Funny story. Last night I got an email from my friend Maria, who recommended to me her friend’s LibriVox audio recordings for my summer audiobook odyssey. Since it’s as good a place as any, I decided to begin with John Milton’s Areopagitica.
For those of you unfamiliar with Areopagitica,1 Milton wrote it back in 1644. In many ways, the world was different back in 1644: global warming wasn’t as much of an issue back then, the roads were slightly better, and Clint Eastwood had just starred in his first movie. Yet in many ways, the world was very much the same: young kids listened to pop music that drove their parents crazy, celebrities got into tabloid scandals, and short-sighted people wanted to censor books.
Areopagitica is a polemic against the Licensing Order of 1643, which would essentially establish government censorship over all published works. Milton argues passionately and eloquently that such an order is foolish, that censorship is ineffectual and indeed harmful to a free society. He cites the examples of the Greek and Roman societies2 and goes on to extol reading and learning in general.
Now, Milton’s idea of “freedom of speech” was slightly different from what we interpret it to mean today. To Milton, freedom of speech means the freedom to pursue the study of knowledge of the sake of worshipping God. And he wasn’t against burning books after they were decided to be harmful; he just didn’t want books to be censored before being published and judged by a wide audience. Most of Milton’s argument, however, remains valid today: censorship is a bad idea. Books are good.
So why do some people insist on ruining the fun for the rest of us?
See, today I learned that yet another group of people want to burn books. So it’s serendipitous that I’m listening to what we might call an ur-tract—in the English language, at least—against censorship. Milton’s arguments remind me, a bibliophile and staunch opponent of censorship, why we shouldn’t burn our books.
To clarify, if you haven’t read the article, this Christian group wants the right to burn library books. I don’t care if people burn books they‘ve purchased or published themselves. It’s their property, and they have a right to do with it as they please. However, burning library books would be, in my perfect world, a capital crime. Burning a book is a terrible thing:
For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.3
And see, Milton’s a Christian. He’s all about God in this matter. So when I say this is a “Christian group”, I mean it’s a group of people who say they’re Christian (according to the newspaper article anyway). They don’t seem to be acting in a very Christian matter. But whatever; it’s a free country, right?
Well, only as long as you don’t publish “explicit” books, apparently. This group wants to remove a book called Baby Be-Bop because it discusses homosexuality and has some fairly explicit content. I haven’t read the book, so I won’t judge.
The group argues it could be mentally and emotionally damaging to children. I’m not a parent, but maybe I will be one day. And it seems to me that if you consider your child too young to protect himself or herself from “dangerous” material, then you shouldn’t let your child wander around alone in a public space. It’s that simple. I’m not against parents deciding what their children read—I would hope that parents educate their children widely and openly, but ultimately it’s their business. There comes a time, however, when you have to let your child grow up.
For that reason, I find this quotation from the Guardian article particularly laughable and dangerous:
Their suit says that “the plaintiffs, all of whom are elderly, claim their mental and emotional well-being was damaged by this book at the library,” and that it contains derogatory language that could “put one’s life in possible jeopardy, adults and children alike.”
It’s one thing to argue that material could be harmful to children. I personally take such claims with scepticism, but I at least understand that they originate from a desire to keep children safe and healthy. All right. But now you want to censor books because they might harm adults? All my life, I grew up believing that to be an adult is to have the ability to do whatever one wants (within reason), including reading whatever I want. The idea that I need a moral “Big Brother” is … well, it’s offensive. It implies I’m not mentally fit to judge what may harm my emotional wellbeing. If that’s the sort of society we want, then it wouldn’t really be free, would it?
Interestingly enough, I came across another free-speech-related article in the book I’ve just finished, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007. This from Daniel Gilbert’s “dangerous idea” entitled “The Idea That Ideas Can Be Dangerous”:
We live in a world in which people are censured, demoted, imprisoned, beheaded, simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air. Yes, those vibrations can make us feel sad or stupid or alienated. Tough shit. That’s the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we’re in one. When all the words in our public conversation are fair, good, and true, it’s time to make a run for the fence.
Last week, Iran held national elections in which the incumbent, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supposedly won the vote by a landslide. Amid accusations of rigging the election, Ahmadinejad’s government has continued to block access to the Internet, to mobile phones, and harshly beat and interrogate rioting protesters. That is what happens when freedom of speech becomes less important than creating a rosy world.
I may not like what you have to say—I may think that you’re an idiot for saying it—but because we live in a free society, because I want to live in a free society, I’ll let you say it. You can shout it from the rooftops. You can shout it because you’re free.
Now that freedom is under attack, not by external forces of terrorists or British pop groups or European soccer stars, but by internal forces who seek to censor, to slash, to burn. They want to suppress what doesn’t fit their picture of a rosy world, to judge you mentally incapable of conducting your life, and rip knowledge—regardless of its quality—from this Earth, driving us back into the dark age of 1644. This is an insidious threat, because it can’t be fought with guns or bombs or tactical nukes.4 To stop this threat, you need to do something far more dangerous: you have to stand up and say “No.”
So stand up. Read the books you want to read, and fight for the right to stock libraries full of any and every book, whether it’s Twilight or Shakespeare, and seek knowledge in all its forms. We live in an age of astounding literacy, with technologies poised to deliver books to our fingertips no matter where we are or what we’re doing. We can have our rosy world and read it in too.