Information and the Underground

Part of my goal with reading banned and challenged books this year has been thinking about how information organises itself and is distributed, and what the effects of restricting access to information are. Whether we’re taking about people living in a nation with a repressive regime controlling the media, or keeping books out of middle school libraries, or even individual relationships, like parents not answering questions posed by their children, information, who has it, who controls it, who can get it, is a tool for social control and power.

‘Information likes to be free,’ they say, and this is something I think about when I look at banned and challenged books. For the most part, people attempting to get books out of libraries, off curricula, and out of bookstores have accepted the fact that they cannot actually erase those books from existence; it’s not possible to recall all the copies of Huckleberry Finn, say, no matter how hard you try. What they’re interested in doing is controlling who gets to consume that information, and sometimes the rationales for their attempts are very twisted and strange.

Restricting access to information doesn’t make the information go away. It just, you know. Restricts access. And limits the people who can get to that information. And stratification develops, resulting in some really unfortunate social consequences.

Let’s take attempts to ban books from schools for racist content. People argue that people shouldn’t be reading these books because they are racist, and it’s not appropriate to expose students to this. Critics counter that, actually, people should be reading these texts precisely because they are racist, and a classroom provides a great setting for talking about racism, social attitudes, the history behind those books. As I was saying to my father when we were talking about this the other day, I was glad I read the unedited versions of the Dr. Dolittle books as a child, because I encountered racist content, and we talked about it together; those books were a learning experience for me, and I think that books make more suitable learning experiences than human beings do.

Talking about the racism in those books as a child also allowed me to identify racism around me; knowing, for example, that the caricatured drawings of African people in the books were racist, when I saw the same caricatures in political cartoons masquerading as ‘commentary,’ I challenged them. I wouldn’t have been able to do so if I hadn’t read those books, seen the caricatures, and talked about them with my father.

But I digress, as I seem to be do a lot these days. Back to the original discussion: People banning books from schools on the grounds of ‘racist content.’ What happens is that you have some intrepid students with supportive parents seeking those books out anyway, reading them, and possibly talking about them with their parents and other students. They are getting the learning experience those books have to offer, they are thinking about historical racism and the way racism manifests today.

Other students don’t have that. They don’t have it because they can’t afford books, or their parents refuse to allow them to read certain books, or because they could read the books if they tried, but they aren’t motivated, or they have no one to talk to about them. They lack the framework for contextualising the books and the information they contain.

Some of those students might really benefit from that conversation, from a chance to talk about the information in those books, particularly white students; examining the history of racism and how racist attitudes manifest is an important part of fighting it. Talking about racism viewed through a white lens and projected in books like Huckleberry Finn creates the possibility of drawing parallels with modern society and how white people talk about and explore racism today. Doing so in a mixed race environment can provide white people with a needed opportunity to stop centreing themselves in the conversation and actually listen to people of colour/nonwhite people when they talk about these issues.

When you stratify access to information, you perpetuate inequality. One of the great tragedies of bans on the grounds of sexist and racist content (two common challenge reasons) is the huge missed opportunity. People think banning those books makes the problem go away? No, it just makes the problem harder to talk about[1. And I have more thoughts on this, which I am trying to contain to a future date in order to stay on track here.]. People banning books in the name of racial or gender justice often end up doing the exact opposite, depriving people of the chance to have a focused, curated conversation as a class about these issues.

The people who might really need to be there for that conversation, like racist and sexist students, are the least likely to pick up a copy of the book on their own and create their own discussion group and opportunity to talk about it. Or, they’re surrounded by people who share their views, and won’t provide a critical reading of the text; it would be unremarkable to see characters doing something sexist, for example, and the beliefs of these readers will be reinforced by the way they read the text. We all like to read texts in a way that will reinforce and support our own ideas. It is by talking to people who read differently and who see things in a different perspective that we are enriched, as readers; it was, for example, by talking to a Black friend that I understood the fundamental problems with the racist depictions in the Dr. Dolittle books, because she was living that history and that experience and she challenged my read on the texts as a ‘relic of the times’ by forcing me to see the exact same attitudes and beliefs all around me.