Recent book-burning reminds of the danger of suppressing free expression
A few weeks ago, students at South Georgia State University in the United States conducted a book-burning. The book in question was Jennine Capo Crucet’s 2015 novel Make Your Home Among Strangers. She had been asked to speak to the students about her book, a work of fiction about a young Hispanic girl who struggles to fit in at a prestigious and predominantly white college. Her talk displeased the students when she came to the topic of white privilege, and moments after it was over, her book was (literally) on fire. Though it doesn’t happen often in Canada, the event is a reminder that literary censorship and intolerance of different perspectives are alive and well today.
From the first Indigenous peoples, who passed down their stories through oral tradition, to the European explorers and settlers who wrote about this land in books and magazines, our country’s history is deeply intertwined with stories and literature. Much of our national identity is built on these things, so it’s no surprise that Canada doesn’t make a habit of banning or burning books. Although it feels foreign to think about the suppression of free expression, it happens here too.
In the past 30 years, many books have been challenged in Canada — meaning they have been brought before the government to be considered for banning — primarily for containing sexual imagery, behaviour, or themes. In 2015, Annie Proulx’s book Close Range: Wyoming Stories was challenged for containing homosexuality and violence. In 1998, Baby Be-Bop by Francesco Lia Block was similarly challenged for containing homosexual characters and situations. When a book is challenged, it won’t necessarily be banned, but a book cannot be banned without first being challenged. When scanning the list of challenged books on freedomtoread.ca, a website that champions literacy and freedom of expression, one can see that these books reveal a “road map” of many types of people who have faced oppression in Canada.
However, the types of content being challenged has recently been shifting focus. Books that depict religious condemnation of LGBTQ+ people or are heavily right-wing have begun to face challenges from the public. Where we used to worry that minority voices were drowned out by outraged suburban parents and library acquisition professionals, the types of people who challenge books have changed. The more progressive members of the public are acting on their desire to drown out right-wing expression. While this may initially seem like a good thing, I have to wonder if censorship of right-wing ideas may damage the left more than help.
One example of this is fourth-wave feminism. Feminism has taken leaps in creating a more equal world for women. However, this largely online movement has created an internet climate where hatred and vitriol are viewed as standard parts of feminist ideology. Many, especially those whose primary exposure to feminism is through online communities, find it difficult to identify as “feminist” because they associate the term with anger, hatred, and the oppression of male perspectives. At its core, feminism is not built on these ideas. However, the way many feminists have begun to use hate as a vehicle for their message has alienated people from the movement.
Free speech doesn’t flow one way. It is a right that extends even to those whose views are abhorrent or hateful. When people who promote freedom of expression choose to censor others, no matter how distasteful the other’s beliefs may be, it has a backlash effect. Suddenly, those who support equality and freedom are interpreted as being just as bad as the oppressors. Allowing someone with a hateful view to speak provides an opportunity for them to expose themselves as being wrong. But to censor them lowers the moral high ground of those who desire freedom, bringing them to a place of hypocrisy. It discredits their argument against those with whom they disagree.
In light of the Georgia State book burning, it is impossible to not think about the consequences of censorship. Oppression of free expression can deeply damage social movements. When people attempt to stop others from having a voice, they do not only destroy the right of others to speak freely, they ruin their right to do that too. For people to live according to values of freedom, equality, and acceptance, these values must extend to everyone. Otherwise, society risks creating an environment where only homogenous voices are welcome and social evolution ceases.