One of the blogs I read had an entry a short while ago about banning books in America. In fact, it was referring to an annual programme called Banned Books Week, intended to call attention to threats to the First Amendment of the United States’ Constitution, a programme which has been running for 30 years. Believe it or not, books still get banned in America, about 400 incidents being reported in the last year, and the programme is trying to get Americans to support the idea that all books, regardless of content, should be disseminated.
This banning is not the work of the government – unlike certain books published in Britain which have incurred official displeasure and been forcibly removed from the shelves, everything from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Spycatcher – but imposed by libraries and bookstores. Two of the most surprising, or perhaps predictable, depending on your point of view, classic novels to suffer this fate in America this year were To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye, but in the past a huge number of other volumes have been banned in the States and elsewhere. These range from incomprehensible choices like Black Beauty and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the virtually unreadable Ulysses and almost equally unreadable The da Vinci Code.
All of which raises the obvious question: how free is free speech? Are there some books which are so bad, for whatever reason, that it is better for the public not to be able to see the text under any circumstances? Perhaps it would be better to look at the matter from the other side, as it were. What kind of damage would be caused to a reader’s psyche or moral outlook if they were exposed to, for example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone? And, yes, it was banned. Are they immediately going to race out and buy magic wands and learn the words of various spells? And if they do, does that really matter?
The argument against that book was that it promoted witchcraft. Well, I read it, and it didn’t seem to me that it was doing that: I just thought it was a good story. But even if that was what somebody read into it, was that necessarily a bad thing? It’s perfectly possible to argue that every religion in the world is simply a form of superstition, because by definition it is impossible to prove a single fact about what is claimed by its adherents to be the truth. In this respect, witchcraft is no less viable a religious concept than Christianity, so why shouldn’t it be promoted?
So should there be limits at all? Should a book which promotes the idea of murdering police officers be banned? Or one that espouses paedophilia, or racial hatred, or serial killing?
The reality, of course, is that today, with the rise of the electronic book and the Internet, it is effectively impossible to ban anything. Anyone, no matter what their agenda, can publish whatever they like. On the Internet, you can read the kind of books that no commercial publisher would ever consider publishing, in even their wildest and most deranged of dreams.
Until about two months ago, I would have happily stood up in any forum and defended the right of any author to write whatever book he or she wanted, no matter what its contents, and no matter who would be offended by it. I genuinely believed that the right to free speech transcends all other issues. And, in fact, I still believe this to be the case with regard to novels.
And then I had the misfortune to read a book by a man named Ken Ham called The Great Dinosaur Mystery Solved, and my views concerning non-fiction books changed almost overnight. This book, without the slightest shadow of doubt, deserves to be banned, simply because some people who read it might actually believe that there is some truth in the collection of rabid nonsense he has produced as a theory. Basically, this man believes that dinosaurs didn’t live over 65 million years ago but a mere 6000 years ago, despite the utterly overwhelming and completely undisputed scientific evidence to the contrary, evidence from almost every scientific discipline from geology to meteorology, as well as palaeontology.
He’s promoting creationism, obviously, which as a theory is just as valid as my own personal ‘Theory that Fairies live at the bottom of my Garden’, and makes no sense whatsoever. Everybody, of course, is entitled to their own point of view, but I firmly believe that a book purporting to be non-fiction should at least fulfil certain basic criteria, the most obvious of which is that it should be based on fact. If he was writing a novel, it wouldn’t bother me, but this man is advancing this as a serious proposition, and to me that seems very dangerous.
In fact, this isn’t a book that should be banned. This really is a book that should be burnt.
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