Thursday, 9 February 2012

Censorship and Food

After many threats to internet freedom over the past few weeks, we are now coming up to Freedom to Read week.

Remember a few months back when "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" was re-published with all of the historically accurate and appropriate uses of the word "nigger" deleted? Unfortunately, this sort of thinking is not rare. There are many people out there who are afraid of ideas that run different to or counter to their own. They would have these ideas silenced for everyone.

Like many others I know, my personal gut reaction when I hear of censorship or attempts at censorship is to automatically decry it. After all, people can choose whether to read something. What right do they have to make that decision for others? Even in school, where reading is prescribed, there is room for discussion & analysis for any novel. Seeing another point of view is an important part of education and growing up. I disagree with many aspects of the politics of Ayn Rand, but would be a fool to believe that there is no value in reading The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged.

And then...

I read about some other instances that made me start to rethink the absolute nature of my opinion.
What if there was a medical textbook or journal that had a misprint, or erroneous or outdated information? What about other material that contains inaccuracies that could lead to personal injury, hardship or even death?

What about hate literature?

Then there is another example that will always stay with me. Remember Paul Bernardo & Carla Homolka? Well, before the video tapes were released, and while the general public was led to believe that Homolka was  also a victim of sorts, a book was written on the subject. Once the tapes were released, it was revealed that she was also guilty. In the meantime, the book was released. Imagine, if you will, being a relative or friend of one of the victims, and having to walk past a bookstore every day and see this book on public display. I suspect that even the most staunchest supporter of the public's right to freedom to read would agree that moving the title out of public view in the victims' hometowns was an act of pure compassion.

So, now that I've found even this issue has some "shades of grey" (at least, it does for me), how, in fact can we support both the concept of freedom of information as well as protect the public from the extremes that could become dangerous?

What if we were to provide labeling and a recall system to publications, much as we do for movies or food? For example, a book with violent themes could have a warning label on it, similar to the movie rating systems. A book with graphic violence might be restricted, less graphic might be pg-13, etc. Personally, I would have loved to have seen a warning on Steinbeck's The Pearl. While it is a fantastic piece of literature, it was too much for me to take at the time I happened upon it (I was 13 then). With a warning, I would have saved it for a later time. Other 13 year old kids might have been ready for it; I was not. Labeling could help sensitive people make better reading decisions. This might lead to better acceptance of a wider variety of literature in general.

Errors and omissions, as well as needs for updating could be handled similarly to food recalls, except rather than withdrawing the offending piece, consider the distribution of appendices/labels/etc. that could be added to the publications as required. That way the original is kept intact, but the erroneous information is corrected. With e-readers, this task could become quite easy to manage.

There is the issue of oversight, but since there is obviously a huge population who already willingly takes on the "task" of challenging books based on politics, religion, etc., many of these areas might be covered without the need for an official system. In regards to errors, omissions, revisions and retractions, the author, publisher and peer review committees might find it beneficial to take up the cause.

More about Freedom to Read week, including lists of challenged books.

Some of my own family's favourite books.
Pen International supporting writers facing persecution for the peaceful expression of their ideas
Forest of Reading Ontario's reader's choice awards for children of all ages