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Debate: Is banning books ever justified?

Edward McLaren and Annabel Rogers debate whether there is ever a reason to restrict the sale of fictional literature

The Case For Edward McLaren

The case for banning certain works of fiction is often understated. While we like to pretend immoral books that focus on the ‘real world’ are the only ones that can distort the mindsets of their readers, this is not so. All literature deigns for us to indulge in the author’s impression of reality, not reality itself. This goes for fiction more than the core volumes of radical ideologies. To be convinced of a system from a text depends on one’s ability to suspend his disbelief; to attribute the representation of reality to one’s own experience of reality. It is rarely the statistics that are remembered by those who read the volumes I have alluded to, but the rhetoric.

What is so pernicious about fictional works that engage in the same radical dialogues is the expectation that, because they are about a different world, they can have no impact on our own. We are sceptics towards the rhetorical aspects of political works because we take the genre seriously. They profess to be detached judgements of life and lifestyle. In comparison, their literary equivalents, which are just rhetoric, by-pass our sensibilities. We do not notice the unconscious effect which their conceits have on our ideas precisely because we view them as unreal. If a reader in the 1920s who did not consider himself an Anti-Semite read Eliot’s description of a Jewish person, without the rest of T.S. Eliot’s poem to couch it in euphemism and fantasy, he would be appalled. And yet, once placed in a fictional context, these sentiments would probably be justified by that same reader.

Christopher Ricks’ T.S. Eliot and Prejudice is a damning indictment of the poisonous effect which literature can have on our minds, such that some critics continue to justify the needless bigotry in this and other works by the same author. How much of an impact such similar works had on the rise of Oswald Mosley, and others like him throughout Europe in the 1930s, is unquantifiable. But that literature itself may have a lasting and permanent psychological effect on its readers is proven by history, old and new.

Admirers of Goethe will know all too well of the supposed impact of his novel, The Sufferings of Young Werther. Published in 1774, it told the story of a man’s romantic failure eventually leading to his suicide by gunshot. This is rather a reductive description, and yet it anticipates what came after its runaway success. It started the phenomenon of ‘Werther Fever’, which inspired men of the protagonist’s age and likeness to dress in his clothing style, wear his perfume, and, reportedly, imitate his death. According to Patrick Devitt, a writer on suicide contagion, the book was commonly discovered by the bodies of those who chose to take their own lives. While Rüdiger Safranski dismissed the effect ‘as only a persistent rumour’, the ruling of Leipzig authorities to ban the Werther clothing style still shows the extent of the anxiety created by its distribution.

I should not have to explain the parallels between these occurrences and those attributed to a certain Netflix broadcast. I will just posit this: if individuals relying on censors and printing presses in the 18th century were wrought to mania, public and private, by one literary volume, what goes for the 21st century – where all is permitted and nothing is true? Surely we need to control literature once in a while, whether it be to dilute the influence of extremists, or preserve the wellbeing of the vulnerable.

The Case Against Annabel Rogers

Is it ever right to ban a book?

The short answer – no.

The long answer – who are you to decide?

When someone says the phrase ‘banned book’, the first one that probably comes to mind is D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (Don’t pretend you haven’t seen it in a charity shop and flicked through with gleeful curiosity to find the ‘naughty’ parts.) However, it was never actually banned in the UK. It was the subject of an obscenity trial in 1960, which its publisher, Penguin Books, won. They promptly went on to sell over three million copies of it. Its newfound scandalous reputation can’t have injured its sales – ‘any publicity is good publicity’, or so they say. The supposedly salacious parts – which caused the chief prosecutor, ludicrously out of touch, to ask if it was the kind of book “you would wish your wife or servants to read” – are not all that shocking today. Times have changed since then. The nature of obscenity has changed since then – and continues to change. Yet it will no doubt always be a concept within society. The teaching of evolution is, after all, still prohibited in many American schools – a fact that seems laughable to many of us, but a humourless reality to others. Those responsible for banning it perceive their own truth as the right one, and anything that deviates from it as bannable.

But that’s different, you might argue, if you have a modern bannable text in mind. They’re wrong.

Whether they’re wrong or not, how is one case differentiated from another when it comes to book bans? Proponents of the book ban cite different reasons for different texts – offensive language, sexual content, violence, political influence, to name but a few. The basic assumption behind all of these arguments is that art has a direct impact upon life; that immoral behaviour read about in a book will induce immoral behaviour in real life; that a scathing criticism of authoritarianism thinly hidden behind the veil of fiction will stir up revolutionary feeling in its reader – and that is not necessarily untrue. Reading makes us feel things, which is why we enjoy it so much. But they are just feelings. We cannot be compelled to act on them, brainwashed by a piece of literature. That’s not how it works.

The real issue at hand is one of knowledge. Books are vessels for knowledge. So the notion of a book ban implies that there are things that the general public should not be exposed to, that they might find in a book. This argument starts off harmless enough: protecting children from profanity, or preventing imitable behaviours being seen as acceptable. This was the motivation behind banning Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, of course – within it there is no explicit condemnation of its notorious subject matter. It was turned down for publication by no less than five different major publishers. It was only accepted by someone who – unknown to Nabokov – had sympathy with the book’s despicable protagonist, and made no real distinction between him and its author. Its publication history is questionable, make no mistake. The presentation of its subject matter could be seen as tacit approval, simply because there is no explicit condemnation. But to ban it for this reason is to believe that one book has the power to erase its readers’ moral compasses entirely, and to shape them in its image. While many a writer would probably like you to think that, it is very much not the case. The highest power Lolita holds is to encourage those who already endorse it – and this is indeed a problem. Yet this is not a problem that will be solved by a ban. Ban Lolita because it hasn’t condemned the abuse enough – fine. What next? Where do you draw the line between approval and condemnation? Can a book be neutral, or must it always preach a moral message? Will this continue until all we are left with is a literature enforcing the ten commandments, varying only in the synonyms chosen to express them? It’s a slippery slope, littered with the corpses of masterpieces.

Dangerous books require trigger warnings, much as a news report might require an epilepsy warning. This should not be up for debate. However, to shut out avenues of thought and knowledge, which sometimes are the basis for entire branches of culture, by banning them entirely is reductive and short-sighted. The most hateful, damaging document today is just that – a document – and it will provide a window for those looking back in the future.

There is an argument that reading books about immoral things actually nurtures our own morality. We read about something reprehensible and we are one degree removed from it, unlike if we were to experience this thing in real life. ‘Immoral’ books that do not have a moral slant are test-cases, almost. They allow us to have experiences in a vacuum, into which our pre-existing moral ideas come rushing in. We can examine our own biases in the face of moral atrocity and come out wiser, better.

Literature is important, and there is a reason the image of burning books makes our skin crawl. Books are morsels of ideas, fragments of knowledge and history and personality. The ghost of a cultural moment is contained within each one. To ban a book is to kill an idea, and that’s as immoral as any murderous literary content.

The participants in the debate do not necessarily hold the positions for which they argue.

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