I was going to post about/celebrate Banned Books Week yesterday, but I needed another day to think this through. Certainly, I’m sure we all can agree that censorship, in all its forms, is retrograde, oppressive, contrary to democratic ideals, and rightly associated with totalitarianism and all sorts of other bad “isms.” Free exchange of ideas serves the greater good. Censorship = horrible. And we should fight it when it happens.
At the same time, I want to kind of acknowledge that the fight against censorship and banned books is changing somewhat in the Internet era, no? And ultimately, I think, for the better.
Three cheers for the fact that it’s less viable for someone to try and ban a book than it ever has been. Up until the Internet era, if someone successfully banned a book in a library or in bookstores in a region, that was it. Good luck finding that book! You’d have to drive to another region to find it, if you heard about it at all.
With the Internet though, good luck stopping someone from finding that book. Chances are they can buy it very easily online.
Now, obviously there is uneven access to money and computers and the Internet and this does not mean everything is peachy and that we should stop being vigilant. The youth of America will always be the most vulnerable to censorship as libraries are more central to their reading lives, so there are still choke points that can stop a worthy book from reaching a child who needs it.
And I also wonder if there’s a new danger created by the Internet, which is that any yahoo with a crazy agenda can easily hijack our attention by doing offensive stunts. This has obviously always been a part of life, but it seems like it’s now easier and more common than ever. You see this everywhere on the Internet and the media: someone wants to get some attention so they say the most horrible things they can think of, then they sit back and watch the show, feasting on their newfound attention. On every scale, from the smallest website to the national media, the Internet is greasing the crazyperson skids.
Lately I’ve been wondering if these people deserve our scorn or if they deserve our restraint. Is there a way to fight these people without playing right into their hands and giving them the attention they’re craving? Is there a risk in elevating a crazyperson’s agenda by treating them so seriously? What’s the balance?
If there’s actual censorship going on then yes, definitely, fight it like there’s no tomorrow, because if censorship takes hold there may as well not be a tomorrow. I don’t think there’s much ambiguity about that.
But what about when people are staging book-related stunts and saying ridiculous things on the Internet? Is the best tactic to treat them seriously and fight back or to deprive them of the attention they’re aiming for?
That’s an honest question, I really don’t know the answer.
On the one hand, truth and decency and free expression are absolutely worth fighting for, and even if it’s a mosquito biting you, you swat it.
On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that as we learn to navigate the Internet era, if there’s a virtual dog pile every time someone says something vile, are we increasing the likelihood of people provoking us in the future? Does it become more appealing for people to try and pull similar stunts for attention? Do we make ourselves a target by being easily provoked?
I’m not leaving off this post with any answers, only questions, because I don’t feel like I know what’s best. The Internet is changing our lives very quickly, and our instinct is to use the tactics we know.
Maybe those tactics are still the best or maybe we’ll need to change with the times.