While the title of this blog says it all I wanted to expand upon this seemingly taken for granted piece of a little celebrated document called “The Constitution”. The idea for this particular post really didn’t form until I sat reading my local paper, “The Hartford Courant”, and saw an article about a heated debate taking place at a library in Cheshire, CT.
The discussion was about a controversial book called “Murder in Connecticut” and whether or not the library should include this tome in its collection. In case you are not aware this book is about the home invasion that wrought the brutal slaying of a wife and her two daughters; it took place in Cheshire. Many in the community, understandably upset when confronted with such a horrific event, are speaking out against it having a place upon its own library shelves. But this brings up questions about censorship, banning and, yes, the first amendment.
I want to first say that I would not force anyone to read something of this nature- in fact I’m rather reluctant to force anyone to read just about anything as I think it would take the potential for joy out of the act of reading- and at the same time I find it vexing that instead of opting to not read/purchase such a book censorship seems to be the more comfortable way to go for some. Let me be clear- what happened was horrific on every possible level and in no way, shape or form do I look upon the lone survivor of such a heinous act, the husband/father William Petit, with a callous heart. Now here’s that big but you were waiting for… BUT just because we find some words abhorrent, terrible, callous, cruel, hateful, does not mean we have the RIGHT to take away that other person’s ability to say those things. Here is a quote from a movie that quite reflects the way I feel about it- from “The American President”:
“You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free”.
As an author I feel obligated to defend the first amendment but it is, I think, as a citizen that it pains me on a deeper level when some would seek to silence, to “not allow” words they dislike to be heard, to be aired, to be publicized. I think back over all the wonderful books that present ideas that have had to withstand people’s attempt at banning. To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind first- a book about prejudice, unfair trials and about how people don’t see their own prejudice sometimes and wind up only selfishly fighting against one while advocating another. In China a book called Wild Swans is banned (at least it still was a few years ago) due to, at least I assume, the blatant criticism of Mao’s China as well as the retelling of some of the worst incidents while under his rule.
The first title is important in the US for it can lead to thought, to discussion of so many vast topics which are still, unfortunately, relevant today. It is a siren song, a call to the heart and mind of readers to look at themselves, to delve deeply into their perceptions of others and to challenge them. The second title is more complex and, in order to explore it further we must consider the text of the Constitution and use our imaginations.
Here is the actual first amendment as quoted from Wiki:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The reason for this amendment was of course one of insuring religious freedom because many people whom came to this country initially were fleeing religious persecution. The freedom of press and speech was something our founding fathers thought necessary to maintain a republic- one free from tyranny, etc. This is something many of us take for granted until we are faced with difficult decisions in regard to this particular amendment.
Wild Swans is an autobiography about a woman’s family; her parents were Communist party members and helped fight to see Chang Kai Shek overthrown and put Mao in the position of power. The author watched as the Great Leap Forward took hold over her country (Mao’s idea) then felt the bites of hunger as starvation gripped the country; she was part of a movement many of us would identify as “Hitler Youth” but probably first saw under Lenin (Mao was a BIG fan of Lenin) in the USSR, it was called the Cultural Revolution.; her father was then tortured into insanity when Mao wanted to clean out his cabinet, so to speak; she ended up fleeing to England. This is an important book for many reasons- her details of the Cultural Revolution show how the power to do so much harm was brought about: Any and all books available to read were those written by and/or approved by Mao himself. Lenin did something similar and of course Hitler is known for that particular move as well. These men, in great positions of power, stopped thought and innovation from occurring within their own country by limiting the exposure to non-state ideas.
While what is being proposed in Cheshire by people that are still aching is hardly comparable to Mao’s China it is still a step down a path heading in the same general direction. I am not implying that by not carrying that book they are, somehow, advocating wretched policies being passed by which the byproduct would be mass starvation but more that it contributes to a premise, an idea of which has potential to “go there”. When we stop having exposure to other ideas, even if it’s just the accessibility of ideas, we are telling people that it’s not okay think differently, to exist differently. It allows for someone else’s morality to cloud your intellect, to limit your growth as a person. If you would choose not to read it, that’s your choice, but to not allow it out right you are making a choice for someone else.
For instance- what if your favorite, well-worn book (whatever it may be) was considered in appropriate and no longer for sale? To own it became a crime? Then think about it happening to your second most favorite book? The third? How dull would life be if you could only pick from fifty titles of which someone had decided was appropriate? How many ideas would you miss out on?
Would Nietzsche have written as much, thought of so much without being exposed to Goethe? Would the field of psychotherapy be where it is today if they didn’t get to read Freud? What if Edison, Einstein and Fermi had not ever read a scientific book?
These are things one should carefully consider before casting out words we don’t like/agree with. If a book is in your library that you abhor- I won’t make you pick it up, it’s your right to not read it. It is a free country, after all.