Can You Cancel a Book?


Erik Wieboldt

Book censorship has a bad track record. Book banning or book burning is often used to represent how authoritarian society has become. I don’t want to compare modern book bans to historical cultural erasure or provide a false equivalency, but generally, this practice is used to silence dissenting voices and consolidate power. The current debate around book banning exists more as a canceling of certain perspectives. But, can you cancel a book? Are there some books that should be banned? These are the questions that continue to spark intense debate in communities and schools across America.

In America, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech. Unless we’re talking about libel, slander, or other forms of controlled speech, the main push towards book banning in schools is often related to restrictions based on age. The argument goes that there are certain books that children should not be exposed to at certain ages. Since the 20th century, this argument has been used to deny schools from having books like Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” and Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” The argument is that books with profanity and explicit content should not be read by children. But the standard is not applied across the board. These books necessitate explicitness because they depict the reality of systemic abuses and discrimination in America. To not allow these stories to be read is also to erase the history of this country. More recently, book banning has targeted LGBTQ+ and BIPOC content. Even children’s books that include concepts as simple as two same-sex parents raising a child or discussing what it means to be Black in America are described by some groups as being too explicit for children. 

On Feb. 7 I attended an Oceanside Unified School District Board Meeting, where one of the motions that were brought up was to increase the diversity of books in the student libraries. This motion was spurred on by Black History Month as well as a push to include more books from marginalized authors. Attendants had the opportunity to make comments on these motions and later to make comments in general. The majority of this conversation revolved around the content of the books. The room was divided with people who supported the diversity and inclusion that the school was making on the right and on the left, a group of dissenting voices against this movement. I was there as an Oceanside resident and with my coworkers at the North County LGBTQ+ Center. 

Brandon Wieboldt, my brother who’s a Sixth College freshman, spoke in response to a comment saying “Let’s hear it for the straight, proud kids.” He began with, “I’m a straight, proud kid.” He proclaimed to be a Christian who “prays every night” and “before every meal,” but that he was “embarrassed by the way [members of the audience] mention the gospel.” He stated that his “faith is very important” to him and that he doesn’t “want anyone to think that if you’re a Christian, you can’t be a part of the community, that you can’t be an ally, or that you can’t be anything because that’s not what we’re called to do.” Allyship and advocacy are some of the best tools we have to fight against oppression. With his voice, my brother showed that identity doesn’t necessitate your politics. 

Another point of contention was that most of the people who spoke against the inclusion of more diverse books had no connection to the Oceanside public school district. Across San Diego, there is a network of religious conservatives that organize around school board events like this one and seek to decry movements of greater inclusion. Last October in the Encinitas Union School District, there was an outcry against a “family-friendly” drag show for Boo Bash in Hillcrest. The outrage over this event conflated a historically Queer art form as being fundamentally inappropriate — that there is no such thing as a “family-friendly” drag queen. Similar rhetoric is sweeping the nation as is evident by the broad language in Tennessee’s ban on Drag and Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill (more commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill). What teachers can say, students can read, and people can do in public is being directly censored. Proponents of these bills will openly defend their freedom of speech to articulate their opinions but condemn the “indoctrination” they believe occurs when anyone expresses differing opinions. It’s difficult to reconcile these values until you recognize these are just tools that historically populist and authoritarian movements co-opt to consolidate power. With a conservative supermajority in the Supreme Court, it may be decades before these bills are given any scrutiny. 

The difficulty with book-banning rhetoric is that it centers on children’s safety. This tactic pulls at the heartstrings of parents and has also been used to enforce discriminatory practices. School integration, same-sex marriage, sex education, teaching evolution, non-gendered bathrooms, and many more examples of attempts at progressive inclusion or necessary education have all faced similar criticism. Proponents of book banning argue that children will suffer or lose their innocence if they are exposed to these topics. These arguments are used to deny civil rights and liberties to marginalized groups. Failing to provide students with the necessary skills to live their lives as educated, socially-integrated individuals is far worse for them than not showing them the scope of human experiences. Living in a bubble does not allow children to experience the reality of the world around them. It closes them off and creates a culture of insularity. The purpose of education is not to shelter students from difficult or uncomfortable ideas, but to expose them to a variety of perspectives and to challenge them to think critically about the world around them.

The controversy over banning books spans everything from the right to the freedom of expression to what should be taught in schools, at all levels of education. While it is difficult to determine what books are best for children’s success, what remains true is that children should come to understand the world as it is, not in a biased and curated image. The double standards and circulatory arguments involved in who can say what tend to posit disadvantaged people as the cause of indoctrination. The wave of reactionary book banning is a sign that change is making people uncomfortable. I’d prefer for us to be uncomfortable rather than unaware. 

Image courtesy of Unsplash