The Book Banning Controversy: How About We Listen to Each Other?

At the risk of alienating everyone, I’m going to present my thoughts on the book-banning debate. If I had to sum them up succinctly, I’d say, “we should stop vilifying each other and listen to each others thoughts about banning books.” The rhetoric has gotten over the top (e.g., “Texas moves one step closer to full FAHRENHEIT 451.” or ““The goal is to sexualize children.”), and people are talking past each other.

As a parent, although with grown-up children and grown-up grandchildren (my great grandchildren can’t read yet), I know there are books I wouldn’t have wanted my children to read when they were at certain ages. At the same time, I wouldn’t want someone else making the decision about what my children should read, not even other parents. But, in order to make a decision about whether my children should  read it, I would have to know something about the content of a book. The question becomes, how should authors, publishers, booksellers, libraries and school systems convey information about a book’s content.

Films are rated in terms of their appropriateness for different age groups: The current Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating sytem is:

  • Rated G: General audiences – All ages admitted.
  • Rated PG: Parental guidance suggested – Some material may not be suitable for children.
  • Rated PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned – Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
  • Rated R: Restricted – Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
  • Rated NC-17: Adults Only – No one 17 and under admitted.

Motion picture ratings are based on the presence of violence, profane language, substance use, nudity, and sex. According to the MPAA ,“ratings are determined by the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA), via a board comprised of an independent group of parents.” In other words, one group of parents is determining what decision the rest of us should make about allowing our children to watch a film. Film ratings are voluntary and not mandated by law, although most film distributors won’t distribute an unrated film, and most theaters attempt to enforce the R and NC-17 recommendations.

In terms of books, Amazon does not label books, but prohibits those with “Offensive Content.” They define offensive content as “hate speech, [content that] promotes the abuse or sexual exploitation of children, contains pornography, glorifies rape or pedophilia, advocates terrorism, or other material we deem inappropriate or offensive.” So, with regard to books, Amazon essentially bans those that they consider offensive, but they use rather vague guidelines that permit them a lot of leeway in making such decisions.

The American Library Association, which three states have now disengaged themselves from, classifies books based on content using the Dewey Decimal system, which divides content into ten “knowledge” categories (e.g., general works; philosophy and psychology; religion; social sciences), and 100 subcategories, as well as some other “content neutral” systems, such as large print, children’s books, audiovisual materials, etc. In their view, labeling of books is designed to provide “viewpoint-neutral directional aids…intended to facilitate access by making it easier for users to locate resources.” In other words, they help you find a book. They have issued a formal statement on content labeling, which says, among other things, “The American Library Association opposes labeling as a means of predisposing people’s attitudes toward library resources.” In accordance with this philosophy, they discourage labels that are “used to warn, discourage, or prohibit users or certain groups of users from accessing the resource.” They warn that even directional labels describing a book’s content can become “prejudicial labels,” which they say, “are designed to restrict access, based on a value judgment that the content, language, or themes of the resource, or the background or views of the creator(s) of the resource, render it inappropriate or offensive for all or certain groups of users.” They oppose all use of prejudicial labels.

The American Association of School Librarians, a division of the American Library Association, goes further in its “Position Statement on Labeling Practices” than does its parent organization. They state that, “labels that make determinations about a book’s content are an infringement of a learner’s First Amendment rights to free speech and their ability to make determinations about what content is appropriate for them. Instead, school librarians should support each learner’s right to make determinations about content.” They go on to point out that labels such as LBGTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual, plus any other identities not included in the acronym) or “Black,” “Indigenous,” or “people of color” may separate location or search aids for such content from other variables, such as “romance” or “science fiction” in which such content is often included, thereby restricting access to such content, or making access to such content more difficult.

The American Association of School Librarians, position is the most challenging to parents who want to select what their children read by content, because it essentially discourages all content labeling.

How to label book content without being prejudicial about what should or shouldn’t be read or read by children of certain ages, is a difficult issue. In my opinion, parents have a right to prejudice their children’s choice of reading materials, if by prejudice we mean choose one thing over another. But one parent doesn’t have the right to prejudice the choices of another parent’s child, which they do in the film rating system, or when school boards ban or label books as “inappropriate” or “offensive.” However, if there is no way to determine the content of a book without reading it, and that puts parents in the difficult and impractical position of having to read everything their children may choose to read before their children read it.

The obvious solution is to have some sort of content labeling system that, itself, is not prejudicial, but that can be used by the children’s parents (or perhaps their teachers) to prejudice children’s choices of books to read if they want to use it that way. Even we, as adults could use such a system to determine our reading choices if we are offended by or simply disinterested in certain types of reading content. But what kind of content labels could work this way?

Following the American Association of School Librarians, I agree that whatever labels are used should not be used as means to determine a book’s location or as search criteria for finding a book. After all, most of us, if we look at a film’s rating at all, only do so after we have looked at the title, the actors, and other descriptions of the content, such as mystery, science fiction, romance, comedy, etc.  We don’t usually search by film rating. So, without determining search criteria or location in a library, we could include informative content labels in the descriptions of a book’s content alongside plot or character descriptions.  But what kind of labels are non-prejudicial in themselves but amenable to be used for prejudicial choices (by this I mean that they may determine whether a parent allows their child to read the book not that reflect what we perjoratively call a “prejudice”).  Here are some of my candidate labels:

Graphic or explicit sex

Graphic or explicit violence

Liberal use of profanity

Religious theme

That’s about it. Further subdividing sex into hetero or homosexual, or violence into gun or military or domestic, or profanity into sexual or expletive, or religious into Christian or Muslim or Buddhistic, is almost impossible to do without implying a value judgment about which kind of sex, violence, profanity, or religious theme is more offensive, and is not necessary. A parent who knows that graphic sex or graphic violence or liberal use of profanity or a religious theme is included in the content of the book may find out more on their own, if they only have objections to one or another kind of such content.

My labeling system probably has flaws. I know that whether something is considered graphic is a subjective judgment and so is whether some words are considered profane. Those are issues that would need to be solved. But my point is not to get anyone to adopt my labeling system, it’s to show that it’s possible to search for a solution that treats everyone’s perspective as having some validity and respects individual differences about what is appropriate reading for children.  So far, I don’t see many people trying to search for such a solution. The thing they seem to be doing is criticizing each other and labeling those with a different opinion from theirs as not only wrong, but usually evil. That’s no way to solve things as a society.

Can an AI be superintelligent, and if so, should we fear it?  Read Casey Dorman’s novel, Ezekiel’s Brain on Amazon. Available in paperback and Kindle editions

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Coming soon! The second novel in the Voyages of the Delphi series: Prime Directive. Release date: November 7, 2023.

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