Banning Books

A couple of weeks ago, I fell into conversation with a librarian. During the course of our conversation she mentioned that the library does not stock books which their readers might “find offensive”. This exchange got me thinking about how one defines what constitutes “offensive”, and whether something being so classified is a sufficient reason for not allowing it on to the library’s shelves.

The great English author and poet, Rudyard Kipling is loved by people of every race and creed. Yet a number of his writings would, in today’s society be considered “offensive” by many. Take, for instance his poem “The Stranger” which begins thus:

“The Stranger within my gate,
He may be true or kind,
But he does not talk my talk –
I can not feel his mind.
I see the face and the eyes and the mouth,
But not the soul behind.

The men of my own stock
They may do ill or well,
But they tell the lies I am wonted to,
They are used to the lies I tell.
And we do not need interpreters
When we go to buy and sell”. (”.

The message of “The Stranger” is, in effect that people of different races should not mix (I.E. the black should stick to the black, the Asian to the Asian and the white to the white”. This is not a view I share and I can understand why many people find Kipling’s sentiments highly offensive.

“The Stranger” can be found in any complete collection of Kipling’s poems. Given that most people (including me) find the sentiments expressed in the poem offensive, should libraries not stock complete collections of Kipling’s works on the grounds that readers may be offended by them?

To answer the above question we need to stand back and look at “The Stranger” from the perspective of the time of it’s composition. The poem was written in 1908, at a time when many Englishmen (of all political persuasions) held views which we would, today regard as racist. Kipling believed that Britain had a duty to look after what he (in “The White man’s Burden” terms as “lesser breeds without the law”. This was not (as with the Nazis), a belief that those with white skin had the right to enslave or exterminate those of darker skin. Rather it was a paternalistic (and to us today) patronising view. It was not, however an uncommon opinion (as stated above) and was (as previously mentioned), widely held by Europeans at that time.

To banish “The Stranger” from library shelves would be a deeply illiberal act. Educated adults can employ their judgement and understand the historical context in which “The Stranger” was written and (without in any way justifying the message of the poem) appreciate the musicality of “The Stranger”.

One of the problems with defining what is offensive, is that what I may find offensive my friend Jo Bloggs may find perfectly acceptable. For example some religious people wish to see books which (in their words) “promote homosexuality” banished from libraries. They regard gay sex as immoral and believe that those who engage in it (or, via books, the media etc “promote”) it are ungodly. This is not a view I share, however those holding it are entitled to do so. What they are not entitled to do is to foist their opinions on others. If you don’t approve of a particular book, don’t read it, but don’t dictate to others what they can and can not read.

In conclusion, adults should be treated as such and not as children who need to be protected from reading something which may “deprave”, “offend” or “corrupt” them. Its perfectly possible that some of the views which are, today mainstream may, in the future be considered as “offensive”. I trust that, if this does transpire, that the librarians of the future will treat adults, as adults and not as children.

I would, of course be interested to hear your views and, in particular those of any librarians who may read this post.


17 thoughts on “Banning Books

  1. Patty

    I agree with what you say here and have reblogged onto campbellsworld.

    I hope folks will read and comment on this post.

  2. Stevie Turner

    It seems that society is walking on eggshells these days, petrified of offending somebody. It’s got to the point where I see ‘Happy Winterval’ cards in the shops instead of ‘Happy Christmas’. We are what we are, whether white, black, brown or yellow, and none of us can help it. As far as I can tell we need to continue to celebrate our own traditions and let others celebrate theirs. It’s all gone Pete Tong, as they say in the UK…

  3. Pingback: Banning Books | albertruel

  4. Mick Canning

    A number of points, Kevin.
    First, I agree with you completely that we shouldn’t judge books (or, indeed thought or behaviour) by today’s standards, but only by the standards of the times they were written. That puts them into context.
    Second, again, I agree that what one person finds offensive, another may not. As adults we can choose what we read, and not to read, and have no right to dictate that to others.
    Thirdly, on the well-known basis that free speech does not include ‘the right to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre’, the only books I would remove from public access might be those that teach you how to make nuclear bombs or nerve gas or whatever, or those actively promoting hate-speech. And that would require careful consideration.

    1. drewdog2060drewdog2060 Post author

      Many thanks for your comments, Mick. I agree that books teaching the reader how to construct a nuclear device should not be available in public libraries. On hate speech, this does, as you say, require very careful consideration. For example there are, as you know books in circulation which deny (or significantly downplay) the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. “The Hoax of the 20th Century” and “Did 6 Million Really Die” argue (wholly eroneously) that there was no “Final Solution” (I.E. no systematic attempt to exterminate Jews). No serious historian gives credence to such books and the fact that they are stocked by neo-Nazi bookstores discredits them. On balance I would agree that such works should not appear in public libraries on the grounds that they are not historically accurate and tend to portray a favourable view of the Third Reich (which has no basis in fact). I can, however see legitimate reasons why a library might, on request obtain such books, for example where a student is carrying out research into holocaust denial. More broadly, I don’t think that such books should be banned from sale – the best way to deal with propaganda (which is what such “works” are, is to confront it head-on. No so-called “historian” who purveys the lie that the holocaust did not happen can stand up against a serious historian in free and open debate and its through free and open debate that such ideas are best countered. Much of this stuff is, in any case, freely available online so libraries not stocking it is, to some extent academic as it can be easily accessed at the click of a mouse. Kevin

      1. Mick Canning

        That’s true, Kevin. Education is often the answer to things like that. There will always be a number of people who believe it, whether because it backs up what they actually think themselves, or would like to believe, or because they are simply gullible. It’s impossible to cover all bases and such stuff is, as you rightly say, freely available on the internet, anyway.
        Those that purvey those views rarely engage in serious debate, preferring to spout their stuff at rallies (ironic, under the circumstances) or over the internet in any case.

      2. drewdog2060drewdog2060 Post author

        You are welcome, Mick. I’m pleased you found it interesting. As someone who has a disability I’ve always hada (very personal) interest in the holocaust. As, before the extermination of the Jews began, the Nazis started by sterilising many disabled people, then experimenting with the use of gas under the Action T-4 Programme.

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