In the face of political turmoil, revolution or change, literature has often been the first medium attacked. What is it about literature that can be so deeply offensive for it to be banned, or even burned?
The most extreme instance that comes to mind of book censorship is the Nazi book burning of 1933. Student committees from German universities conducted the Nazi book burnings, as in Nazi Germany there was a great emphasis on universities as being the centres of German nationalism. In an act of ominous significance, tens of thousands of books deemed ‘Un-German’ were burned in an attempt to cleanse German society of ideas opposing the Nazi state. Books that were burned include the literature of Marxism, Communism, pornography, books by Jewish authors and books illustrating pacifism. The type of books burned and banned under Nazi rule in Germany are typical of extremist regimes; we see books banned in the Soviet Union that similarly opposed the regime’s ideology. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was banned in the Soviet Union due to its satirical nature based on Stalin’s leadership.
These examples of literary censorship seem outdated and deeply rooted in the past, but this is not the case. Literary censorship and banned books still exist in modern society, specifically in America. Recent controversy has been the result of the banning of two literary classics in schools in Virgina, To Kill A Mockingbird and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both these books illustrate racism in American history; the reasoning for the banning of the books was over the repeated use of racial slurs. Of course, the use of racial slurs in literature will cause discomfort and offense, and school children may well find the books repulsive or destructive, but I believe that this sentiment is one to be discussed, not ignored – and the classroom is the perfect place for it. Simply because something is difficult and upsetting to read, does not mean it should not be examined. Both To Kill A Mockingbird and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn deal with a shameful period of American history, but ignoring its existence does not make it any less shameful. Pretending that human history wasn’t brutal and harsh will create nothing but a fleeting sense of satisfaction, which will last until history’s mistakes are repeated. As liberal philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. I believe it is important to read and learn about the sinister side of human nature, slavery, rape, murder, racism, in order to confront it. Books such as the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn dismiss the idea that slave owners were just ‘bad guys’, that they weren’t just simply evil, as it is so easy to suggest – they were complicated human beings in their own right. They were led to evil by ignorance – by a diminished understanding of their fellow man. Examining this truth can help to fight racism in the modern day. I respect the fact that individual children in schools may not want to read books, which explicitly describe racism or violence, and to force them to do so is cruel and unproductive. Nobody should be forced to read distressing books if they cannot understand or cope with their content – but instead of snatching the books from the entirety of students in the school, individuals should have the option to abstain from reading it if they really wish to do so. As Nelson Mandela famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon”, so to refuse American school children the opportunity to read about the dark periods of American past is an at best ignorant, at worst, dangerous move.
Image Credits: http://uwm.edu/libraries/exhibits/burnedbooks/