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”. (http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_stranger.htm”.
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.