I keep reading about book bans—and significantly, the massive number that has occurred over the last year. Throughout my years in elementary through high school, I don’t really remember ever hearing, to this extent, about book bans.
But now I am.
A 2021-2022 snapshot from Pen America’s key findings on book bans
- From July 2021 to June 2022, PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists 2,532 instances where individual books were banned (1,648 unique titles).
- This impacted 1,261 authors, 290 illustrators, and 18 translators—totalling to 1,553 individuals.
- Bans occurred in 138 school districts in 32 states. This reflects bans in 5,049 schools with a combined enrollment of nearly 4 million students.
Reminder: books are invaluable tools
I grew up reading books.
I don’t think at the time, I realized how important books are. But I think a potential culprit for that is the sheer nature of books. Books absorbed me. They took me away from impossible math classes, soccer team losses, and family squabbles. So I wasn’t pondering the value of books—I was too excited to get lost in them!
When you read, you can flush away angst, immersing yourself in a different world. It’s definitely a bit cheesy, but reading allows you to travel to all kinds of places.
Why are we being censored?
During my senior year of college, I was interning at a digital magazine. Every week, the other writer and I would pitch our ideas and then get approval or feedback.
Initially, I was a tad…vanilla with my topics. While our main focus was empowering women and breaking down barriers related to inequality, I strayed from topics that would garner extreme controversy.
But during the end of my internship, I had an idea. I was reading some article on the differences in sex-ed classes for males and females, and I discovered something interesting. I began to see that in most sex-ed courses, both males and females were learning a lot more about topics related to males than females. On top of that, I started learning about how it’s not only coming from instructors, but the textbooks!
I learned that many books on sexuality omit important information—specifically related to female sexuality.
If a reputable author wrote about that topic today, I’m thinking, they would likely face challenges and a potential ban.
I’ve been grappling with the question, struggling to put myself in the challengers’ shoes.
And then something else came to mind—there’s a glitch in the system.
We live in this age of technology, where it seems possible—with enough effort, time, and money—to get your hands on anything. If a kid wants to read a book, and they truly have a desire to read it for themselves, they’ll find a way to get it.
And something else: you know that thing that happens when someone tells you you can’t have something, and you end up wanting it more? This is real!
We want what we can’t have
Imagine: your teacher instructs you and your classmates to never go into the closet in the corner (think: third-floor corridor in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). I’m thinking this will pique your curiosity—similarly to how, despite all orders, Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Neville snuck down the corridor, seeking answers.
Seemingly, no matter how obedient you are, temptation can push the best of us over the edge. And it’s not your teacher’s fault, because it may be a lose-lose situation.
If they don’t say anything about the closet, they risk you going in, since they didn’t give any warning. But if they do warn you, they risk raising your intrigue.
There are a few factors at play.
If someone brings something to your attention, you’ll probably be thinking about it more than you were initially. So if they say you can’t have something, you might feel more of a desire than initially—even if it wasn’t on your mind in the first place.
In 2003, Kenneth Adelman published a photo of Barbra Streisand’s home within his collection of coastal erosion photos. He wanted to use them for research, and fewer than 10 people had viewed the photo of Streisand’s home. Barbra Streisand sued Adelman, resulting in millions of people seeing the photo. Basically, her actions (which were a form of censorship) backfired.
This censorship, and the result, reflects what is now known as the Streisand effect. The Streisand effect sheds light on the way in which censorship can backfire and in turn, have an unintended result.
And hand in hand with the Streisand effect is psychological reactance. The behavior that leads to the Streisand effect reflects psychological reactance— the unpleasant feeling you experience when you think someone is trying to eliminate your freedom(s).
In Streisand’s case, she felt that Adelman was taking away her privacy—so she attempted to censor him, which of course, backfired.
With book bans, when you tell students they can’t read a book anymore, they might experience psychological reactance, just like Streisand—and then the censorship might just backfire.
The scarcity effect
The scarcity effect reflects how we tend to place greater value on something scarce, and less value on something available in abundance.
When you learn about this in psychology courses, you might discuss how advertisers manipulate consumers through making items seem scarce. The result is that consumers are more likely to purchase their products.
In the case of book bans, it’s a little different. It seems that the scarcity effect is in play—but not working to the advantage of the challengers. Actually, one might argue, it’s not being used at all—but occurring naturally.
By banning books, state and government officials are making the books seem more valuable—and in turn, might be attracting more people.
In the absence of book bans, students have full freedom to read. But with book bans, students can likely get access to the restricted material—and they may go forth with extra veracity, because of, you know, the scarcity effect and all that jazz.
So this brings me back to the question at hand:
Why are people challenging books?
Fear of change
When I think of book bans, one of the first things that comes to mind is fear of change. Every individual experiences this at some point in their life. And this innately-human fear is backed by science.
First off, experiencing change is similar to how we feel when we experience failure. That is, research shows that:
- We take in unpredictability and uncertainty like we would a threat.
- Uncertainty can interrupt some of our automatic and habitual processes.
- Consequently, this can lead us to be hyper-vigilant and overly reactive to negative experiences/information.
So when people run into something that fits into the “dangerous” category in their perspective, they go to a state of threat.
According to a Harvard Business Review article, our brains evolved to be uncertainty-averse. That is, in the face of more uncertainty, we are less capable of carrying out tasks. We lose “motivation, focus, agility, cooperative behavior, self-control, sense of purpose and meaning, and overall well-being.”
So fear of change isn’t just a personal flaw—it’s biological.
Evidently, the typical consensus is that they’re protecting children from exposure to difficult ideas and information.
Here’s the thing. We’re looking at two concepts: the human desire to keep children safe, and the definition of safe itself. It’s a pretty collective— or even universal—outlook—that we aim to keep children safe. But what’s changed over time is the definition of safe.
As our communities and cultures evolve, people inevitably identify different “dangers,” which may depend on their upbringing, core beliefs, perception of the world, and other factors.
But how can one parent—or several—determine what’s safe for an entire generation?
Are certain book restrictions beneficial?
On one hand, all books teach students (and everyone) at least something, about some topic. Every book contains knowledge that can advance understanding in a given area. Simply banning books eliminates this potential. And shouldn’t we want the leaders of tomorrow to have the freedom to enhance their knowledge to the fullest potential?
On the other hand, I can understand parents having distaste about their children reading books with lots of obscene content at a very young age. It’s reasonable, I believe, for parents to want some say in what their children are reading.
That being said, why must we outright ban books? Isn’t there a better way? What if schools make restrictions around reading certain books at different ages?
Patterns among book bans
Considering the implications book banning has, it’s important to recognize the patterns among the specific challenged topics. The patterns are definitely there, and perhaps represent peoples’ averse feelings to certain ways in which our society has evolved.
Among all book bans and challenges, certain topics and themes are consistently showing up across the board. When we continually restrict books representing groups of people, we’re not only banning the books, but their representation.
And we’re making it that much harder for some people to learn about and come to terms with their identity.
We’re doing more than taking books off the shelf. Banning books cuts deeper. It shames perspectives, censors experiences, and obliterates free thought.
There’s a collective fight against book bans
If you’ve read up to here, you might feel discouraged. But you’re not alone—across the country, people who are putting up a united front.
Significantly, several organizations have made it a priority to launch initiatives that aim not only to combat book bans, but to provide access to banned books.
Banned Books Week (American Library Association)
The American Library Association (ALA) organized Banned Books Week to promote readers’ freedom to read. To do this, the ALA features books which have been challenged, promoting the value of open access to information for all.
Books Unbanned (Brooklyn Public Library)
The Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) developed Books Unbanned to offer teens across the U.S. a BPL eCard. This card provides access to BPL’s collection of texts, and the library consistently offers a selection of frequently challenged books.
Books Unbanned Intellectual Freedom Teen Council
Included in the above program is the Books Unbanned Teen Council. The group organizes virtual events that encourage teens to discuss the topic of banned books. In addition, participants learn about how they can contribute to the oppositional fight.
Book Ban Busters
Book Ban Busters, a parent group, has united to combat local and school issues, including book bans. One of their events, “Read-in!”, features authors of challenged books and provides the audience with ways to fight against book bans.
Unite Against Book Bans
Another initiative by the ALA, Unite Against Book Bans, promotes the freedom to read, and encourages readers to speak out against book bans.
We Need Diverse Books
A nonprofit organization, We Need Diverse Books, calls for changes in the publishing industry, in an effort to produce children’s books that honor diversity.
Whether you’re disheartened, or pretty ambivalent about the book bans, one thing’s clear: what we restrict and ban is always evolving, but we’ve never found a way to quell censorship. This makes me think that, perhaps, we must more carefully understand our histories in order for true change to occur. Philosopher
George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Maybe he was onto something.
After all, if we don’t have access to all books, we’re removing the potential to use every book to our advantage—to avoid repeating mistakes we’ve made in history.
Author: Lydia Schapiro