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Susan Young is the Bangor Daily News opinion editor.
Book bans are as old as the written word. Works that we today consider classics have been banned and burned, as have versions of the Bible.
Why do leaders and others want to keep some books away from people? Because of the ideas they contain. It is easier to control people if they have only one common set of information, if they are not fully aware of the complexity of the world and the myriad options it presents.
Grace Linn, a 100-year-old resident of Jensen Beach, Florida, offered an abbreviated history lesson during a school board meeting on book bans in Martin County earlier this week. The school board has removed dozens of books from school libraries.
Linn’s husband, Robert Nickel, was killed in action during World War II. He was 26. She called him a “father of freedom.”
Linn reminded the audience of nearly 200 that the Nazis burned and banned books. They did so for fear of knowledge, she said.
“Fear is not freedom. Fear is not liberty. Fear is control,” Linn told the audience.
Reading a book can take us to a world we’ll never visit in person. They can introduce us to ideas and people that challenge our beliefs. They can shape, and reshape, our understanding of the world and our place in it. They can comfort us when we feel alone and misunderstood.
Books are powerful. To some people, they are dangerous.
Today, the arguments for book bans — which are on the rise — are often centered around morality and supposed threats of indoctrination, especially of children.
These fears center around notions of who should be in charge, whose values should guide us. To be clear, I agree that obviously explicit material should not be readily available to children. Explicit, of course, can be hard to define. But, a book is not explicit — and should not be considered offensive — simply because it includes characters who are LGBTQ or not white. If people are uncomfortable with such characters they should not read these books. They should also consider why they are so offended by people who may be very different from them, but that is a different issue.
The solution is so simple, it sounds trite. If you don’t like a book or find it offensive, don’t read it, don’t allow your young children to read it. Maybe tell your friends about it and why you have concerns. But, it is a huge step out of bounds to believe that you should have the right to tell everyone else they can’t read that book.
It takes a lot of arrogance, and misplaced self importance, to think that you, and your vision of the world, should determine what other people can and should read and think. Or to determine what other people can do with their own bodies, even who they can marry. It’s what authoritarians do.
I thought about this arrogance as I read a CNN article that introduced Ramadan, which began this week, to non-Muslims. The article was welcoming and instructive, not judgmental. As is Marwa Hassanein, chair of the Bangor School Committee, who is inviting people to her house later this month to learn about Ramadan.
Imagine if Muslims in America said that no one, regardless of their beliefs, should be able to eat or drink during the day during Ramadan, which requires fasting from sunup to sundown. Imagine if Orthodox Jewish Americans protested outside restaurants that served milk and meat together. They’d likely be laughed at –—or worse, told to go back where they came from.
The fact that America can welcome and accommodate myriad faiths and their traditions is a hallmark of this country. A diversity of views and beliefs is baked into our country’s founding documents (although many people and their histories were left out).
Banning books, as Grace Linn said, is counter to our democracy. Instead of trying to hide uncomfortable, maybe even threatening, perspectives, we should welcome them, debate them, and learn from them. That makes us, and our beliefs and values, stronger.