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Special Blog Series on Banned Books: Part VIII – The De Facto Banning of Books

The focus of this sample essay will consist of what could be called the de facto banning of books: this refers to books failing to reach their intended audiences not because of legal regulations, but rather just social and cultural factors that may prevent serious literature from getting a fair say in this day and age. This custom written essay, as well as many other features, are available at Ultius.com.

Banned Books: Part VIII – The De Facto Banning of Books

The de facto banning of books is not censorship in the strictly juridical sense of the word; but it is still highly relevant for an understanding of the problems still faced by literature in an era in which modern nations have by and large given up the practice of legally banning books. This issue will be examined in four parts:

  1. Part one will provide an overview of the current legal situation regarding banned books in the United States.
  2. Part two will then pivot to a sociological analysis of the state of reading itself within the contemporary United States; and the main conclusion that will be reached here is that people quite simply do not read literature in the way that they once did.
  3. Part three will proceed to a reflection on the general state of psychology and culture within the contemporary United States.
  4. Part four will consider how this all is very relevant for the future of literature, within a society that is paradoxical characterized by the widespread availability of any and all books, along with a widespread apathy and skepticism regarding the practice of reading literature itself.

The legality of book banning

To start with, it is worth acknowledging that attempts to ban books are still alive and well within the contemporary United States. As Thu-Huong Ha has somewhat sardonically put the matter, writing in the year 2015:

In an age where kids can access porn from the machines they carry in their pockets, banning books seems like an antiquated means of information control. But that doesn’t keep people from trying. Every year, hundreds of books in schools and libraries are ‘challenged’ around the United States, mostly by parents trying to keep their kids from coming across explicit material or values they disagree with. (paragraphs 1-2)

The age of full government censorship of printed materials is essentially over, except perhaps in cases where publication could potentially lead to immediate violence and death in the real world. However, individual school districts still continue with the practice of banning books, primarily driven by highly vocal parents who pressure their school districts against doing what those parents see as corrupting their children.

A new era of censorship

By and large, however, the practice of literal legal censorship in nothing like what it used to be (at least in developed modern nations); and this probably has a great deal to do with the very nature of the technological era in which we all live. The Internet, for example, by its very nature resists any kind of comprehensive censorship within a free society. And it quite obvious that literally any offensive material one could imagine could be readily found on the Internet, even by children: after all, almost everyone in the developed world knows how to use a smartphone, by now. Within such a context, it makes little sense to try to prevent the objective dissemination of information. With regard to banning books, however, what still remains is the variable of subjective interest: if no one reads a serious work of literature, then for pragmatic purposes, it would be as good as banned.

Reading in contemporary society

At this point, it will be appropriate to turn to a consideration of the state of reading itself within contemporary American society. According to Weissman writing in 2014,

The Pew Research Center reported last week that nearly a quarter of American adults had not read a single book in the past year. As in, they hadn’t cracked a paperback, fired up a Kindle, or even hit play on an audiobook while in the car. The number of non-book-readers has nearly tripled since 1978 (paragraph 1).

Weissman himself has suggested that there is still room for optimism. However, there is clearly no way to deny the fact that real literacy within the United States has dropped dramatically over the course of the last several decades, and that probably much of this is attributable to the rise of new technologies and the kind of cultural mindset that generally tends to accompany those technologies. For example, it can become difficult to read a serious work of literature when one’s primary exposure to the written word has begun to come from social networks and Twitter feeds.

Shift in reading habits makes book banning obsolete

The change in reading habits is even more dramatic if one expands the timeframe of analysis. Back when the United States was first becoming a society, the written word was clearly crucial not only for personal enjoyment but also for public and political discourse. The Federalist Papers, written by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, provide an excellent case in point: back in that era, early American political thought and complex arguments were actually presented in whole in the widely read public newspaper. It is enough to make one said when one compares such a culture to the television-driven mass media culture of the contemporary age, in which sensationalism and sound-bites are worth more than anything else, and substantive content is generally dismissed out of hand on the simple grounds that such stuff is boring and will fail to produce adequate ratings.

Psychological and cultural reflection

At this point, it is worth turning attention to two different kinds of dystopias that were envisioned by two different writers in the twentieth century. The first was presented by George Orwell in his novel 1984; and the second was presented by Aldous Huxley in his own novel, Brave New World. In a work entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman has juxtaposed the visions of these two works of literature in a very clear way:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban books, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. . . . George Orwell feared that we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared that we would become a trivial culture. (vii)

The main point here would be that in a society and culture like that of the United States, it may not even be necessary to oppress people in the old-fashioned tyrannical sense, since people would already be more or less self-oppressed due to the enslavement of their minds by ignorance and the basest of desires.

Self oppression replaces the need for banning books

This analysis is highly relevant for the present discussion of banned books, and especially what could be called the practice of the de facto banning of books. Essentially, the practice of banning books at the legal level is premised on the two assumptions:

  1. Books can be very powerful and potentially dangerous objects
  2. In the event that a book was not banned, it would be able to reach an intended audience and thereby begin changing the world

It is the desire to control the population by depriving them of this kind of wisdom and knowledge that constitutes the backbone of the Orwellian dystopian vision. What would happen, however, if these assumptions quite simply did not hold? That is:

What if there were no one interested in serious literature anyway, and the question of whether a book is legally banned or not thus becomes a matter of utter pragmatic irrelevance?

This self-oppression of a people, carried out through the almost willful narrowing of their own minds and deterioration of their own characters, is the gist of the Huxleyan dystopian vision. It can now be suggested that in within the late modern United States were the practice of the juridical banning of books has fallen by the wayside by the de facto banning of books is stronger than ever before, the Orwellian vision has essentially given way to the Huxleyan vision, with people no longer needing to be oppressed by the law because they are already self-oppressed within their own minds. Of course, this may seem like an excessively harsh moral judgment.

Modern book banning: The nihilist approach gives way to apathy

Focus has shifted from the morality of banning books to the actual need. The point could be made that such a perception itself would be a symptom of the malady being described here. The ideas that fundamentally go against the grain of the moral relativism and de facto nihilism that characterizes much of culture within developed nations in the late modern world, and especially within the United States today are:

  1. There is such a thing as serious literature, and that
  2. Free people have something of a moral imperative to engage with it
  3. To not do so is to engage in the de facto banning of books

The modern overwhelming opinion seems to be:

No one cares anyway and if they did, would it matter?

Among other things, then, ending the de facto banning of books would necessitate nothing less than a widespread cultural revival, through which pure relativism is transcended and a new set of meta-ethical moral standards are reinstated within society as a whole. At one level, it can be pointed out that the de facto banning of books is just a function of the free will or “freedom” of people to read or not read whatever they want. At another level, however, it can be suggested that people who do not know what they want—and people who lack the resources to develop awareness through a serious engagement with literature and culture—or not truly free at all, in any meaningful sense of the word.

Book banning in the future: Are we growing smarter or dumber?

It must be admitted that either of these options are possible, and that either one or the other of the options may be more applicable depending on the specific person or situation in question. As Chris Hedges has made very clear, however:

there is a general crisis in both literacy and ethics that is currently affecting the United States and even threatening to undermine its basic status as a truly free nation: some aspects of this crisis include the preponderance of television (and now social media with its addiction becoming a growing concern), the love of fantasy over reality, and a general decline in real and meaningful literacy (Hedges).

Within this context, the closing suggestion can be made that at least within the United States, the decline of the practice of banning books does not necessarily bode well for the future of literature. It could simply mean that literature is no longer seen as a vital force that can truly change the fabric of the dominant society and culture as a whole.

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Conclusion

The practice of banning books has had a long history, and that people have generally called for bans on books as a means of protecting the structures of society and/or the structures of their own psychologies. Since the beginning, though, the practice of banning books has always been based on the fundamental belief that books can be very dangerous things and that there would thus be strong reason to ban controversial ones. In contemporary times, the practice of banning books has largely become obsolete. Optimistically understood, this could be taken to mean that people have grown more open-minded over time. A darker possibility, though, is that people have just grown increasingly mindless, and that the main reason for not banning books these days would be that no one would want to read a serious work of literature anyway.

Works Cited

Ha, Thu-Huong. “These Are the Top 10 Books Americans Tried to Ban Last Year.” Quart. 27 Sep. 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2016. .

Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. New York: Nation Books, 2010. Print.

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist Papers. New York: Signet, 2003. Print.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper, 2006. Print.

Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet Classic, 1961. Print.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Weissman, Jordan. “The Decline of the American Book Lover.” The Atlantic. 21 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2016. .

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