A reflection on the ways in which relativism may be responsible for the decline of the practice of banning books and the ways in which nihilism may be responsible for the same.
Reasons for book banning
Sarah Begley has delineated several of the top reasons why books get banned, or why people call for a ban on a given book. These include:
- Sexually explicit content
- Offensive language
- Being deemed unsuitable for certain age groups
- Religious viewpoint
All of these various reasons, though, can clearly be summed up under the single umbrella reason of immorality. Essentially, people ban books because they believe that the content within the books is morally objectionable, to the point that it would be dangerous if the books in question were to gain a wide readership. It will thus now be appropriate to consider the relationship between immorality and society from different sociological perspectives.
Analysis 1: Functionalism
The sociological perspective of functionalism is often associated with the theorist Emile Durkheim. According to Pope, a functionalist is someone who:
- Views society as composed of interrelated parts (i.e. as a system)
- Assumes a tendency toward system equilibrium
- Considers how society or the social order is possible and, hence,
- Views structures in terms of their contributions to the perpetuation or evolutionary development of society (361)
In other words, the functionalist sees every part of society as fitting together into a more or less coherent whole, with every aspect of society serving some function with respect to the perpetuation of that whole. When it comes to banning books, then, the functionalist would suggest that the practice of banning books contributes in some essential way to the cohesion and coherence of the society within which the practice takes place. Indeed, from the functionalist perspective, it would otherwise be impossible for the practice to even exist.
Functionalism in Puritan book banning
This perspective makes a great deal of sense in cases where it is evident that people call for a ban on a book because they find the book to be threatening to their entire way of life. For example, when the early Puritans in America banned a book by Thomas Morton called New English Canaan, it would seem that they were acting almost on an instinct of self-preservation. As Miller has indicated, Morton’s perspective and worldview was antithetical to virtually all of the central beliefs, values, and tenets that held all of Puritan society together, including but not limited to policies regarding the treatment of Native Americans and indentured servants.
The suggestion could thus be made that from the perspective of Puritan society, Morton’s perspective was highly dysfunctional; and the Puritans, in order to preserve the coherence of their society, decided to ban Morton’s book. This would be a good functionalist explanation of why people are sometimes passionately moved to ban a given book.
Limitations of functionalism
The functionalist sociological perspective is quite useful, as far as it goes. One of its key limitations, though, consists of its fundamental assumption that the coherence of the dominant order of society is good in and of itself, and that the preservation of that society in its current form is a value in and of itself. For example, from the functionalist perspective, it would be impossible to ask the question of whether the Puritans were morally responsible in banning Morton’s book, or the question of whether their own society deserved to be preserved in its static state.
Essentially, functionalism lacks a moral meta-perspective: it can only comprehend systems in terms of their internal dynamics, and not in terms of external challenges to the system itself. The result is that functionalism usually ends up producing rather politically conservative conclusions. Functionalism, for example, could probably be invoked to actually justify the practice of banning books in the large majority of cases in which most people feel threatened by a given work of literature.
Analysis 2: Conflict theory
A very different sociological perspective can be found in the conflict theory developed by Karl Marx. According to Marx (and formulated most directly and famously in The Communist Manifesto), all of society is animated by a huge set of antagonisms between the various classes competing for dominance within society. The fundamental assumption here is that society never works out well for everyone but is rather set up in such a way that it serves the interests of the dominant class.
Moreover, the dominant class tends to produce an ideology that more or less keeps everyone within society (including the dominant class) in a state of hypnosis, causing them to believe in the delusion that society is in fact an organic functional whole that works in the interests of everyone involved. In this context, the call to ban a book would be the dominant class’s way of protecting its own interests and ideology, at the expense of truth, liberty, and freedom for humankind as a whole.
Ban on Marx’s work as evidence of its ideas
The Communist Manifesto itself could be considered an immoral book from the perspective of the powers that be within society, insofar as it calls for the radical dysfunction of wholesale revolution. It would be difficult to imagine anything more at odds with the preservation of the coherence of society than that. So, in order to preserve its own interests, a dominant capitalist class within society might call for a ban on Marx’s book. T
his would preserve the coherence of society as established by the dominant class. From the perspective of conflict theory, however, that coherence is not necessarily a moral good in and of itself, insofar as it is premised on ideological delusion and the alienation and oppression of a very large number of people. This is particularly evident in the use of conflict theory to assess social problems such as homelessness. Conflict theory would suggest that banning a book for the sake of preserving a society cannot be morally justified, insofar as that society does not deserve to be preserved and is even destined to one day be replaced by a more enlightened order of things.
Reflections on relativism
In most advanced nations within the contemporary world, the practice of banning books has gone into strong decline. This is related to meta-moral developments within these societies, one of the most important of which is perhaps moral relativism. As Gowans has stated, moral relativism is characterized by:
“an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to the moral standard of some person or group of persons” (paragraph 1).
In essence, the prevalence of moral relativism would make it difficult to ban a book on the grounds of immorality. Descartes in his consideration of morality realized that under moral relativism it is acknowledged that there is no absolute category called the immoral—that the immoral is really just a reflection of a more or less subjective viewpoint and not of some objective reality of the world.
Homosexuality justifies what it once alienated in book banning
For example, there has been a widespread prejudice against homosexuality within Western culture for a long time. Homosexuality and more recently, transgenderism are two of the main reasons why people have called for bans on certain books (Bieber; Begley). Within advanced nations in the modern world, however, this prejudice is quickly eroding, at the very least at the legal if not cultural level. This could potentially be attributed to the rise of moral relativism within the modern, globalized world.
From the perspective of homosexuals themselves, homosexuality clearly would not be immoral at all and moral relativism suggests that what is moral must be defined in terms of the standards of a given person or group of people. In terms of banning books, this would suggest that it would no longer be permissible to ban a book simply because it contains homosexuality, insofar as there does not exist any absolute, objective basis according to which homosexuality can be condemned as definitively immoral. The most that can be said is that if one is offended by such a thing, then one should simply not read the book in question.
Another, potentially darker reason for the decline of the practice of banning books may consist of the onset of nihilism. Whatever the evils of banning books may be, it nevertheless implies the presence of a rigorous moral code, or of a people who have a strong sense of who they are. Nihilism implies the absence of any such thing. As Pratt has written:
“Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. . . . A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose” (paragraph 1).
Nihilism, in short, consists of the complete abolition of all human values, and the complete rejection of any ground whatsoever from which one can even begin to consider meaningful distinctions between good and evil, or the moral and immoral. The concept is showcased in Albert Camus’ The Stranger, and the novella is still prized as the paramount example of nihilist literature. Again, when people call for a ban on books, this is almost always done in the name of immorality. Within a context of nihilism, though, there would be neither a point in nor a desire for condemning anything on the grounds of immorality, given that all standards of good and evil would have completely vanished into air.
Some people would suggest that moral relativism ultimately must culminate in nihilism. As such, they tend to become fundamentalist who return to a dogmatic and archaic system of moral absolutes. One can see this kind of dynamic happening in the modern world and especially in the United States. The practice of banning books has been deemed a bad idea and definitely gone into decline here.
However, it is unclear whether this is because of the advent of true open-mindedness, or whether it is rather because people have just become de facto nihilists who care about nothing. The people who still call for bans on books tend to be religious fundamentalists; but they are no longer taken very seriously by society as a whole, insofar the entire zeitgeist of contemporary times has come to be characterized by a moral relativism that is verging on the edge of nihilism.
Begley, Sarah. “Here Are the Top 10 Reasons Books Get Banned.” Time. 2 Oct. 2015. Web. 4 Apr. 2016. .
Bieber, Irving. “A Discussion of ‘Homosexuality: The Ethical Challenge’.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 44. 2 (1976): 163-166. Print.
Gowans, Chris. “Moral Relativism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2015. Web. 7 Apr. 2016. .
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York: International Publishers Co, 2014. Print.
Miller, Jim. “America’s First Banned Book and the Battle for the Soul of the Country.” San Diego Free Press. 22 Sep. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2016. .
Pope, Whitney. “Durkheim as a Functionalist.” Sociological Quarterly 16.3 (1975): 361-379. Print.
Pratt, Alan. “Nihilism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2016. Web. 7 Apr. 2016. .