December 01, 1993

Mind Forged Manacles

Filed under: Archive,Books

Brought to Book; Censorship
and School Libraries in Australia

by Claire Williams and Ken Dillon
Australian Library and Information Association
with D.W.Thorpe
174.pp RRP. $30

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

As the authors of this book drily enquire on their first page – “What the **** is Censorship ?” Well we know that it is a topic which seems to become more vexed as time goes on. It used to be the instrument with which only conservative groups sought to protect and direct public attitudes. Now there are many calls from the left to proscribe material which is racially inflamed or malignantly gendered.

Claire Williams and co-writer Ken Dillon provide a useful context for debate by not only defining censorship itself but discussing notions of free speech and children’s rights. Then they move to that frequent arena for censorship – the school library. Again the authors shift from the general to the particular outlining the parlous state of library policies on the freedom to read and then analysing their own survey of teacher-librarians. They have also designed discussion questions based around five case studies. The latter chapters including the one entitled `Preparing for the Censor’ are designed more for school and library professionals, as are the copious appendices. But the general reader is likely to find the straightforwardness of the opening discussions useful and enlightening.

From the word go Williams and Dillon make it clear that they think censorship is undesirable- “it is moral, authoritarian, conscious and deliberate… A final distinguishing feature… is its negativity.” Historically, material has been censored on three main grounds- obscenity, blasphemy and sedition. The focus frequently changes as Curtis Bok observed during the McCarthy hearings – “For
a long time the front was religious heresy, then it was political nonconformity, then it was sexual immorality, and recently it has swung to treason.”

In the nineties so-called political correctness has called for censorship of the representation of racial minorities, sexual orientation and the depiction of women. In fact there is some division in feminist approaches to sexist material. Some retain the essentially libertarian view that censorship is undesirable per se while others find themselves in strange alliance with moral majority groups like the Festival of Light and other fundamentalist pressure groups who themselves have taken to updating their rhetoric with a sprinkling of femspeak.

Rather than take a simple for-or-against position on their subject, Williams and Dillon prefer to provide a measured background to the debate and remind us that the community can be trusted to think for themselves . To this end they note that “Lester Asheim, writing forty years ago, came up with what remains the clearest and most useful definition of censorship. He notes that the commonest confusion is between censorship and selection, and he distinguishes these on the basis not of their effects- which are often identical- but their intentions:

` [The selector] looks for the values, strengths and obvious virtues in a work, while the censor seeks out the objectionable features. The selector looks for reasons to include a book; a censor finds reasons to exclude it… The selector presumes liberty of thought, the censor favours thought-control. Ultimately the selector has faith in the intelligence of the reader, the censor only in his [sic] own.'”

In a lengthy discussion of the modern notion of childhood the authors quote the American educationist Neil Postman :
“as the concept of childhood developed, society began to collect a rich content of secrets to be kept from the young: secrets about sexual relations, but also about money, about violence, about illness, about death, about social relations. There are even developed language secrets…Eventually knowledge of these cultural secrets became one of the distinguishing features of adulthood.”

This creates a fundamental dilemma as Williams and Dillon explain-
‘The idea that children as a group are defined by their exclusion from certain types of knowledge has profound implications for teacher-librarians and children’s librarians generally, for in struggling to recognise and respond to the child’s right to intellectual freedom, we are challenging the very definition of childhood, and if that is thrown into question, so too is the power and meaning of all adult roles in society including parent and teacher,. The power of the adult is based on knowledge which is denied the child: the power of the adult requires the child’s ignorance. We challenge this at our peril ! No wonder the censors are motivated by such vehemence- so much is at stake.”

Brought to Book concisely and cogently explores questions of censorship in Australia reminding us that unconsidered public attitudes and inadequate debate are then reflected in the feckless, timorous administration of school libraries. Not all libraries, one hastens to say, and not all librarians. But the results of a survey of teacher librarians undertaken by the authors indicate a disturbing trend. Many take the task of censorship and self-censorship very much in their purposeful stride. This may be par for the course in a country with draconian defamation laws and a feeble notion of a free press but, Williams and Dillon suggest, it is time to think again. There is no need to take to books with black textas and whiteout, to ban Judy Blume or secular interpretations of Mary. It is absurd to suggest that children in the late twentieth century, exposed to the predations of the electronic media, can’t be left to work out what their books mean. In the words of Richard Peck- “the illiterate fear that books will give people ideas, when the greater fear is that they won’t.”

Lowdown, Vol.15, No.6, December, 1993, p.42.

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