The Rise of Censorship in 2021

News outlets have been reporting an increase in book challenges and book bans, especially in school libraries across the United States. Books that deal with racism, LGBTQ+ characters or themes, and social justice issues are especially under fire. While reading The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, however, I have come to realize that, while these reports are alarming, they are not anything new. Every generation seems to have its political upheavals, and book bannings inevitably seem to follow. What also does not change is that groups on both side of a question will find reasons to deny others access to books–always, of course, in the name of protecting readers (especially the young or otherwise (presumably) easily impressionable). The realization that book bannings apparently are as old as books themselves should not make us take these challenges less seriously, however. Rather, it is an opportunity to reflect on what censorship is, how it manifests, how its proponents justify it, and how it ultimately harms everyone.

Reading The Library: A Fragile History proved surprisingly relevant as I reached the pages where the authors recount the effects of the Reformation on libraries in Europe. As Catholic and Protestant governments and religious leaders grappled for supremacy on the continent, libraries were typically the casualties. Catholic monasteries were ransacked for their books, but Protestant literature also faced being forcibly removed or destroyed. One library, in a eerily timely description, advised their readers that they were not allowed to cross out or deface passages in books they disagreed with! All of this sounds horrifying to readers today, probably, or at least overly dramatic. But the reality is that the culture wars continue, just with different values at stake. Readers continue to call for the suppression of books they disagree with.

The funny thing about censorship, however, is that its proponents rarely seem to identify as censors. In their eyes, they are merely people trying to protect others from harm. They can always justify their aims. Their demands, they think, are ones every rational person must agree with. If anyone is a censor, trying to keep books from readers, it must be their opponents! Censorship, however, as defined by the American Library Association (ALA) is as simple as “the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons–individuals, groups, or government officials–find objectionable or dangerous.” That’s it. There is no caveat that provides for the suppression of books that are “actually dangerous, though” or for making certain titles inaccessible because, “These reasons are valid this time.” Censorship can never be justified–not if people wish to continue to be free to read materials and make up their own minds, without self-appointed judges approving it first.

In their “Freedom to Read Statement,” the ALA calls the freedom to read “essential to democracy.” The right to the freedom to read rests on the belief that individuals are able make up their own minds about works, and do not need to be protected from books. The ALA explains:

“Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not believe they are prepared to sacrifice their heritage of a free press in order to be ‘protected’ against what others think may be bad for them. We believe they still favor free enterprise in ideas and expression.”

Making books inaccessible to others in name of protecting them from harm may seem like a laudable goal. However, it is important to remember that setting a precedent for suppressing books–even if someone believes they have a good reason–means that, in future, censorship could become more widespread. In future, people with opposing perspectives could point to the precedent set as a reason for materials they dislike to be removed. Fighting censorship, no matter what side it comes from, even if a person does personally find the material objectionable, keeps the flow of information open for all. Because the freedom to read means that a handful of people cannot dictate what everyone else is allowed to read, to know, and to think.

Allowing people to access any book they wish, any viewpoint they wish, may seem terrifying. But isn’t that the point? People with access to information and ideas are people who can change the world, instead of unquestioningly accepting the one they have been given. No one has to agree with every book that is written or published. But allowing books with different viewpoints to be accessible ensures that we ourselves cannot be censored.

16 thoughts on “The Rise of Censorship in 2021

  1. Carol says:

    I wish books came with ratings like movies, though! I think parents need to be the final decision makers on what their children are permitted to read. Some authors are really pushing the boundaries of appropriate materials for their young target audiences. Definitely a volatile topic!

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think in past years one could argue more persuasively that the “MG” or “YA” label is doing something similar as a rating. However, YA books have becoming increasingly edgier, to the point where some are more like adult books. And as this happens, what used to be called “teen” books are being shelved as “middle grade” because, I guess, they just seem so tame in comparison? So I do think it’s become really crucial for parents, librarians, and educators to really know what’s out there. Libraries, for instance, often welcome 11 or 12 year-olds into the teen space, but there’s a pretty wide gap between what the average seventh grader might be reading and what the average twelfth grader might be reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hasini @ Bibliosini says:

    I love this discussion on book censorship! I have always been against the idea on censorship and I find the information you have given here fascinating. I also will be reading The Library: A Fragile History after reading this!

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    • Krysta says:

      It’s an interesting read! It does heavily lean towards chronicling libraries in Europe and the U.S., though, with occasional mentions of libraries in places colonized by the British (and I think sometimes the French, if I recall).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    Yes. People tend to associate censorship with “some random lady challenged a single book at her kid’s school or the local library,” but the concerted efforts to stop books from ever being published at all are also censorship, whether it’s people saying a YA book is offensive or people protesting that a conservative politician shouldn’t be allowed a platform to publish a book. There’s censorship coming from people with all kinds of opinions and points of view and political opinions. Many of them just refuse to call it censorship when they’re the ones doing it.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think this is where the dangers of censorship start to show. At the start, it might seem reasonable to say, “But this guy is truly awful! His views are dangerous! No one should be exposed to his views at all, so we’ll pull all the books by him.” Then it turns into, “Everyone associated with this person is bad so all their books must go, too!” or even, “We can only represent one political party in our books because the opposing side is evil!” And this, too, might seem like a fine solution to a lot of people.

      But fighting censorship is often about looking at the big picture and thinking years ahead. What happens in a society where it has been determined that the political party who is currently in power gets to say all the other political party’s books must go? What happens in a society where a minority of people get to decide what kind of information and ideas the majority can access? Pulling all the “dangerous” books today might seem like a great idea, but what happens tomorrow?

      And I think we have to remember that allowing what we consider offensive materials to be published or on shelves does not mean that we have to like or promote those materials. The idea in a democracy, at least, is that people are smart enough to realize that something is offensive and then they don’t read it. They don’t buy it. The person doesn’t get a platform anymore. The person doesn’t get published anymore because they have no audience. Permitting books to be around does not mean they have to be celebrated.

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  4. Michael J. Miller says:

    I will forever remember my 10th grade history teacher giving us Voltaire’s quote, “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” to discuss in class. It was and remains one of the most important classes of my high school career. The idea of censorship makes my whole moral compass crawl. But I can also understand the root of that desire in some ways, too. To see the alarming number of people who write pieces about how Covid isn’t real or the vaccine doesn’t help and then see people believe it and endangers everyone…it’s hard to balance that in my soul. But even there, the issue isn’t what’s written so much as the education people receive and how they approach their continued education in adult life.

    On a slightly related note, a friend of mine suggested I put a random line in my book about Critical Race Theory to guarantee it make the bestseller list. This way some people will buy it out of the moral obligation to burn it and others will buy it out of the moral obligation to support me. It’s not a marketing strategy I’m using XD. But, given the times we live in, I can’t say it wouldn’t work…

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