Prompted by Jonathan’s and Lex’s exchange, I thought back forty years ago:
When I was an undergraduate an eccentric guy launched a bookstore to compete with Nebraska Book. At that time Nebraska was one of the top distributors in the country, so they had great sales & swamped the competition. But he tried. He laid books out on cardboard on the second floor of an auto dealership close to campus; we would wander the rows, dutifully purchasing books we wanted but also striking out for “the little man.” He loved Ayn Rand, giving a 20% discount on her books. In a small square, a knee-high string fence marked off the “dirty” books. One was Candy. It was quite a cause for a while. Finally, the police stormed the loft & charged the owner with peddling porn.
This proved a teaching moment. For one thing, Ayn Rand (at least as interpreted by the book dealer) didn’t prove an attractive model. The part-time student workers were left to sit in jail – the owner proclaiming that obviously their fates were in their own hands. Meanwhile & altruistically, the professors I revered cheerfully lined up to testify that while it might not be great art, they found, as English professors, the work sufficiently redeeming to raise it above the level of, well, pornography.
This was the mid-sixties. My parents’ attitude in the fifties had been laissez-faire – if someone tells our daughter she can’t read something, we’ll get it for her. Our neighbors were shocked they let their seventh grader read Peyton Place and my parents were a bit irritated when they had to replace another’s Anatomy of a Murder I’d dropped in the bathtub (a favorite reading place in those days before much air conditioning). My husband has a more constrained attitude. And I’ve come to suspect that he was right to discourage me from getting our middle daughter, in eighth grade, to read Black Dogs. Bestiality is not something a middle-schooler needs to contemplate. I wasn’t wrong about her intellectual interests; as a more mature reader it speaks to her. But I’ve come to see that restraint is not always evil – or even silly. Sometimes it is just responsible, just as being civil is an underappreciated virtue.
It is only with maturity that I’ve accepted that censorship does have its place; my husband (and Lex) is right, age is important. And, frankly, my parents were wrong. I could have used a little more real experience before immersing myself in what was clearly trash—and even when it was art, its inappropriateness to my experience gave me ideas about sex & love that took years to transcend. While I don’t think it takes a village to raise a child, that village can help, stay out of the way, or do real harm. And parents should be able to expect others to honor the levels of a child’s awareness.
But if my reaction to censorship is no longer a knee jerk one, it is stronger and more reasoned. It is a very, very bad idea for adults and in a democratic society. (In other societies it may have quite bad effects, but free discourse is clearly the most important factor of a society like ours.) No one has the right to limit other adults. On the other hand, peer pressure leading to a civil society in which ideas can be discussed even if emotions are raised seems clearly important. And leading people to such a civil approach to argument may require some early care, a slow introduction that notes the boundaries of social intercourse.
And I’m not sure it’s so good times have changed. Censorship has been lifted for many youngsters; civility is no longer preached—and enforced–in schools (as even in the public schools of my youth). I can’t imagine any of the teachers of my youth speaking in a slighting manner of any race or religion; they were mildly aware that the class held people that worshiped at half a dozen churches; that in any one classroom was likely to be at least one homosexual; that parents came from many educational backgrounds and many strata of society. The good teachers (and in that sense, most were good) knew that none of this was the business of the teacher nor the classroom. Now schools move into litigation – sometimes to enforce civility & sometimes to “transcend” it.
Now, the families on television are non-traditional; what the dialogue in movies has lost in wit it has gained in profanity. The classrooms are guided by teachers who often are sympathetic but in their sympathy bring much into the classroom that is likely to distract their students from thinking. It isn’t censorship but rather an awareness that schools are not the best places to deal with sexuality and belief systems, birth & death that make some of us prefer some restraint.
About ten years ago, the mother of my middle child’s best friend told me she thought the school should spend more time on death in health class. She was Jewish & I Protestant, but our children’s classmates included Hindu, Catholic, LDS, Protestants of all stripes, and Muslims, as well as, I’m sure, atheists. Discussing the beliefs and rituals of death seemed to me a mine field that few teachers could maneuver well. While it might be useful to be able to spot bi-polar problems, talk of suicide is not always helpful. She argued teen suicides in a town much like ours near Dallas showed how important such discussion was; it seemed clear that suicide had become trendy as the students, not surprising given their ages, tended to romanticize aberrant behavior.
Years have passed and the girls are no longer close; however, I was saddened when my daughter’s friend attempted to take her life a few years later. The father had run off with a grad student, the mother died tragically – of course, the child had much to handle – too much. But her high school health class had not solved such problems and I’d rather it restrained itself from trying. Self-restraint is a form of self-censorship but it can arise from humility; it acknowledges what neither the person speaking nor the audience can handle. It doesn’t assume the cliches of such “health” discussions could be enough. (Sure we speak of such things in class when we approach Larkin’s “Aubade” or Donne’s Holy Sonnets; such a discussion, with its necessary movement from the self to the more objective analysis of form & art, gives a safer space for such talk. It certainly is less probing, less therapeutic.)
We can handle ideas – it’s the feelings that trouble us. Bestiality shouldn’t be a censored idea – but at certain ages it isn’t an idea. Instead, it’s an image strong & perverse; it doesn’t leave our minds; we feel the idea in our guts.