Because shut up, that’s why!

Every time I try discussing the issue of censorship with people they always bring up the same argument: “Some things aren’t appropriate for kids!” So let’s get that out of the way right now.

1) Yes, children should be exposed primarily to age-appropriate material.

2) #1 is no excuse for watering down material intended for adults to that which will not confuse a five-year-old [0].

3) Relax. The kids are going to be fine [1]. Kids are more resilient than you think.

The correct remedy for poor, offensive, or dangerous speech is more and better speech. Particularly speech that mocks the offender mercilessly [2].

Politician/pundit lying through where the sun don’t shine [3]? Call them out on it. Protesters showed up at your cousin’s funeral? Take pictures, Photoshop the signs to read, “I’m with stupid,” and post them to your Tumblr feed. Read one too many romance novels where the heroine falls in love with the pirate who raped her? Write your own where she grabs his cutlass [4], forces him to walk the plank, and then seduces the handsome Royal Navy lieutenant she found chained up in the orlop [5]. Because everybody has the right to make a fool of themselves in public, and the rest of us have the right to respond.

On a more serious note, literature allows us to explore themes, situations, and perspectives we are not likely to encounter in our daily lives. It’s an antidote to provincialism. The Dexter novels by Jeff Lindsay put us into the mind of a serial killer. The novel Push, by Sapphire, puts us in the shoes of a barely literate, impoverished, student living in horrific circumstances, a life that will ultimately kill her. But by reading her, seeing the world through her eyes, she becomes humanized to us. As a result, it is much more difficult to “other” real people living similar lives.

Every year or so there’s a collective freakout about 9th graders reading Huckleberry Finn because it contains the dreaded N-word [6]. You would think this would be an excellent time to talk about language, how using language shapes thoughts and behaviors, how it can unite or divide people, how language changes over time, and the appropriateness of using other offensive words of the four-letter variety to describe people. However, for too many, it seems simpler to just not read the damn book [7].

The problem with censorship is that it halts communication in its tracks. In its worst incarnations, it’s a form of bullying. At best it’s a form of social control. And it sells the reader short— for every troubled teen who wants to be a Dexter, there are thousands who realize they’re a Huckleberry, and that’s OK. They have their own humanity and something to contribute.

[0] More likely, from what I’ve seen of five-year-olds, amaze and enthrall them.
[1] As a kid in the 70s and 80s I got most of my practical sexual education the old fashioned way— by dumpster diving for porn. I also played unsupervised in the street, went swimming less than an hour after eating, and got spanked when I deserved it. I turned out just fine.
[2] A heck of a lot more fun and productive than getting your knickers in a knot.
[3] *cough* Rush Limbaugh */cough*
[4] No, not that cutlass. The actual, you know, cutlass. Get your mind out of the scuppers.
[5] Note to self: next Nanowrimo plot?
[6] Seriously? We can’t even say the word “nigger” when we’re talking about the word “nigger?”
[7] It amazes me that the book is viewed as racist. Well, it is, but the controversy at the time it was published was that the main characters, Huck and Jim, outsiders within their own society, were portrayed as actual, dignified people, their lack of surface respectability notwithstanding. That is still a lesson worth teaching.

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