restricted access Censoring Sexist and Racist Books: Unjustified and Unjust
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Censoring Sexist and Racist Books:
Unjustified and Unjust

Once there was a democratic society of animals that honored the free play of ideas. Among their commandments was one regarding books: "Thou shalt not censor any books." One day some animals discovered a few books that implied lions were weaker than geese. These animals were so angry about this lie that they began to doubt the power of free discussion to root it out. So one night they stole up to the barn where their society's commandments were written, and they added a codicil to the commandment: "Thou shalt not censor any books except for felinist ones." When all the animals saw the commandments the next day, they thought one was longer than it had been, but they could not remember with certainty, so they banned felinist books from their bookstores and libraries, and several hundred animals were hired for the new task of eliminating such books from the land. A few days later another group of citizens, acting on a similar impulse, added "or equinist ones" to the commandment. Again there was some hesitation about the length of the commandment, but since it was painted clearly for all to see, another legion of bureaucrats was hired to eliminate equinist books from the land. Some prophets objected that there were indeed additions to the original commandment, and that those additions not only undercut seriously the original intent of the commandment, but also implied a loss of faith in the free play of ideas. But the prophets were hooted down with the cry, "Dangerous ideas cannot be tolerated; wrong ideas must be eradicated. Long live safety! Long live the right!" Soon the commandment had grown as long as taxation instructions; specialists had to be trained to interpret it, and strong, fearsome aimals hired to enforce it.

In our society something similar seems to be happening. Some people, who apparently don't trust the free play of ideas, are singling out what they consider particularly wrong or dangerous ideas as inappropriate ingredients in books. The arguments often focus on eliminating sexist and racist books from schools and libraries. It makes no difference that these books reflect accurately the social attitudes and prejudices prevalent at the time they were written, or that some of them have outstanding literary merit. If they are sexist or racist, it is argued, they should be censored, or perhaps rewritten to conform to the censor's standards.

Most of the present censorship controversies do not involve issues of sexism or racism. Nevertheless, black parents in Spring, Texas and Winnetka, Illinois wanted to censor Huckleberry Finn because of Mark Twain's use of racially derogatory language, especially the racial epithet "nigger" used for Jim. In California, some Jewish parents requested that students should be protected from anti-semitic characterizations in The Merchant of Venice. The Multi-Cultural Non-Sexist Advisory Committee of Cedar Rapids (Iowa) has recommended permanent removal of more than one hundred books from the Kenwood Elementary School library. The books were called discriminatory-"racist, sexist or biased against handicapped people." The National Organization for Women complained that The Dog Next Door and Other Stories, a second-grade reader, was sexist. Consequently, the Montgomery County (Maryland) School Board decided not to rebind existing copies or buy any new ones. Perhaps more seriously, threats of censorship have led publishers into varieties of revisionist history. For example, Colen Campbell notes in his report on censorship that textbook publishers "have responded to shifting educational fashions by jerkily revising the facts and tone of American history."

Almost all current writers who report on censorship incidents for the popular news media or for professional journals oppose censorship. But there is a vocal group which does advocate censoring sexist and racist books for young people.

In a recent article entitled "Censorship in the Name of Civil Rights: A View from the Left," Fred L. Pincus states his case for censoring racist and sexist books. Pincus feels that "some of the most influential anti-censorship forces have done a great disservice to those who seek race and sex equality in the schools." He sees a clear difference between objecting to...