book by Julie Burchill which you may enjoy click here)
Mary McCarthy’s controversial book, The Group was banned in Australia in 1963 as an “offense to public morals”. When the book was finally available to the public, the numbers of the most controversial pages were common knowledge. My mother was the book buyer for a department store and although a copy was displayed, to purchase it, you had to ask at the counter. Why? So many people picked up the book only to read “the dirty bits”, that’s where the book automatically opened. If you were buying you received a new copy.
I admit to having mixed feelings about censorship and I don’t know where to say “Censor/ Don’t Censor”.
So let’s talk.
What do you think is obscene? Where do you draw the line? Maybe you don’t think a line should be drawn?
Is it possible to honour Noam Chomsky’s “freedom of expression” whilst still protecting the vulnerable?
Looking forward to a great discussion