American linguist Noam Chomsky once said, “if we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
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? A certain number of “bad” words is okay but equally 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?
Poor old Noddy by Enid Blyton was removed from libraries at one time because “he felt a little queer”
1984, by George Orwell, was challenged for being “pro-communist.”
Between “1966 to 1975, 41 attempts were made to ban J D Salinger’s, The Catcher in the Rye” – once for being “anti-white”.
And To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee is frequently banned for “racism”.
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 post on the Starts at 60 Book Club of a woman reading Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline 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 comeuppance,” they prospered.
Mary McCarthy’s controversial book, The Group was banned in Australia in 1963 as an “offence 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. So many people picked up the book only to read “the dirty bits,” and 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” while still protecting the vulnerable?