5 Reasons Censorship Isn’t Black and White

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Next week is Banned Books Week, when we stand up for the right to read whatever we darn well please! It’s when organizations like the National Coalition Against Censorship lead us in “promoting freedom of thought, inquiry and expression and opposing censorship in all its forms.”

In all its forms? Is censorship always that black and white?

I don’t think so. Here’s why.

1. There’s a difference between school censorship and country-wide censorship.

Country-wide censorship, in which a government controls what its adult citizens read, is tyranny. It is always wrong. If you’re 18 or older, you should be allowed to read whatever you want.

But censorship for children, as in banning books from a school curriculum, is different. Children of certain ages shouldn’t be exposed to certain content; most of us would balk at the idea of a ten-year-old reading Fifty Shades of Gray. It’s the parents’ prerogative to decide which content is appropriate for their children, at which ages.

2. There’s a difference between censoring ideas and censoring inappropriate content.

As we all learned in the movie Inception, there’s nothing more powerful than an idea. And literature (or media as a whole) is the channel through which ideas are transported. Control which ideas your people hear and you control your people.

That’s why country-wide censorship is wrong: without freedom of thought, there is no freedom, period.

The idea is the thing that must not be censored. And there are many ways to express an idea – ways to do it without being crass. For instance:

“The government is f—-d up” vs. “The government is useless/messed up/wrong.”

They express the same idea – an idea that threatens authority. The expletive might be more fun to say, but it’s unnecessary.

Now, per #1 above and #4 below, no government has the right to outlaw crass content. But if an author is angry his book was banned from a school curriculum for including a few F-bombs, my advice to him would be to stop using F-bombs.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that:

3. It’s difficult to determine how inappropriate something is.

The F-word has made its way into PG-13 movies, yet The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been banned for the N-word. Why is the N-word so much worse? It’s a racial slur, an insult to a particular group of people. But then why isn’t the B-word just as bad, when it insults an entire gender?

4. Sometimes it might be necessary to use inappropriate content to express an important idea.

I suppose the idea is to ban the N-word from our language altogether so that children won’t learn to use it. On the other hand, isn’t it an important part of human history that should never be forgotten, lest it be repeated?

5. It’s difficult to determine what is actually inappropriate and what simply conflicts with the beliefs of one group of people.

The Atheist parent might not want their child saying “under God” in the American pledge of allegiance at school.

The Christian parent may not want their child reading Heather Has Two Mommies.

Yet the Atheist parent would likely fight to keep Heather Has Two Mommies, and the Christian would likely fight to keep “under God.”

So where does censorship draw the line?

Does it ban anything that might offend? The kids won’t get to read anything at all. Does it allow everything? That infringes on the rights of parents who can’t afford to send their kids to a different school if they disagree with the curriculum.

There has to be some middle ground.

In the video below, John Green describes a decent solution – parents sign permission slips for their kids to be taught books that might contain objectionable content. But he also mentions some parents who weren’t satisfied with the solution:

(Here’s the link in case the embed doesn’t work.)

Censorship of the content your child consumes is your right. But censoring the content other parents’ children consume, against those parents’ wishes, is wading into tyrannous waters. If we allow that to happen in our schools, it will soon make its way into our homes.

So is censorship simple? No. Is it always wrong? No. But is a dangerous form of censorship still a threat to the free world?


About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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  1. Nice powder-keg. Need a match? 😉
    Some people might not think so, but to me this is one of the most complicated issues to puzzle through. In my opinion, it all comes down to the vastly different ideas that parents have of what is and is not appropriate (or even necessary) for their tots. I’d like to read The Ship’s Cat to my new nephew, murder, mayhem and all, but some parents might be horrified by the rollicking pirate tale.

    The solution ought not to be banning books. I can only see that leading in one direction: school libraries devoid of Grimm’s Fairytales, To Kill a Mockingbird, and anything else nervous parents might sneeze at. That makes for homogenous and shallow pools of literature. Libraries should exist to give people as wide a range of ideas and viewpoints as possible (your 2nd point is interesting, but is difficult to follow in practice).

    The idea of permission slips is a good one, I think, but nothing in the world compares to parents who pay attention to what their kids read and take time to discuss with them. What makes me sad are the kids who don’t have that kind of relationship, and are left in the literary jungle on their own without a light or a machete… Or worse, who never make it out of the non-literary desert or the crappy-literature scrub-land. …am I taking this metaphor to phar? 😉

    • Ah, you touch on an important point: there’s also a difference between banning books from a curriculum, which is specifically taught to kids, and banning them from libraries, where kids might happen to come across them. I failed to make that distinction. But should there also be a distinction between school libraries and public libraries?

      But you’re right. There’s too much grey area between what’s really inappropriate and what’s somebody’s opinion. Or even between what’s merely questionable and what will actually cause damage in your child. A lot could depend on the individual child’s comprehension.

      I can’t remember who I was talking to the other day who explained that as a child, she was far above the reading level of her peers, and would read more grown-up books just because she could. She (and her parents) eventually discovered that she wasn’t old enough for the content. Being able to comprehend what you are reading doesn’t necessarily mean you are ready to read it.

      I took a class in high school that was all about worldviews, and how to determine the worldview of an author/filmmaker by what they write. We didn’t read or watch anything inappropriate, but it helped me learn the critical thinking skills necessary to pick out the ideas expressed in a piece of fiction and to weigh them for truth. Every kid should learn that.

      The last point you make is even more important. One of my clients is heavily involved in the improvement of public education, and hands down the most important factor is parental involvement. More parental involvement would solve most, if not all, the problems there are with our school systems.

    • Ha! I just saw this fitting Stephen Moffat quote.

  2. Ah, yes. Curriculum is an even more difficult matter! My mother dealt with it by giving parents some options, plus her reasons for assigning certain books. That isn’t something that would work to well in Public arenas, though.
    What age-group of school? I would argue that a Highschool library and a Public library ought to be about the same. We’re getting ready to release these kids into the world one way or another, they ought to be prepared to deal with all kinds of ideas. For younger children, it’s harder to say, but I would still lean towards letting things parents might not like in rather than blocking anything potentially objectionable.

    Unfortunately, while I think there is some level of common sense (perhaps not as common as it should be) when it comes to what is and isn’t appropriate for young children, each kid is different. I was traumatized by American Tale, but not by reading most of Grimm’s Fairytales (the bird, the mouse and the sausage was a bit traumatic, though…).

    Oh yeah. And shielding kids from ideas and worldviews only sets them up to be knocked down by the flood of worldviews and biases in the world. I hated reading Lord of the Flies, but I can’t say it didn’t teach me critical reading skills. Bleh.

    Parents, parents, parents, and mentors! Oh Moffat… forget kids, you scared the @#[email protected]%$ out of me.

    Have you seen this? I was rolling. http://baileyjacksonworkingtitle.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/the-creative-writing-process-in-gif-form/

    • Ah, yes. I think I agree on the high school vs. younger distinction. And yeah again, every kid is gonna be different. American Tale as in the mouse? I’ve never seen it. I find I’m disturbed by certain things and not others, and I’m not always sure why. The Reavers in Firefly really freaked me out. And in The Village, that one scene when (not to ruin it for you if you haven’t seen it) somebody stabs someone else – particularly the second time – it just really freaked me out. And that wasn’t supposed to be the scary part of the movie, really.

      Of topic, but speaking of Grimm, ever read The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale? It’s a really cool retelling right in line with the Grimm version.

      I fortunately didn’t have to read Lord of the Flies, but I read the Spark Notes (ONLY time I’ve ever done that) and saw part of the movie once and concluded it would be one of those things that really freaked me out.

      When my cousins wanted to read a book or see a movie my aunt didn’t really approve of, she’d let them, but make them write a report about it after. ‘Course, they were homeschoolers, too, so that was kind of normal.

      Oh, gosh that link is fantastic. I think I’m stuck in a loop between steps 5 and 16.

      The “I ate breakfast cheerily” bit comes from “Alex Reads Twilight,” a YouTube series wherein this English kid reads the book and makes fun of it. Strong language, but hilarious (right after that line – which is actually in the book – he demonstrates what “eating breakfast cheerily” might look like). Oy.

  3. Yep, mouse. You should go watch the following Don Bluth films immediately if you haven’t seen them (or maybe even if you have): An American Tale, All Dogs Go to Heaven and,Secret of NIHM. Bluth is hit and miss, but when he hits, wow. Some of the most beautiful animation I have seen to this day, and fantastic and interesting storytelling. 😀

    My freak-o-meter is unreliable, too. Sean of the Dead traumatized me, but I was ok with one of the Resident Evil films (a friend dragged me to it. I don’t recall which one). I have seen The Village, and yeah, that scene is really effective in freaking me out.

    Nope? I will keep an eye out for it, though.

    Lord of the Flies… I think I was sick whenever I thought of it for several years after I read it. There is one scene, in particular, when a truly sympathetic character is murdered, that left a permanent scar on my imagination. It is one of those books that I am glad exists, and I am glad I read it, but I hate it.
    Isn’t it, though! I love the frantic typing ones, and the cat…

    • Ah! I have seen All Dogs and Secret of Nihm, though both were years ago. They deserve a rewatch.

      Haven’t seen Sean of the Dead. Saw part of a Resident Evil (also not sure which one) with people’s faces getting sliced off by lasers. Didn’t freak me out – just reminded me of that scene in Equilibrium when somebody slices somebody’s face off with a sword. It just looks really stupid and fake. < Probably why it isn't scary.I'm glad I'm not alone about the stabbing in The Village. *shudder*

      • I realized after the fact that I misspelled “Shaun of the Dead.” Oops!

        There are some unnerving moments in The Village, but that scene and one other scene I can’t mention because it is spoilerific, are the only two where I get that bottom-of-the-gut horrified feeling.

        • I wasn’t aware of the spelling of the title, I guess. What about “Sean of the Dead”? The Irish version? ; )

          • It just wouldn’t be the same movie with Sean Bean. “One does not simply walk into a hoard of zombies…”

            Though, to be honest, in spite of my phobia, I now kinda want to see THAT movie. O_o

          • It would actually work surprisingly well. Hordes of disgusting creatures after them…Uruks wanting to eat Merry and Pippin…right down to the King Under the Mountain and the army that can’t be killed.

          • I mean to say King of the Mountains – Dwimorberg.

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  6. Wait…tu es ein nerdfighter?

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