Tag Archives: censorship

Censorship & parenting

I had two recent parenting experiences related to book censorship that I thought might be of interest to readers who liked (or liked to hate) my previous posts on creating house rules for my kid’s internet use and/or book rating systems.

1) Those adults don’t know what they’re talking about

I’m on the ALA OIF‘s listserv that sends out info on book/materials challenges all over the United States and occasionally beyond. (For non-librarians, a “challenge” is what we call it when someone wants a library to remove something from the collection, or move it from one section to another to try to hide/censor it.) The other night I followed a link on the list to this video clip about a mom in TX who just won an appeal to get “The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby” removed from her kid’s school library because the book contains the language “poo poo head” in it. This women’s son had previously been suspended for school due to an incident in which he called another child a “poo poo head.”

I showed the clip to my 8yo, because I knew he has and likes that book. I asked him what he thought, and he immediately said, “That’s silly. They don’t even say ‘poo poo head’ in that book.” He paused, thought for a moment and verified, “Nope, they never do.” He went and got the book from his bookshelf to show me. I skimmed through the whole thing, twice, and darned if he isn’t right! Oh, it’s chock full of potty humour: they say “poo poo” and “Deputy Doo-Doo” and “poopy” all over the place, but nowhere in the book does the phrase in question – “poo poo head” – actually appear.

Unless there’s some different Texas edition of the book, all these adults were arguing over a book they obviously hadn’t even read very closely, if at all. None of the online commentors on the news story seemed to catch this point eitherthat this entire book challenge is basically built on the premise that this book retroactively incited a child to say a phrase that doesn’t even appear in the book.

Following up on the concept, though, I asked my kid whether he thought a school library should have any books in which people do or say things they’re not allowed to do or say in school. He looked at me like I’d gone off the deep end, and asked if they were also making sure that Harry Potter and the Bible weren’t in the library too, because people fight in Harry Potter and they do a whole lot of bad things in the Bible!

2) Censorship vs Parenting

The very next day, I ended up having a conversation with a bunch of other moms about whether and how we guide our children away from books we think are too mature for them. One mom, with a young daughter who is an exceptionally voracious reader and capable of decoding material aimed at an adult audience, was having mixed feelings about having taken a book (one of the unquestionably-adult Southern Vampire Series) away from her daughter. On one hand she felt like it was unquestionably the right thing to do – this first grader was in no way ready for such mature themes – but on the other hand she felt a little bit like a censor. I’ve heard other parents express such mixed feelings before.

Here’s my take:

As someone who’s taken classes on the topic, read widely about it and even published about censorship, my take is that there’s censorship and then there’s parenting. People have all different definitions of censorship, but only very extreme views contest a parent’s right/responsibility to help their young (e.g. pre-adolescent) child select age-appropriate reading materials. (Unless your opinion of age-appropriate varies hugely from the norms around you.)

Lester Asheim has a statement to the effect that the goal of censorship is thought control. There’s trying to control what your kid thinks. And then there’s trying to help temporarily protect her from stuff she doesn’t have the emotional maturity to process at this time in her young life. This type of parental responsibility is the very reason we can insist that institutions such as libraries take stances *against* censorship – because it’s not *their* job to decide what your kid reads; it’s your job. It’s the library’s job to provide as wide a range as possible of materials from which you may make your selection.

I have no problem telling a kid of mine (or that I’m, say, babysitting) that a certain book they happen upon is a grown-up book and not for them right now. I would not do this as a library worker, however.While I would only recommend books that were clearly age-appropriate to a kid who was looking for something to read, I wouldn’t tell a child that a particular book wasn’t for them. That’s the parent’s job, not the librarian’s job.

Back to my parenting role, if there was a specific book my kid *really* wanted to read, and I was on the fence about in terms of appropriateness, I’d read it with him and discuss. A few times when my own son was considering a library book that was possibly disturbing, I’ve told him, “Hey, I don’t think you’ll like this book. It’s got some violence I think you’ll find upsetting.” Thanks to being a librarian and knowing other librarians to ask for recommendations, I can usually suggest a good substitute in lieu of the particular book, and so far my kid’s never decided he really wants to read any of the books I have concerns about. I find myself doing this less and less as he gets older, more socially adept and better at handling with scary and sad things.

I’ll never forget my grade 3 teacher telling me I couldn’t take a book she had (fairly bizarrely, in retrospect) deemed a “boy book” out of our school library. My mother came to bat for me and made it clear that she was the person to allow or not allow me to read a given (age-appropriate) book, and that my teacher should no longer try to control me or my thinking/reading like that. It was awesome. Not the book – I mean, it was good, from what I can remember – but the freedom from a teacher arbitrarily deciding what books I could or couldn’t read. Go mom.

In sum, there’s censorship and there’s parenting.

Censorship is deciding that no kid in the school should be allowed to read a book in which the villains use potty humour because it might give the impression that the school condones calling people bathroom names.

Parenting is helping your children find developmentally appropriate media, and working through the hard parts with them when they arise.

-Greyson

ps – Spellcheck doesn’t like “poopy” “poo poo” or “censor.” 

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under censorship, Intellectual freedom, public libraries, school libraries, youth

Modernizing vs Censoring: Where’s the line?

Hello folks — yes I am back and feeling much better, thanks! Looking forward to a new, improved year – this time hopefully without the bike and car accidents that plagued 2010.

——-

What do we do with a “classic” work when the connotation of some of the language shifts over time?

Take Shakespeare, for example. Take high school English, for example. Many students in the Anglo-American world are required to read something by Shakespeare in their high school English curriculum. Few of them actually read the whole original text, at least not without a “translation” into more modern English nearby. Many watch film adaptations along with reading a given play. While I’m sure there is some controversy among Shakespeare purists, one of the widely-celebrated teachable aspects of Shakespeare’s plays is the adaptability of the stories to multiple contexts, despite the inaccessibility of the now-esoteric original language.

What about a more recent example, though, in which the language is still intelligible, but the cultural context has changed, making some formerly “acceptable” language now gravely offensive? Yes, I’m talking about Huck Finn, and the current debate over the suitability of NewSouth Books’ new edition of the Twain classics The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which has been either modernized or censored, depending on whom you ask.

I have to admit, I’m not as thoroughly offended by this new edition as I feel like I’m expected to be.

I know that schools can go to ridiculous extents to sanitize works in an attempt to keep them palatable to some faction of their community. (How well do I know this? I played Sandy in a Grade 9 production of Grease in which we had to cut out all smoking, sex/pregnancy, and dropping out of school – leaving basically no plot, just girl meets boy and oh yeah a nice car.) On the other hand, I also know that words can feel violent and contribute to an environment of harassment and oppression, and as a member of a group with a lot of white-skin privilege I’m not ready to jump on a bandwagon that says we should make our students – especially students of colour – read the n-word over & over in an assigned book – especially if assigned by a white teacher.

Ideally, Huck Finn would always be taught in the classroom by a compassionate and brilliant Twain scholar with incredible historical insight and the ability to guide students through the nuances of a novel that documents some terrible, violent elements of US history. But in reality, we all know that’s not always the case.

Schools, just like other institutions in society, often perpetrate the experience of violence and oppression upon participants (in this case students). Teachers are just as likely to be racist and sexist and homophobic as anyone else. I’m not sold on the necessity for schools to require the original exact n-word-inclusive Twain wording, when they so often offer abridged, translated or otherwise modernized versions of other works. If a particular school/system wants to take a stand on only assigning original wording of literary texts, more power to them. If that’s something they feel strongly about, there are many such editions of Huck Finn available, and hopefully the adoption of such principles would inspire lots of discussion of the historical context of every non-contemporary text.

In sum, I think the question of “sanitizing” or “updating” the language of a work depends greatly on what the purpose of one’s use of said classic is. Is it to introduce students to the classic text or the works of that author? Grant them some sort of cultural literacy? Understand what makes the texts we have deemed “great” work? Serve as an entre into greater discussions of history, culture, and the big questions? Produce literary scholars and critics? Ideally, school assignments would do all of these, but at core I think a lot would be happy to settle for doing a good job of the first couple or so. If teachers are unable to use (or appropriately use) the original text, and if a more palatable edition makes that possible, so be it — as long as it is obvious that the revised editions are not the original, and the original is widely available.

As an immigrant library student, I was fascinated at exploring Canadian culture through children’s literature. One text (or rather, texts) that really captured my interest was Beatrice Culleton Mosionier’s In Search of April Raintree. I really wrestled with her decision to create a revised version for use in schools. I searched and searched for evidence of coercion, of censorship, in this revision, but everything I could find indicated that Mosionier was perfectly okay with it. Her current website (linked above)  proudly lists the three different editions of April Raintree, with their different intended audiences. Researching April Raintree really made me question my ability, as a white, Western, school-type-literate person, to understand what textual authenticity meant in cultural context that weren’t my own. And that’s okay.

Now, Mark Twain/Samuel Clements was white, and isn’t alive anymore to give or decline approval of new editions of his works. But the story of this revision isn’t so much about his cultural context as that of kids of colour who are being assigned to read Huck Finn today. I haven’t yet come across many African-American voices sounding in on this controversy, but I’d be really interested to hear various cultural interpretations of this revision, because the one or two I’ve been seeing don’t seem to be coming from this perspective.

And the line between “bad” censorship of a text and “good” modernizing for accessibility…well, I think it moves depending on where you’re standing.

-Greyson

ETA- NewSouth has responded in the comments of PW, and links to the book’s introduction,which discusses the controversy about the language change.

ETA #2 (Jan 6) – The NY Times has hosted a series of “debaters” writing to discuss this revised edition. Among the voices there, I recommend Paul Butler’s Why Read that Book?, who expressed the kind of sentiment I was intending to get at, but in a more concise and eloquent manner. I also recommend reading Thomas Glave’s Obscuring the Past, even though he doesn’t agree with what I wrote above.

1 Comment

Filed under censorship, inclusion/exclusion, publishing, racism

How times change: Finally a gay character in Archie

A number of years ago, when I was on the teen librarian track, I decided to explore the world of graphic novels. I’d never really read comics that weren’t featured in the newspaper before, but I knew they were growing in popularity, especially among youth.

This exploration led to a paper I wrote for Ann Curry‘s intellectual freedom class (one of my best and most useful library school classes), and eventually published a revision of in Collection Building. The paper was about censorship of GLBTQ content in graphic novels/comics for youth, and it taught me a lot about comparative Canadian-US history (especially regarding obscenity laws) as well as the comics publishing world.

You can’t research the history of comics in North America without learning about Archie. One of the things I learned along the way was that Archie is the apple pie of comic books. Archie is to kids’ comics as The Family Circus is to the newspaper funny pages — that is to say: benign, kind of boring, but “safe” according to certain centre-right societal norms. Archie was (and as far as I know still is) one of the only comics publishers to still carry the Comics Code Authority‘s seal of approval (designed in the 1950’s as a sign of wholesomeness in the face of concerns that comics were turning boys into sociopaths and criminals, and mostly abandoned by today’s publishers).

However, the writers of Archie have been shaking things up in the formerly homogeneous fictional town of Riverdale lately. First there was all the  hubbub about an Archie engagement. Then an interracial dating relationship (a huge deal in the world of Archie comics, which has put the kibosh on such storylines before) in the current issue. And now, apparently, the world of Archie will be getting it’s first gay character. The Archie fan forums are abuzz with the news.

Beyond inching Archie slightly closer to the modern era, and gratifying some unknown number of folks who write gay Archie fanfic (of which there is an impressive amount – I had no idea), the inclusion of a gay character in Archie comics really makes a statement that a gay character can be part of a wholesome comic world (you know, if, as in Archie’s world, he is an upstanding, straight-looking, blonde, white guy, at least).

Okay, so it’s incremental change. Reeeeally incremental. But, honestly, 4 or 5 years ago when I was writing my paper on queer content in kids’ comics and censorship, I never would have expected Archie to feature a gay character this soon. People challenge comics in library collection a lot, because they are visual. A male-male kiss depicted in Archie (not that I expect new Riverdale High student Kevin to have a boyfriend anytime soon, but the door is now open) would be a BIG DEAL. For uber-wholesome Archie to carry feature a heterosexual interracial kiss on the cover and now introduce a gay character…in the world of comics read by little kids, the change this represents should not be underestimated.

-Greyson

ps – I remain a casual reader of comics & graphic novels (although I never did manage to develop a taste for recreational reading of superhero comics or most manga, nor for the blandness of Archie comics), and am currently pretty excited at the boom in really great graphic novels or graphic-novel hybrids for pre-adolescents. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go check out Sticky Burr, Baby Mouse, and The Fog Mound asap!

ETA – A student emailed me to let me know about this well-written Slate article on the topic of the gay Archie character.

Leave a comment

Filed under censorship, Intellectual freedom, public libraries, racism, school libraries, youth

And Tango Makes Three: anti-ethnic penguins?

It was recently called to my attention that on the ALA’s list of the “10 Most Challenged Books,” And Tango Makes Three is listed as being challenged not only for the to-be-expected reasons such as “homosexuality” (although at least one of those penguins could probably be considered bi), being “anti-family” (ironic, yes, when alleged regarding a book about a young family, but not unexpected), and “religious viewpoint” (because we all know those penguins can have pretty strong views on religion), but also as being. among other things, anti-ethnic.

Anti-ethnic, I thought.  Hmm, that seems odd.It’s a non-fiction story about penguins. I wasn’t aware that penguins even *had* ethnicities.What does anti-ethnic mean, anyway? Is it the same as racism?

And so began my little search, which is currently in-process.

1) Anti-ethnic?

The source of the information that Tango is allegedly anti-ethnic is the aforementioned ALA list, which says:


The “10 Most Challenged Books of 2007” reflect a range of themes, and comprises the following titles:

1. “And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell

Reasons: Anti-Ethnic, Sexism, Homosexuality, Anti-Family, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group

Interestingly, if you dig up the 2006 top 10 challenged books list, Tango had a much shorter list of offenses:

The “10 Most Challenged Books of 2006” reflect a range of themes, and consist of the following titles:

* “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, for homosexuality, anti-family, and unsuited to age group

From this, I assume anti-ethnic must be a new-ish allegation (along with religious viewpoint and sexism).

2) Where did the term “anti-ethnic” come from?

Source of the allegation documentation pinned down, I wondered if perhaps “anti-ethnic” was just something someone made up in a fit of anger about the book.  “It’s not just homosexual and against my religious viewpoint, it’s also, uh, em, sexist!  And…uh….anti-ethnic!  Yeah, anti-ethnic, that’s what.”

However, I found “anti-ethnic” as a checkbox category on the ALA book challenge form (PDF here).

Anti-ethnic’s checkbox on this form is a separate category from racism, which has its own checkbox. Now I really want to know how this distinction was drawn, and how library staff all over the continent are supposed to know which box to check for what type of complaint!

And I am still curious about what makes penguins anti-ethnic.

3) What else is “anti-ethnic”?

I thought that maybe if I found what other books had been challenged as anti-ethnic, perhaps that would shed some light on the allegation.It turns out that anti-ethnic is not a common challenge category, comparatively.  However, there are other examples.

Such as Maus, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning graphic novel, challenged as anti-ethnic in Oregon.

And Tintin – specifically The Adventures of Tintin: Cigars of the Pharaoh in Canada. (Interestingly the same 2007 Canadian survey lists Tango under the categories of homosexuality, anti-family, religious viewpoint & age inappropriate, but not anti-ethnic.  Maybe next year?)

I’ve sent a query to the ALA OIF and will update when I hear back about the detials of the anti-ethnic allegation in general and as it pertains to penguins in particular.

-Greyson

3 Comments

Filed under censorship, Intellectual freedom, public libraries, publishing, racism, school libraries, youth

Childbirth may not be suitable for minors

A family friend had a baby this morning! Yay! My five year old was quite put out that he was not able to watch the baby being born. As a consolation prize, I promised to YouTube some birth videos for him in lieu of tonight’s bedtime stories. I had a nice set of links emailed to me for my women’s health class by a local birth attendant, so I started with those. I vaguely knew that some of them required you to click through and say you were not a minor in order to watch – a fact about which my students rightly grumbled. Tonight after the kid’s bedtime, I did a little more investigation into the “potentially inappropriate” YouTube content situation.

What was it about the childbirth videos that made them potentially inappropriate?

To divine the answer, I tried searching for non-human birth videos. Cat, dog, monkey, elephant, sheep, panda, dolphin, seal, killer whale, angel shark, royal white tiger, and kangaroo, all came up just fine and barrier-free.

But when you search just childbirth or “human childbirth,” the videos tend to be marked with:

This video or group may contain content that is inappropriate for some users, as flagged by YouTube’s user community.

To view this video or group, please verify you are 18 or older by logging in or signing up.

Then – and this is the best part, in my opinion – once you are past the warning page and watching the video, there is a header that says

This video may not be suitable for minors.

Irony, much?

Is there any other event that human beings universally experience (as minors, nonetheless) besides being born?

You can do it, you just can’t see it/learn about it? This is a problem. Especially considering that a lot of people give birth before the age of 18.

What makes human birth potentially inappropriate? Is is the semi- (or sometimes full) nudity? The presence (sometimes clearly seen, sometimes just clearly implied by the fact that a baby came from that general area) of a human vulva & vagina?

Going with the vagina theory, I tried searching “Caeserean.” Caeserean birth videos carry no warning. It’s totally fine to show major surgery, blood & guts, seemingly-headless bodies with babies being extracted through large incisions by bloody gloved hands (often also from seemingly-headless medical staff). But not *gasp* a vagina through which a baby us naturally passing the way babies have passed since the beginning of humanity!

Like most of my stories, this one gets weirder still. You know how YouTube lists “related” videos to the one you’re watching, along the sidebar? I linked from Ceasearean birth to “toddlers nursing,” which I was pleasantly surprised to find free of the above 18-or-over warning.

Than, I linked from toddlers nursing to “breastfeeding video,” which – for some reason – has the videos titled “shaved asian has multiple orgasms” and “I’M 15 AND I’VE SLEPT WITH MEN OVER 300 TIMES!” listed as related. Hrm…social tagging is great and all, but someone needs a little authority control or something there.

Neither of the above videos (“shaved asian…” or “I’m 15…”) carried the 18-or-over warning. Neither shows any full nudity or uncovered vaginas, just plenty of sexual talk and innuendo; perhaps that is why. Would I rather have my kindergartener watching a video of someone’s homebirth, or a talk show excerpt in which a 15-year old girl is interrogated about her sexual activities? Are my values that out of touch? If I ever needed a clear example of the old “what is offensive to you is a miracle to me (and possibly vice versa)” principle, there it is on YouTube.

On principle I don’t like making anyone register with a site to be allowed to watch certain videos. It’s like hiding the sex books behind the desk, even if you allow them to circulate to those who come ask for them, making then technically “available.” I understand that websites may have liability concerns, though, and why they might attempt to have some sort of nominal barrier to underage viewing of certain types of material.

I’m aware that YouTube has this process wherein viewers can tag a video as potentially inappropriate for minors, and then eventually someone on staff is supposed to review those videos and remove them if they truly are offensive. I was vaguely aware of this from previous allegations of censorship of certain political views. Apparently they also took down a bunch of birth and breastfeeding videos last fall, but are perhaps no longer doing so now? I guess just keeping the kids out of birth is now a satisfactory solution. Hrm.

It just makes me feel sad to see where these lines get drawn. Sad, but also fortunate, to be in a library community that generally supports its members in resisting such line-drawing. Um, so remind me not to go work for YouTube/Google, okay? I like my intellectual freedom. And my kid’s.

-Greyson

5 Comments

Filed under censorship, gender, Health, Intellectual freedom

POPLINE and government barriers to information on “controversial” topics

I saw it first at Rachel’s blog, but you may have seen it any number of places by now:

Making the rounds of librarian emails, listservs and blogs in the past day or so is the news that POPLINE, “the world’s largest database on reproductive health, containing citations with abstracts to scientific articles, reports, books, and unpublished reports in the field of population, family planning, and related health issues,” has made abortion (and all abortion related terms) a stopword.

Yes, a stopword, like: a, an & the.

Because “abortion” is semantically empty, just like “the,” right?

According to the “About” page, “POPLINE is maintained by the INFO Project at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health/Center for Communication Programs and is funded by the United States Agency for International Development. (USAID).”

Presumably, if a democrat is elected president in the US in November, the Mexico City Policy (scroll down to the last in the list) will once more flip back “off” and abortion will no longer be a dirty word for USAID-funded folk anymore.

Can we wait for that, though?

In the immediate, let’s join in the chorus leaning on POPLINE to deal with this asap (Comment form here: http://db.jhuccp.org/ics-wpd/popweb/contact.html).

In the longer term, can we talk about what seems to be happening right now in terms of government clamping down on access to controversial health issue information? Bush II reinstated the Mexico City Policy in January 2001. Why is POPLINE being altered in April 2008?

I mean, maybe I’m putting on the tinfoil hat here, but, in light of my previous post about searching for public health sources on the myth of an abortion/breast cancer link, it kind of spooks me that right when the CHN is shut down, POPLINE also effectively blocks access to abortion information. (Yes, we library-heads can bypass the search box by using the subject hyperlinks in the records, but you can’t get a very sophisticated search going without limiting it beyond “abortion” – and to do that you need to use the text boxes.  Or to open up IE and browse to the various keywords you want to combine, copying/pasting them in and combining with boolean operators.  Still somewhat limiting, although I was actually able to combine abortion and breast cancer this way and get only 211 records.)

Oh, and don’t forget that, nearly simultaneously, Bill C-484 – the so-called “Unborn Victims of Violence Act” – surprised many of us by actually passing a second reading in the Canadian House of Commons (Requisite petition link: http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/oppose-bill-c-484.html).

Coincidence? I’m not saying this is all a big woo-woo coordinated conspiracy. But what I am saying is we should be careful not to view the POPLINE kerfuffle as an isolated incident, but as a high-profile indicator of our current climate, in which governments are converting relatively balanced comprehensive health information sources into platforms from which to promote and advance partisan agendas, a la the new Healthy Canadians website.

-Greyson

4 Comments

Filed under censorship, gender, government, Health, Intellectual freedom, Other blogs, Uncategorized